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A clear shot at a new kind of open–air meeting

“I have to preach, where?” I asked. “You want me to preach my sermon on the street corner?”

As a cadet in the Salvation Army’s College for Officer Training, I was assigned to share a testimony in an open-air meeting. Despite my nervousness, the moment came and went rather smoothly. However, after stepping back from the microphone, I felt profoundly confused.

The reason? We sang to, preached to, and prayed on—an empty sidewalk.

Sensing our disappointment, our teacher was quick to remind us that it was virtually impossible to know who had actually heard and heeded our message. There were countless apartments nearby. However, his words did little to resolve my confusion.

The history of The Salvation Army is full of life-saving encounters at open-air meetings. Early Salvationists took to bustling streets with one simple aim: to share the love of Jesus. They stopped at nothing in this pursuit. I dare say, thousands of souls turned from darkness to light through these efforts.

But the open-air meeting seems to have fallen on hard times. As a soldier and an officer, I’ve worshipped at only one corps that had an active open-air ministry. For many Christians, the practice is seen as fruitless; something from the past that today has nothing to offer.

However, what if open–air meetings actually have something more to offer? What if the heart of the first open-airs, rather than the model itself, still has something powerful for The Salvation Army? What if there is something hidden deep in the cracks of this street corner ministry that might prove fruitful today?

Past vs. present reality

We must understand some details surrounding the success of the early open-air ministry.

Firstly, the street corner was a place bustling with people who gathered to socialize and to find entertainment. Essentially, it was the crossroad of life.

Secondly, society was “churched.” That is to say, people generally understood and accepted the ideas of God, Jesus, salvation, and sin. That is not to say that everyone was convicted of these ideas or that this particular era was morally superior to others.

People could have been far from God, but still believed there was a God. When the street preachers spoke to them, they shared a significant bit of common theology. This foundation undergirded the preacher’s widespread call for repentance.

In today’s world, neither of these tenets remain true in many communities where The Salvation Army ministers. The street corner is no longer bustling. Automobiles and online shopping have transformed how people live. When we examine the conversations coming from people whom still linger on corners, we hear a variety of worldviews. No longer can we call our society “churched.” The fundamental beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation, and sin are no longer embraced by the majority. The once familiar message of the street preacher won’t connect as naturally with today’s listener.

What are the questions?

Regardless of these differences, I still believe, that which was at the heart of early open-air meetings is still of value to us today. To find the path forward, we must carefully ask ourselves two questions.

The first question is, “Where are people gathering?” In my experience, the most common spot is frequently connected to sports. Whether it be soccer, basketball, football, or ultimate Frisbee, communities of all shapes and sizes come together to play and to watch sports.

As our evangelistic predecessors harnessed crowds on street corners, we too can gather crowds by using modern sporting events. For example, by starting a league, running a tournament, or joining an existing league, we can successfully connect to a crowd.

The second question may prove a bit more challenging. After creating a crowd, “How do we effectively share the love of Jesus?”

Most sports leagues exist solely for fun and fellowship. While I have no criticism of this, if we are seriously wanting to share the love of Jesus, we must want more than simply fun and fellowship. These endeavors are a means to an end, but never an end in themselves. Our evangelistic goal must always be clear.

When we attempt to share the love of Jesus through sports, we must keep today’s realities in mind. Yes, we should look at sports leagues as new ways to draw a crowd before the game, but we must also avoid hosting the same old open-air meeting. Harnessing these crowds will require more than a devotional and a poem. To effectively share the love of Jesus, we must be intentional in our preparation and in our presence.

Defining success

Sunday morning attendance must not be the measure of success. We’ve come to a place in ministry where the Sunday morning attendance number is the ultimate, and sometimes only, measure of success. In my experience, attending church on a Sunday didn’t guarantee anything. In Matthew 28, we are called to make disciples. This requires that we live and walk with people in such intimate fashion that we can help them grow. This is not dependent upon Sunday morning worship. We should measure success by the number of people who are actively being discipled through the ministry.

Conviction & creativity

In Matthew 6:10, Jesus instructs His followers to pray, “May your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Success can also be measured by how our ministries bring the Kingdom of God to neighborhoods.

Several years ago, I started a basketball ministry in Harlem, N.Y. The only measure of success I used was the Sunday morning attendance stat. After leading the ministry for a couple of years, I felt disappointed at having failed to get any of the men to come to church.

On my final day, one man told me a surprising story. He said that I had naively allowed each team to represent neighborhood street gangs. Initially, these men were uneasy with the idea of playing against another gang. They worried what might happen. So just in case, each team always brought a gun to the gym.

I was shocked to learn this. His next comment was even more incredible. He said that, in time, playing together actually changed their attitudes. Eventually, the teams stopped bringing guns to the gym. Playing together had broken down some walls of hostility and had allowed them to get to know and trust each other.

Peace blossomed from hostility—this was His Kingdom coming to my neighborhood.

Through the conviction and creativity of early Salvationists, God used the the street corner to transform individuals, families, and neighborhoods. I’m convinced that, if we take this same conviction and creativity to the basketball court or soccer field, we too will see God change our neighborhoods through the heart of the open–air, one disciple at a time.

by Captain Stephen Mayes
Christian Education Director

Preparations and presence

Good preparation is essential.
Be intentional about the following items:

Get prayed up.
Seek God’s guidance and favor.
Don’t expect spiritual fruit from fleshly effort.

Find discipled and spiritually mature members of your corps to be teammates. Sports knowledge is secondary to having a heart on fire. Don’t go into this war for souls alone.

Prepare a message that listeners can understand.
Before each game, share a two to three-minute devotional. The approach used for Sunday morning sermons will likely fall flat. It is the preacher’s responsibility to make the message understandable. This skill will become easier as you get to know the people you serve.

Be intentional about being present.
At first, the leader will likely wear many “hats.” Find volunteers to help. Their participation will free you to be present. Walk around the gym or field and build relationships. This is pastoral visitation. Get to know as many names and stories as possible.

During the week, pray for people.
When possible, check back to see how they’re doing. A good relationship is the greatest bridge to effectively share the love of Jesus with an unchurched person.

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