>One evening a few years ago, my friend Michael and I were headed to downtown Modesto for some Starbucks, when we were confronted on a corner by three young men: two passing out small cards and one reading into a microphone on a portable PA system. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you have already guessed that the small cards were tracts and that the book being read was the Bible. The three young men were street preachers. As we walked by, they handed us their tracts, which on the front had a picture of the Starbucks logo (or at least very similar to it) and said something along the lines of “Good for One Free Coffee.” If you turned over the card, however, you would find it explaining that the tract was not actually good for a coffee, but something even better… eternal life!
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe that the salvation offered through our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely more valuable than a cup of coffee, and you cannot convince me otherwise. Still, I was pretty disappointed to find that I was not going to be getting a free cup of coffee. If I, as a Christian, was upset by that tract, I cannot help but wonder what a nonChristian would think. I am guessing that they would not be impressed by the most eternally beneficial bait-and-switch of their life, but would instead be angry about not getting a free cup of steaming coffee. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way of reaching anyone with the Gospel.
More recently, my sister and her husband also headed downtown, dressed to the nines, for a fancy dinner to celebrate their anniversary. On their way, they were accosted by a street preacher yelling at them while condemning them for their sins. He warned Justin (my brother-in-law) that he was leading my sister to sin by taking her downtown for a night of drunkenness and dancing which would lead them straight to Hell. Justin responded, telling the man that they were in fact Christians on their way to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The street preacher simply repeated his accusations and generally expressed disbelief that Christians could be headed downtown for anything other than street preaching or losing their salvation. Ok, I paraphrased what he said, but that was the point of it. The anniversary couple walked away, not feeling particularly fond of this speaker, and wondering what kind of impact he was having on the nonChristians unfortunate enough to encounter him.
At this point, you might be getting the feeling that I only have a negative view of street preachers, and that must be cleared up right away. I generally have mixed feelings toward them. On the one hand, I respect them for their boldness in opening themselves up to ridicule for the sake of sharing the Gospel and I wish that I had such a burden for the souls of those who do not yet know Christ that I would join them on their soapboxes. On the other hand, I worry that some of them do more harm than good and poorly represent Christ with overly angry and hateful approaches to evangelism.
I recognize that God is not only merciful and loving but also just and righteous, which means that He is also a God of wrath. A Gospel made up only of God’s mercy is not a full Gospel, because a person must know of God’s justice and wrath in order to understand why they need God’s mercy. At the same time, however, a Gospel presentation that emphasizes only the coming doom of sinners is not the Gospel at all, for there is no good news included.
Open air evangelism has been used by the Church throughout its history and by no means should be allowed to disappear, but we must be careful in how we use it and ask ourselves if our approach represents Jesus well. I submit that lying about free coffee and condemning fellow Christians would not pass such an inquisition.
As for the rest of us, the Christians who do not participate in open air evangelism and street preaching, we can do better by learning to respect our brothers and sisters who do proclaim the Gospel in the streets and encouraging those who go about doing so in a Christlike manner. We can also learn to confront those who poorly represent Christ while maintaining a loving approach on our own part, remembering that we too are held to Jesus’ standards. With prayer, patience, truth, and love, we may just see street preaching become an effective witnessing tool once again.
– As a post-script, my sister and brother-in-law’s story brings out a funny lesson for all of us: never condemn anyone for sins that you don’t know they are committing, or for sins that aren’t actually sins. While they were condemned for drunkenness and dancing, they were guilty of neither. Furthermore, dancing is not a sin. The end.