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Medium and message

21 July 2017

THE Anglican evangelist J. John is on a mission to bring stadium evangelism back to the UK. A fortnight ago, he preached at the JustOne event at the Emirates Stadium, in north London, the first such event since Dr Billy Graham’s attracted an estimated 375,000 people to several football stadiums, among them Wembley, in 1989 (News, 14 July). The overall package was basically the same as 30 years ago, although the music had been updated. And J. John’s message was firmly in the Billy Graham tradition: a focus on an individual’s relationship with God, the need for the public profession of faith. There was one dissimilarity: J. John’s event did not fill the stadium. Just under 24,000 people attended, instead of the hoped-for 45,000.

We dislike the tendency to judge success by numbers, but the impression is that that was what the event was about. J. John is on record as saying that mass evangelism “reminds the world the Church is not dead. It’s easy to ignore a few little fellowships hidden away in anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs. It’s much less easy if there are tens of thousands of people in your city’s main stadium.” Perhaps it does not matter, then, that a large proportion of the crowd were already Christians, or that many of the 1700 response cards (we have not seen a breakdown) were filled in by people renewing a commitment to Christ, or that many seats were empty. But, as a demonstration of the efficacy of stadium evangelism, it could have been more convincing.

There is an argument that says that, for all his long experience and skill at communication, J. John is simply not well known enough. Dr Graham was an internationally famous figure who had the asset of glamour on his first visits to post-war Britain. There is perhaps only one equivalent Christian leader at present who has the personality and following to fill the larger football stadiums, though he is seldom rated in Evangelical circles. Pope Francis has the power to attract the secular as well as the faithful, and, moreover, to communicate the love of Christ with a warmth and compassion that almost counteracts the institutional troubles of his Church.

Even Pope Francis, though, would need the efforts of countless parishes to marshal non-churchgoers and invite them along — in effect, doing the evangelism for him. The question would then have to be asked: why the stadium? J. John might have noted that, in the area that surrounds the Emirates, churches are doing a good job of reminding people that the Church is not dead. Thousands (if one is counting) pass through their doors daily for toddler groups, debt-advice clinics, youth clubs, foodbanks, post-retirement fellowship groups, and so on. Far from being hidden away, the Church is part of their lives, whether or not they attend a Sunday service. This is as effective a means of spreading the good news as any stadium rally, however uplifting.

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