Outreach at Northampton Hot Air Balloon Festival
Wyn Williams, Northampton, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Northampton Borough Council (NBC) has held its Hot Air Balloon Festival for fifteen years and it is quite an event for it combines the spectacle of flying hot air balloons with entertainment, trade displays and exhibitions. It is estimated that some quarter of a million people attend during the three days of the event held in August each year. This article outlines steps taken to bring about the witness at this festival. This is a big undertaking. Witnessing at other shows, fetes, etc., could be achieved with much less outlay both in financial terms and manpower commitment, so this is not entered into lightly but in line with the exhortation in Luke 14 verse 28 that one needs to, ‘first sit down and count the cost’.
In 1996 two brethren visited the festival site and were amazed at the number of people thronging into it, and more importantly the fact that so many of them were likely headed for a Christless eternity. Nowhere on the field was there any form of gospel testimony, yet there was a great opportunity for it. The vision for a gospel witness at the event was shared with others and after much prayer it was decided to apply for a plot for a tent the following year.
When details of the 1997 event were available that January a group of four brethren started to organize the participation. It was decided that linking with Peter Smith and using his gospel tent and displays would be an effective option with which to start. This would also incorporate the promotion of the Postal Bible School, for which Peter was responsible, thus making something suitable for all ages in the tent. Peter and Stan Burditt, who had been in on the start of the project, had worked together before at places like the Bath and West Show, the Royal Cornwall Show and the Great Yorkshire Shows. This gave a much-needed touch of ‘experienced hands’.
Although the primary aim of participating was to display the gospel message to people, it was recognized that the public had to be encouraged to come into the tent to see it. One means of attracting them in we decided was to provide free refreshments as had been done in the above events.
In subsequent years it was apparent that the same displays could not be used over and over again. So, every two years the displays have been completely changed and have refocused on a different theme. For example for the years 1999/2000 the theme was ‘Coming Soon’ linking in with the Millennium celebrations and focusing the gospel witness on the return of our Lord.
As already stated, the event is organized by NBC and it goes without saying that building a good relationship with their representatives is important. This, not least of all, because in every aspect of our participation we are to be a faithful witness to our Lord but also it greatly assists when difficulties arise with the administration of our participation.
There can be unseen problems even with just getting onto a Show’s list of exhibitors. An example of this is the financing of our participation. Most entries are from businesses or charities with ‘funds to hand’ to pay the rent for a plot which is due when the booking is made. We require six plots for our tent and are totally reliant on the exercise of the believers for the financing, so each year we have to negotiate an extension on the payment date to allow time for the funds to be given. We give God thanks that each year all the necessary funds have been provided, all through the exercise of the believers.
Another difficulty stems from the configuration of the tents we use as now Stan Burditt’s own tent has been incorporated into the display. The combination of plots provided is not a good fit with the tent dimensions, so again we have to negotiate changes to the layout of the plots to accommodate the tent safely.
We thank God that in all the years there has never been any real problem with either of these or other issues although at times grace is needed when bureaucracy raises its head. We have so far been granted some eight weeks to pay the site rental and now we are provided with a plot that meets our requirements, usually though at extra cost. It may be that scaling down our presence would simplify matters considerably but it would also limit the impact of our witness in an event of this scale.
Other relationships matter too - like those with people manning neighbouring plots. Many an opportunity has been presented for long discussions on spiritual matters with these dear people in the course of a weekend. Relationships with the general public are of the utmost importance and between the Christian workers as well.
Displays and Literature
We believe changing displays every two years is essential to maintaining the interest of the public, especially those who visit regularly year by year. These displays have to faithfully present the word of God, be eye-catching and yet not too complex so as to deter the viewing and reading of them. This is a major task not only in terms of the ideas for the theme, but the translation of these into actual display graphics/pictures but also in their manufacture and production.
Gospel tracts, suitable for young and old, are freely available at several stands in the tent. Booklets such as Ultimate Questions, Safety Certainty and Enjoyment, and The Reason Why, are available to give to those who are engaged in conversations and willing to accept them. We also supply Bibles or New Testaments. Another vital resource, the need for which was fully appreciated during the first year, was gospel literature in many foreign languages. The list of languages available for distribution grows year by year as more and more immigrants from different countries move to the area. The look of surprise, even amazement and gratitude on the faces of people when they are offered material to read in their native tongue is very rewarding in itself. The fact that this will probably be their first encounter with the gospel makes it even more precious.
Duties and Manning
The execution of an event of this magnitude requires considerable manpower. The three days of the event requires some forty believers to cover all the duties planned. This could not be achieved without the exercise and commitment of the those involved.
Duties performed include: distributing leaflets outside the tent to encourage people to go in and to engage them in conversation if appropriate, running the Postal Bible School corner including a children’s quiz/competition and serve refreshments - tea, coffee, fruit drinks and biscuits. Then there is the constant clearing of tables and mingling and seeking opportunities to engage people in conversation, general to start with but turning around to spiritual matters as opportunities arise. Also, some are needed to hand out ‘Thank You’ packs, containing text card, tract, invitation to gospel meetings and a ‘Thank You’ letter. Last, but not least, is the washing up and keeping the many urns supplied with water and tea. Most of these duties provide opportunities to ‘gossip the gospel’.
Dealing with the public
We do not aim to ‘buttonhole’ people and preach the gospel ‘at’ them. When inviting people into the tent or mingling with them we try and engage them in general conversation, then as the opportunity arises the conversation is guided to spiritual matters. Many interesting contacts have been made in the past. Some are believers from various parts of the country or other churches in the area. They often say they are encouraged and heartened having their spirits lifted by the witness in the tent. Some are searching for something but do not quite know what that is. We seek to introduce them to the gospel as the issue that they really need to face. Other visitors will be there to question, or try to undermine or belittle the beliefs of the helpers. They go for the younger believers in particular. As we provide free refreshments, and seating, there are also those who will abuse this service and it sometimes takes real grace when dealing with these and getting them to move on.
Other Examples of ‘Show Witness’
Many assemblies have taken up the challenge of this field of witness on varying scales. Those known to the writer include tents or stands at The East of England Show, Hanslope Village Fete, Caerphilly ‘Big Cheese’ Festival, Pamber Heath Village Fete, Saltash Fete, the latter four events borrowing some of the displays from Northampton. These are available on loan to anyone who can make use of them.
There is opportunity in many places to conduct such a witness. The exhortation of our Lord was ‘to go . . . into all the world and preach the gospel’. These shows provide an audience of large numbers that these days are rarely found where the gosple is being preched. A Show is an opening to meet with many hundreds, even thousands, of people in the course of a few days. We must be committed to sowing the good seed so that others can reap the fields that are ‘white unto harvest’.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He serves the Lord as an elder in the Spencer Bridge Road assembly in Nortampton. For the last five years he has been involved in children's work especially working in schools. He is married and has four grown up children.