Stephen W. Igo
Springtime in Ohio is unpredictable! Sometimes there is cold rain, and at other times blistering heat. Thankfully, weather was no factor for the first annual Open Air Outreach of Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio, during the last week of April 1999. In fact, such unusually good weather was God's answer to our prayers.
Four months earlier, pastors Larry Wilson and Steve Igo led a team of young singles to Key West, Florida, for a week-long evangelism project with Keys Evangelistic Ministries. During that week, these two pastors caught the vision for open-air preaching from Pastor Bill Welzien. So the question was asked, "Bill, would you fly up to Columbus, Ohio, to train us in open-air preaching?
On April 24, Bill arrived in Columbus. His whirlwind tour had begun! By 6 p.m., Bill was circling a dinner table with the elders of the church and their wives, sharing his vision, telling anecdotes, and answering questions about open-air preaching and the ministry in Key West. During the next twenty-four hours, Bill would get to know dozens of leaders, members, and friends of the church, both at our formal Sunday services and informally through several fellowship meals. There was electricity in the air!
The saints were praying, and the pastors were sweating! Why? Because Pastor Larry and Pastor Steve were rookies when it came to outdoor preaching. They needed training, encouragement, and divine blessing from God's Spirit. And so "training camp began Monday morning at 9 a.m. It felt like the first day of final exams. During the previous week, Larry and Steve had poured over their sermon manuscripts, dabbled in tempera paints, and committed their presentations to memory. Bill, however, was no ruthless coach. He had worked with rookies before, and knew that the first open-air sermon was not the final exam, but only the first scrimmage of the season. Two hours and two sermons later, the scrimmage score was Pastors, 0; Bill's Patience, 2. Nonetheless, the pastors were gaining confidence. We spent time in prayer, seeking God's blessing, and then committed our preaching to the Lord.
On Monday afternoon, we headed out to the campus of Ohio State University (OSU), eleven blocks north of downtown Columbus. With an OSU enrollment of 48,000 students, we felt confident that we could attract an audience. After a quick lunch, we set up our easel board on the Oval, a large, central green where hundreds of students gather to sunbathe, play volleyball, and otherwise pass the time. While the atmosphere is playful, the students are not always friendly. Several itinerant pastors preach at the Oval weekly, some of whom resort to rude tactics and inflammatory sermons. "How will our preaching be received? we wondered. Fortunately, almost a dozen members and friends of the church showed up to encourage us during that first day.
Pastor Steve preached first. It was excellent practice. Not a single person stayed to hear the whole sermon, except those friendly faces from our local church. At least Steve was not stoned like his namesake, the martyr Stephen (Acts 7:59). Nonetheless, it was personally disappointing. In the brief pastors' huddle that followed, Bill reminded Steve and Larry that he had preached many open-air sermons that caused his crowd to bolt. God, nonetheless, smiled upon our faithfulness and received glory for these labors. Encouraged by our coach, Pastor Larry preached next, and, when the sermon was over, we had wonderful discussions with several listeners.
One listener, Camille, was a witch. As a wicca practitioner (wicca is Anglo-Saxon for "witchcraft), Camille did not resemble the dark, diabolical witch of earlier centuries, but was a colorful, fun-loving girl who consciously embraced pre-Christian paganism, ecological concerns, and feminist ideology. During that entire week, Camille became our favorite contact. Although she had attended church as a child, she was raised in a liberal congregation that so ignored the Holy Scriptures that she decided to look elsewhere for spirituality.
Another listener, Neil, was an agnostic. Quite friendly and articulate, Neil studied philosophy and literature. Debating campus preachers was his regular practice. As a result, he and Camille teamed up to talk religion. After an hour or so of engaging conversation with us, Neil seemed to lose interest, and we never saw him again.
Camille, on the other hand, seemed ubiquitous. We saw her almost daily during our entire preaching week at OSU. Her name became a household word as our church began to learn about and pray for this young woman entrapped by witchcraft. We invited her to church. "No, I am not into organized religion." We explained Christian theology to her. "That's interesting." Sadly, we observed no outward changes in her during that week. But as we got to know her personallyher distant relationship with her parents and her unusual romantic involvement with an unemployed, divorced man with childrenshe became to us a three-dimensional, living person who had crying needs for the redeeming work of Christ in her life. Please pray for Camille. We expect to see her again in the fall when school resumes.
Larry and Steve preached another dozen sermons that week, and talked with listeners after every sermonlisteners such as Shane the Mormon and Nathan from Japan. One student, Michael, found our literature, left behind in the OSU library, and called the church, asking for more information. Indeed, God faithfully blessed the training efforts of Bill Welzien during his week with us in Columbus, and we thank Christ for these tangible blessings.
When Bill left Columbus on May 1, his enthusiasm for open-air preaching did not depart with him. Pastors Larry and Steve have continued to herald the good news at OSU, in downtown Columbus, and at the annual Violet Festival in Pickerington, Ohio, during the summer months. In September, we plan to preach at the Labor Day Fish Fry sponsored by Lions International and daily during Welcome Week at OSU.
Perhaps your pastor would like to learn more about open-air preaching, or even give it a try himself! Why not ask him to give Pastor Bill Welzien a call? It will be time well spent.
Mr. Igo is the associate pastor of Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio. This article first appeared in Keys Evangelistic Ministries Update '99, July-September 1999. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2000.