LAST Saturday afternoon, 28 years to the day since Dr Billy Graham preached at Wembley Stadium, the Anglican evangelist J. John — whom the Archbishop of Canterbury has described as “one of the best communicators of what it is to be a Christian” — preached on a stage at the Clock End of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, in north London.
It was the culmination of the JustOne event, which had been organised after Mr John sensed God telling him: “It’s time to tell my good news in the football stadiums” (News, 30 October 2015).
A crowd of 23,733 attended, well short of the 45,000 that Mr John had hoped would attend. But many more — about 250,000 — watched online and listened on the radio.
Perhaps only a small number who filled the stands at the Emirates would have been present for Dr Graham’s Wembley event on 8 July 1989, at the end of Mission89. I was one of them. As a football-mad seven-year-old, I eagerly accepted the invitation to walk (or run) on to the pitch at the end of Dr Graham’s talk. It was only when my brother and I were approached by a volunteer, tract in hand, that we realised we had unwittingly given our lives to Christ.
The pitch was out of bounds this time, however: the grass was only two weeks old, and was being kept in pristine condition for next season’s first match, powered by an underground electricity system. Prayers of Christian commitment — and recommitment — would take place in the seats and the concourses behind the North Bank, and the West and East Stands, we were told.
THE rally began at 3 p.m. — the time a match would usually begin — with sung worship led by a group from the Australian megachurch Hillsong. “How great thou art” was followed by renditions of Hillsong songs such as “Mighty to Save” and “The Creed”.
Red sofas were then moved on to the stage, and J. John and his wife, Killy, invited four high-profile Christians to take their places: Linvoy Primus, a former Premier League footballer; Julia Immonen, a member of the first female crew to row the Atlantic; Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, KPMG International’s global head of corporate citizenship; and the former Chaplain of St George’s, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White.
Mr Primus had played at the Emirates as a defender for Portsmouth FC. “To be able to play at stadiums like this you can only dream about, but when you’re actually there it’s quite amazing,” he said. “For most of my life, I was chasing things. I thought that being a professional footballer I’d find my peace; I thought the cars, the holidays, all those things would give me happiness, and they never did.” After witnessing the “peace” of Christian friends, he decided “to follow Jesus”, and was healed of a knee injury.
Ms Immonen, the daughter of a pastor, spoke of how she had spent “45 long days” rowing the Atlantic, navigating “50-foot waves the size of houses”. She had returned to her childhood faith 11 years ago after attending an Alpha course. Since then, she said, “God has taken me on the most incredible adventure.” She had also become a campaigner against the international slave-trade, “the largest and fastest-growing crime in the world”.
J. JOHN/PHILO TRUSTBody language: members of the audience
Noting political instability, recent acts of terrorism, and the Grenfell Tower fire, Lord Hastings said that “there has probably never been more fear . . . amongst ordinary people”. . .
“I have always known Jesus to bring light and hope. . . In the middle of a fearsome, tortured, anguished nation at the moment, we need the anchor of hope.”
Canon White told the crowd: “Unlike most of the people in this stadium, [I] am not converted. . . I’ve always loved Jesus. . . I’ve never once not loved him. Even when I was at Cambridge doing my theology at vicar factory, I was the only one who never doubted my faith. It’s not childish, it’s childlike — and, like a child, I know my father, and I know my Jesus.”
More music followed, this time by the London Community Gospel Choir, who have played with the likes of Madonna and Sir Elton John.
Matt Redman, a recipient of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Cranmer Award for Worship (News, 24 March 2016), led the crowd in sung worship, accompanied by a band and a small choir.
Mr John then took to the stage to deliver his keynote message, based on John 3.16. It was targeted at both sceptics and people who professed Christian faith but who might have moved Jesus out of the “centre” of their lives.
Christianity, he said, offered three things — “everything else in the Bible is commentary and application”. The first was “forgiveness from the past”. “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart,” he said. Audience members were invited to imagine a film-viewing of their life — “How would you feel if your life was judged on that basis?” — and their bank account being overdrawn. “By dying on the cross, it was as if he [Jesus] was cashing a cheque signed with his own blood, to say ‘Here’s the cheque to clear your overdraft; here is the cheque to delete the footage of the film of your life.’”
Second, Jesus “wants us to have new life today”. This could be attained by putting Jesus back at the centre of one’s life. Even those who thought Jesus was in the driving seat might be “backseat drivers”, querying Jesus’s navigation.
Third, Jesus gave “hope for the future” — “everlasting life”, in the words of John 3.16. “Many people’s hope is usually like a hospital gown: you’re not as well covered as you think you are. But in Jesus we can have hope.”
The evangelist then invited three categories of people to stand: those who wished “to open the door and let Jesus in”; those who wanted to “reposition Jesus in the driving seat of my life”; and those who wanted to “investigate” the Christian faith, who would be directed to Alpha or Life Explored courses near where they lived.
The first two categories were led in the same prayer; the third had a prayer for understanding as they investigated Christian faith. They were then invited to meet volunteers in the concourse behind the stands, where they would be given resources and offered further prayer.
After the event, Mr John posted a message on Twitter: “We estimate that around 6000 people responded.” A spokesperson for the event later told the Church Times that there had been “over 1700 responses from people who attended, committing themselves to JustOne’s message”.
The next JustOne event will take place at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham FC, on 8 June next year. “We’re also exploring other football stadiums around the United Kingdom,” Mr John said. “God willing, with help and support and finance, we’ll keep doing them until we’re promoted to glory.”