There is a wonderful piece of writing by Charles Dickens entitled 'Two Views Of A Cheap Theatre'. He recounts the experience of two nights at the theatre. The first on a Saturday when he views a pantomime and melodrama. The second, a religious service on a Sunday evening, with four thousand people.
Many things stand out about this text, including his ability to move the reader away from the focus upon the stage and instead to marvel upon the make up of the audience / congregation. Yet in amongst his raw descriptions of characters, atmosphere and emotions, something else emerges within his paragraphs. A suggestion that this is far more than an evening of entertainment.
To follow that hint, we must put this story in context with a wider narrative. Something radically changed in the early 1860's concerning public worship. The Earl of Shaftesbury had taken up the argument that out of the population of 3,993,467 in 34 large towns of England, 52% or 2,197,388 attended no place of worship. He goes on to say (Hansard, 24th February 1860):
The population is growing very rapidly in our large towns, and religion ought to grow with at least equal rapidity, but is not doing so. Our population in England is rapidly increasing; but it is still more rapidly becoming a town population...Therefore, if our large towns are left to themselves, practical heathenism must inevitably soon outgrow Christianity
... At 1 o'clock the public-houses open, when it is no uncommon thing to see more than 100 men waiting for the opening of the three gin-palaces at the Marsh Gate, and in the evening to find these places full of men and women, who feel themselves more at home here than they do in their wretched apartments. The New Cut is as notorious for its places of amusement as for its Sabbath-breaking or its drunkenness. The penny gaff, or Olympic Circus, still exists, and there is reason to fear it is doing a world of mischief. No respectable person goes, so they have it all their own way, and corrupt the minds of youths without rebuke. The Victoria Theatre is well attended. The company may be seen standing at the doors about four o'clock...
My Lords, I maintain that, in order to know what is the condition of the people, it is necessary to go among them, not only by day, but by night, and to visit them early and late in their dens and recesses. It is necessary to see them under all their conditions and in all their phases if we desire to become acquainted with their precise character, to examine their peculiar habits, and, as it were, their natural history; and I defy any one who has penetrated into their retreats, not to come back in terror, dismay, and shame at finding that among a great number of people in this country there should exist a state of things so perilous and so disgraceful.
He continues by describing a different approach to mission that was taking place.
... special religious services of the last two years have produced good fruit; and when the noble Viscount taunts me with my early prediction, and says, that great benefit has not arisen from those services, I reply that, regard being had to the means which the promoters of the movement have had at their disposal, they have come up to and even exceeded our expectations. By a letter to myself from the incumbent of one of the largest parishes in Southwark it appears that nearly 100 artisans from that parish had gone to Exeter Hall because they liked the style of the service there, and what was the result? Why that, instead of being absentees from the parish church a large proportion had become habitual attenders on Divine worship.
This is the way the leaven works; and if a taste for God's Word is thus excited in men's minds, they will settle down by degrees either as members of the Church of England or of some one of the Nonconformist bodies.
Dickens, the social commentator, picked up on a new approach to sharing the Gospel taking place within the towns of England. In 1855, Lord Shaftesbury had helped through a bill, the Religious Worship Act, that allowed unconsecrated buildings to be used for religious services. This was in response to a number of existing experiments taking place across the country, looking at ways of sharing the Gospel in the locations where people congregated. The collective work from grassroots activism and Parliamentary efforts led to heated debates around the cliental that were attending these services. In particular the bottles of beer and gin, clothing styles and noise levels that were coming from these new visitors.
Then came Dickens, and his reminder to the reader to see this new world differently. Instead of focusing upon the battle between the routine of the service and the habits from the street, settle the gaze instead upon the Gospel message being shared. Specifically, that Jesus hung around with twelve misfits, and that his impact upon the mass was through the compassionate embrace of the individual. He ended his writing with this challenging paragraph:
Let the preacher who will thoroughly forget himself and remember no individuality but one, and no eloquence but one, stand up before four thousand men and women at the Britannia Theatre any Sunday night, recounting that narrative to them as fellow creatures, and he shall see a sight!
We can't underestimate the impact this preaching movement had upon many towns within England. Its exposure to the hidden pain upon the streets changed the way many services were held. Contributing to a wider movement of activism that mixed the Gospel message with social reformation. Yet in it all the stories of transformation and policy change that came from these experiments, the words of Dickens brought a reminder to the core reason for any work. Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. God in human form embraced the individual in their messy state - and never forget, that also included you.