Telling the Good News
It was a bright Saturday morning in September. With a fresh breeze and a clear sky we were sailing across the Clyde from Ardrossan to Brodick, coming late to join a team on a mission to bring the Good News to the hordes of young folk from Glasgow crowding into the Island for one last fling before the winter . It was “Operation Arran”. We were not the only ones who missed the connections the night before and we gathered on the top deck to get reconnected. Among us was Captain Stephen Anderson. He was an evangelist, a former farmer and soldier whose parents had high hopes, at one time, that he would become the Raj of India, before independence changed all that. He had turned his back on his former life and worked full time, to use the gift that God had given him, to tell the Good News of Jesus to the high and mighty, the ordinary folk and odd balls, the smart guys and rough diamonds and anyone and everyone he met, wherever he went.
Our paths had crossed before on two occasions. One was at Port Seaton holiday camp on the forth estuary. I clearly remembered arriving at the site and being dropped off by my future in-laws who, on seeing the down at heel huts and the noisy crowds made a quick exit. I was to sing for a children’s event outside the tiny wooden chapel at the centre of the camp. An evening service had been interrupted the previous week when a motorcyclist drove throughout the main door up the aisle and out through the south door. It was hot and sweaty and the crowds of children loud and sticky and over enthusiastic would hug you and leave you with the strong desire to start scratching. When I came to sing, I was crowded in and could hardly hear my own voice far less the guitar but when I began something strange happened. The crowd of children and young folk and hangers on were suddenly hushed and seemed to be hanging on every word and when I finished my set Stephen spoke to this rapt audience about Jesus and in his characteristic winsome way.
The second was in the BBC studios in Queen Street Edinburgh, to record a series for “thought for the day” on what was then called the Home Service. The equipment seemed ancient and the microphone looked like it came from the ark. There were lots of tests and misfires before the recordings were put down. I had simply to sing a line of a song as an intro and then stop. There was no cutting and pasting. While we were sitting in the studio with the producer and technician next door, trying to sort things out, Stephen suggested we pray. So right there in the dark panelled draughty room with the floor covered in coiled cables and strange pieces of equipment and quite unaware than anyone was listening, we bowed our heads and prayed that God would use this time to bring the message to many across Scotland . When the team came through to get us started, they were clearly moved. The prayer had come right through to the monitor.
So there we were, up on deck with crowds of others in the warm sun gliding across the Clyde when Stephen said ” Do you have your guitar with you? Get it out and let’s sing” I was shocked and didn’t like the idea but he was persuasive and we did. Others pulled their instruments from there cases and we gathered in a circle and sang through many of the songs that had become part of our life. Now everyone was listening and Stephen used that moment to speak directly to the crowds of fellow travellers, sitting on the benches and hanging over the deck and gazing out to sea , to tell them who were we were, why we were going to Arran and in the simplest and natural way why Jesus. On the Sunday afternoon at three when the pub up the hill, discouraged its customers, we were sitting around in the local church hall. Many revellers were diverted into the hall and joined in with the singing, taking over the venue. It became very raucous and we felt we had just about lost control. One of the girls sang “Amazing Grace” recently made into a hit by Judy Collins and the crowd became strangely silent. When she finished, a hush descended and once again Stephen seized the opportunity and speak directly to the crowd.
I learned so much from the man and this was all brought back to mind recently, when I was asked to convene the evangelism committee in our local church. I knew I was not an evangelist. That gift had not been given to me. I do know those for whom the gift has been given and it is a wonderful thing to see, but I knew that was not me. But reading Paul’s letters, I discovered that Timothy didn’t seem to be an evangelist either yet Paul still encouraged him to “do the work of an evangelist”. So it is for everyone who is a follower of Jesus. We may not have the gift but if we love him, it must be part of our DNA to tell the Good News, for that is what evangelism is. Leslie Newbigin put it succinctly when he was talking about the difficulties in communicating the gospel to the people of his inner city parish in Birmingham
“How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified saviour, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the Gospel: congregations who believe it.
Does that sound too simplistic? I don’t believe it is. Evangelism is not some kind of technique we use to persuade people to change their minds and think like us. Evangelism is the telling of good news, but what changes people’s minds and converts their wills is always a mysterious work of the sovereign Holy Spirit and we are not permitted to know more than a little of his secret working. But – and this is the point – the Holy Spirit, is present in the believing congregation gathered for praise and the offering up of spiritual sacrifice, scattered throughout the community to bear the love of God into every secular happening and meeting.”
So we could ask ourselves why is that, as followers of Jesus, we seem to be so poor at this task? Why do we seem so reluctant to tell this Good News? Why do we drag our feet and need to be coerced and organised into doing it? The answer, which we would probably not really want to think about and could be quite disturbing, is that maybe we are not ourselves sure if we believe it.
In the past week, I met up with people on two occasions who bounded up to me, their faces full of joy and excitement, with a generous hug and desperate to tell me- “I’ve got Good News!” One was over a new job the other that her mother’s visa had at last come through and she was able to come and visit. And I thought “Yes – that’s it”