In 1960, Joe Bayly wrote an entertaining little volume of 85 pages about a group of well-meaning church members who decide the way to reach their unsaved neighbors would be to float a Scripture-carrying blimp above the city and bombard the citizens with gospel tracts.
My copy of “The Gospel Blimp,” which I have kept all these years, was produced in the book’s 7th printing. I seem to remember a gospel film (the inexpensive kind made to be shown in churches back in the day) was made on the book.
I’ve not heard a thing of the book or the story in decades, but Dr. Bayly’s point was so timeless, it still applies today. The story (sort of a parable, I suppose) needs to be dusted off and retold.
See what you think.
The blimp idea got started when this little cluster of friends from a conservative evangelical church were enjoying a barbecue in George and Ethel’s back yard and began discussing their next-door neighbors. It was obvious they were unsaved because they were drinking beer and playing cards. Someone pointed out that they attend a liberal church, and this just a few times a year. As a plane went overhead, a fellow named Herm remarked that if that aircraft had been carrying a message such as “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,” the lost neighbors would have received a witness since they also had glanced in its direction.
One thing led to another and the idea was birthed to buy a blimp and have it trail Scripture messages across the sky for citizens to read. They formed a non-profit, got themselves chartered, organized a board with officers, and made Herm, the fellow with the idea, its executive. Soon, Herm resigned his job and went full-time with International Gospel Blimps, Inc.
Someone had the idea of tying gospel tracts with colored cellophane tape and bombarding the neighborhoods with “fire bombs” from Heaven.
A project like this naturally would require a great deal of money for maintenance, a hangar for the blimp, and salaries for the pilots and the executive. Fund-raising quickly took a great deal of time and energy from the organizers.
Within weeks, the board members began devoting all their spare hours to this project. In order to keep the blimp running, to tape the fire bombs, and to raise money, they missed their kids’ little league ball games, had to turn down invitations from friends to go out for pizza, and gave up all their evenings at home.
Soon, they added a loudspeaker to the blimp so Herm could preach short messages across the city while dropping firebombs and dragging the Scripture du jour through the sky. When the sermons began invading their homes, citizens rose up in protest. The police chief came close to arresting them for disturbing the peace, but backed off when they agreed to dismantle the speakers.
Meanwhile, Herm, the executive, began devoting less and less time to the actual day-to-day running of the Gospel Blimp ministry. He roamed far and wide to raise money and make public appearances. Gone from home so much, his wife eventually filed for divorce, particularly when she learned the primary reason for his long absences. The board, however, decided that Herm was so valuable to the ministry they could not dismiss him. After all, it was only her word against his. So, they went forward.
And what about the unsaved neighbors who were the impetus for all this blimpness in the first place? A few times, when they knocked on George and Ethel’s door to see if they wanted to come over or accompany them on a little fishing trip, they found them away from home or too occupied with the blimp business.
George and Ethel were the first couple to drop out of the Blimp ministry, feeling that it had somehow gotten off course and was taking too much of their time with only miniscule results.
Some of the high-powered executives with whom Herm played golf (a lot of golf!) talked him into added commercial messages to the blimp in order to increase its acceptance and generate more funds. Soon, the blimp sports religious messages saying “I am the way” and others saying, “The American way is the best way.”
On the third anniversary of the original cookout where the blimp idea had surfaced, George and Ethel invited over their friends who were still heavily involved in the work of the IGBI. In their back yard, they introduced their neighbors, the ones whose salvation had been the original impetus for the blimp business. They had come to know Christ and George and Ethel thought the blimp board needed to know how that had happened.
The board members were ecstatic. “Which firebomb did God use to reach you?” “Was it one of the Scriptures we trailed?” “Was it one of Herm’s sermons?”
None of that. In fact, they said, that infernal blimp had driven them batty.
What had happened was that after George and Ethel had pulled out of the blimp ministry, they had time to get to know the neighbors. When the wife went into the hospital, Ethel would visit her, take flowers from the garden and sit with her. She would read to the woman and they would talk about Jesus.
Meanwhile, they invited the husband over for evening meals. He sat in on family devotionals when George read the Bible and prayed. Neither the man nor his wife had ever met anyone to whom Jesus Christ was real.
The husband told the backyard group, “There’s something else. Any of you guys ever spend two weeks keeping house with the wife away?” His house had been filthy.
“Ethel came in the day before my wife came home and gave that house the going-over of its life.”
The wife added, “Yes, and for a month after I got home she wouldn’t let me do a stitch of washing or ironing. Took all our dirty clothes home and did them.”
In the silence that followed this testimony, one of the board members ventured that now that the neighbors were saved, they would surely be interested in joining the blimp ministry.
“Sorry,” the new believer said. “George and I are going bowling with the guy across the street.”
Joe Bayly gives his interpretation of this modern-day parable in the final chapter. “The little city where the Gospel Blimp was conceived is the world, our latter twentieth century American world, in which Christians work and play, raise children, buy automobiles and face the devil.”
Our next door neighbors, Bayly said, may be down the road or across town. They may drink beer and play cards but they may just as well attend the symphony and lead the local civic club. “Some of them may even sit near us on Sunday morning.”
The Blimp? Bayly says, “Why the wonderful Gospel Blimp is every impersonal, external means by which we try to fulfil our responsibility to witness to our neighbors. Gospel programs over the radio, messages on billboards or in tracts; these are some of our blimps.”
“These are poor substitutes for personal communication of the gospel, the sort of witnessing we glimpse from afar in the New Testament.”
Bayly says, “Technical, organizational means have one enormous lack: a human heart. They may multiply a voice ten thousand times, but it remains only a voice.”
He says, “Adding anything to the gospel of Christ must weaken it. Jesus Christ refused to fall into this trap. ‘My kingdom,’ He said, ‘is not of this world.'”
“To tie Jesus Christ to the very best human system is to tie a star, light years distant, to a dead horse here on earth. Neither star nor Christ will thus be bound.”