Open Air Campaigners began in 1892 in Sydney, Australia. There are now over 100 evangelists based in sixteen countries around the world. Mark and Susan Howe moved to Bristol in 1987, to train with OAC with a view to working in France. They settled in Lauris in February 1990, with the intention of beginning a long-term ministry in France.
Strictly speaking, OAC International is not a mission agency in the traditional sense, but rather an association of independent organisations that have traditionally been funded and staffed from within the country where the ministry takes place. This model has worked well in countries with a relatively strong evangelical church, such as Britain, Australia and the USA.
The situation in Southern Europe is very different. There are ten times fewer evangelical believers in France than in the UK. Most churches are small, and struggle to pay their own pastor. Mark and Susan's aim has always been for OAC in France to become a truly French organisation, but it was clear from the outset that this would take time. After eight years, they have just taken on their first French evangelist, with others in the pipeline.
Missionaries such as Mark and Susan (or indeed Richard and Margaret Kemp. who joined them in 1994), need the support usually provided by a mission agency. OAC GB was not in a position to provide this support, so the OAC in France committee began looking at ways to rise to the challenge. The result was the establishment of Europe Now, which became an independent charity in 1995, and was recognised in its own right as part of OAC International in 1996. It is a member of the Evangelical Missionary Alliance.
Many mission agencies are working in Europe. In most cases, their ministry fits loosely into one of three categories.
First, there are the church planting groups. France Mission and the European Christian Mission are two examples. In a continent where many towns still have no evangelical witness, and where some large cities have only a couple of congregations, church planting is vitally important. As churches are established, they either join a French denomination or form a network with other congregations planted by the same mission. Some of the missionaries therefore end up pastoring established churches.
Second, there are the 'parachurch' groups that aim to mobilise a specific section of the church, typically young adults. Operation Mobilisation has had an enormous impact in France over the last 30 years, and many of those in leadership in France today were discipled through OM's ministry. These groups work with local churches, but their focus is on building up their team members.
Third, there are groups with a specialist service to offer, ranging from Bible Colleges (such as Greater Europe Mission) to book distributors (such as CLC).
All these ministries are important, but OAC's focus is different. It aims to mobilise local churches and church planting cells to be more effective in evangelism, by providing training, teaching and leadership. MEPA (the French branch of OAC) works with churches across the country, and across denominational and theological boundaries. Very few missions try to do this.
OAC's ministry is complementary to the other activities described above. For example, MEPA often takes part in outreaches organised by OM and France Mission. Europe Now recently arranged the programme for a "France Day" in the Midlands involving both these groups, ourselves and WEC.
It is a sad if self-evident truth that the more a country needs evangelising, the less likely the indigenous church is to be able to rise to the challenge. MEPA and similar groups in other Southern European countries are committed to recruiting evangelists locally, but the task is too great and too urgent to rely on this source of workers alone. Europe still needs missionaries.
It is also a sad truth that most people who go to Europe as missionaries do not survive as missionaries beyond their first term. Europe Now has been sending and supporting missionaries, and will continue to do so. As well as supporting them once they are in the field, we have a responsibility to ensure they are properly equipped before they go. Europe Now is therefore committed to recruiting, training, sending and supporting missionaries. Over the last couple of years, it has become clear that some form of training base is needed.
OAC has always taken a lead in developing creative means of proclaiming the gospel, and these methods will be a major part of the training programme. However, a good evangelist also needs to have a working knowledge of Scripture and an understanding of the philosophical, cultural and religious context in which he or she is ministering. All this knowledge is of little use in the long term without a close relationship with God and an understanding of what God calls evangelists to do. And this ministry will not last long without the practical skills needed to organise and maintain it in difficult circumstances, often in a foreign country.
There are many training programmes already in existence in the UK, but few which fit the description above. Most Bible Colleges are set up to prepare students for pastoral ministry. Even those with a missionary emphasis tend to be staffed by former pastors, or by former missionaries who worked as pastors, teachers or church planters.
In any case, evangelists tend to be pragmatists: they are only interested in theology if they can see how it relates to the task of winning souls. Europe Now plans to offer a one year course tailor-made for such people.
The students will be involved in evangelism several times a week. Teaching sessions will be related directly to the evangelism, and evangelists will teach much of the course.
It was clear from the outset that this was an ambitious project. For this reason, Europe Now and MEPA have spent nearly 12 months working through the implications in considerable detail: the current working document runs to over forty pages! We have been amazed to see how quickly consensus has been reached on a wide range of subjects, and how much positive feedback we have received from other parts of OACI - from the International President down! - and from other missions.
Rob and Traci Davis of OAC Nottingham have been involved in these discussions from the outset. Rob has long had a heart to see more workers in Europe, and has made many trips to countries including Italy, Greece and Croatia over the last few years. For this reason, we initially expected to set up our UK training base in Nottingham.
However, we recently received an invitation to set up the project in Bristol. Mark and Susan have strong links with the city - one church there sent eighteen people to Avignon this year! - and Europe Now already had a good working relationship with Korky Davey, the OAC West Country director. Rob and Traci were willing to move, so the Europe Now trustees took the decision at the end of October to work towards moving the Europe Now office to Bristol by the end of 1999.
All involved in Europe Now are excited by the possibilities that this project opens up, but also a little daunted by the amount that remains to be done. Please pray for us as we continue to seek God's will in many areas.