Tim Saunders reflects on taking the Gospel, and the church service, out to the streets of Sutton
Out of sight, out of mind - or perhaps we should say out of earshot, out of mind. It’s very frustrating being a Christian in 21st Century Britain. The mess we Brits are in is so bad. The message we Christians have is so good - but we struggle to get it out. I suspect though that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Paul, on his own, in Athens (Acts 17) found a way of getting the Gospel to the most cultured, idolatrous, arrogant city of his day. John Stott puts his finger on why, when we are so many more, fail to get the same hearing in today’s London when he comments, “we do not speak the way Paul spoke because we do not feel the way Paul felt (paroxysm used of experiencing a seizure) because we do not see what Paul saw”. Seeing that God’s rightful honour was being stripped from him and given to idols, distressed him. Indeed the whole city was “on idols”, to translate “kateidolon” (v16). Rather than being blown away by the sophisticated culture and spectacular sculpture, Paul was gutted by the idolatry.
As always, he sought out the “godfearers”, the seekers, but they only gathered once a week. So Sunday to Friday he took to the agora. This was the retail, leisure and artistic centre of Athens with markets, shops, exchanges, restaurants, bars, gyms, and concert / lecture halls. He engaged with “whoever happened to be around” (v17). There he was picked up by some Stoic (Be worthy) and Epicurean (Be happy) commentators and taken to the university quarter, to explain himself and his message of Jesus and the Resurrection.
Sutton High Street is the nearest thing we have to an agora – we certainly have the gyms. It is a 1km pedestrianised street opening out to Trinity Square, which has a raised, railed off area. I’m never sure what the attraction is - TK Maxx is Sutton’s stand out store, but the street has continuous footfall, 6 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Sutton High Street is a magnet for street work, and there are often 2 or 3 Christian individuals or groups out on a Saturday. Some are good hearted believers seeking to share Christ, albeit often rather strange; for example the lady who booms out Amazing Grace from a ghetto blaster on her back, or the Koreans singing 1950s American Gospel songs in Korean. Listening to others you get the impression that God hates human beings who are an abomination to Him. Then there are the Ahmadi and orthodox Muslims with their gazebo and table. Shopping on Saturday can feel like running the gauntlet of chuggers and religious hucksters. Indeed Sutton Council have asked their trusted Street Pastors’ co-ordinator what can be done about the nuisance.
This means we have to restrict our appearances and refine what we do. So each year we have two 45 minute services, on Remembrance Day and Good Friday, out on the High Street. We also have another Summer Saturday event with music, face-painting and some performance. In June 2018 we got a make-up artist to do up four human statues on the theme of The Lion and The Lamb, and we wrote, designed and distributed related-theme tracts.
We first hit on Remembrance Day when we had just planted the church in the local theatre and they had a prior booking. So we took the whole church onto the High Street. Around 20-25 people stopped and joined us for the duration, including a man whom the day before had cried out, “God my life is so empty. If you are there show me.” Over the next 12 months, he and is wife came to Christ and he gave his testimony the following Remembrance Day.
Although many folk walk by, the white British normally heads down pretending they heard nothing, there are always some who stop, get a service sheet, have a chat, and even find us on following Sundays. Even on Good Friday 2018, when it poured with cold rain for the whole 45 minutes, on Easter Sunday we welcomed a mainland Chinese lady, whose children go to school with one of the church families, and a young guy from Mitcham who met us in the street.
We go through the official channels at the London Borough of Sutton, which involves an application and risk assessment. They gives us permission to be in the square and use the power supply. Not all councils may be co-operative but it’s good to keep onside if we can.
For the services, good music gathers a crowd. So we have a small, competent band, singers and decent, though necessarily portable, PA system. Part of the testimony is the gathered church of all ages and races, so we strongly urge everyone to be there. Half a dozen people, including children, give out our flyers. Others look out for folk who hang around to chat.
Keep things moving and you stop people moving on. So we usually have a relevant poem, such as this Remembrance Day When Jesus came to Golgotha written by the war padre, G.A. Studdart Kennedy. In between songs, mainly new with a few traditional, we have a prayer, Bible reading, message and testimony. In the continuity announcements, we say who we are, where and when we meet and invite people to join us. My Co-Pastor, Mark Fossey, and I often think the testimony could go either way, and we prep and pray hard. But it is the personal stories that stop and hold people in the crowd. Though some speakers have been nervous, especially sharing the messy and broken parts of their lives, they have had the great joy of speaking for Jesus, getting his help and being used for the Gospel.
If Paul, on his own in Athens, could get the good news out, so can we, in our part of London. And although some didn’t get him, and some smirked, a few followed him and believed (v34). We do need to get out more and Christmas, Remembrance Day and Good Friday are some of our best opportunities.
Tim Saunders is Co-Pastor at Hope Church Sutton