Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pal or Preacher?

Let me try and be as clear as possible.  Maybe if for no other reason than to keep my head from exploding.

First, let me paint two pictures for you.  The first is an angry man telling complete strangers that they are going to hell.  Even yelling at people in public.  Face wrinkled in anger.  Finger pointing in judgment.  Bible wildly being waved around.  Who in their right mind wants to be him?  Who in the world would actually be reached by him?

Now for the second picture.  Two good friends sitting at a small table in a local coffee shop, sipping their favorite brew as they enjoy a good conversation.  Smiles.  Laughter.  Honesty.  Who doesn't want to be in that picture?  Who wouldn't respond favorably to such a scene?

For some reason, it seems that we have convinced ourselves that these are the only two ways to share the Gospel.  And everyone knows which way is right and which way is wrong, right?  After all, we have all heard the rock solid truths:

-People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

-You have to earn the right to be heard.

-Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.

We have so embraces these concepts that it is shocking to stumble upon someone who denies these foundational truths.  I mean, they have been tried and proven techniques going all the way back to Jesus Himself.  Yet, here I am - a street preacher.  Making a regular habit of ignoring the "rules."  So, am I the mean, nasty, lunatic screaming at people that they are going to hell?

Let me clarify a few things.  First of all, I would never tell anyone that they are going to hell.  That being said, neither do I ignore the topic.  To do so would be like a doctor who refuses to warn his patients about such negative things like cancer and heart attacks.  I seek to speak the truth in love to people - using God's Word to show them whether or not they need Christ.  THEY, not me, end up being the ones who confess that they are going to hell.  That is when I can share with them the amazing new of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I have been following the same approach for nearly 7 years now.  Have people been offended?  Yes.  Have people ignored me or rolled their eyes at me?  Yes.  Have people thanked me?  Yes.  Have I made enemies?  Maybe.  Have I made friends?  I think so.

So, how exactly do I do this?  Yes, sometimes I get on a box in a public place and I preach to anyone who will listen - and even for the sake of those who want to walk by and ignore me.  One of the most respected preachers in my denomination has been A.W. Tozer.  He came to faith in Christ after walking past a street preacher in Akron, Ohio.  He never said a word to the preacher, but went home and cried out to God.  Sometimes I hand Gospel tracts to people walking by.  Sometimes I leave Gospel tracts in places where people will find them later.  Sometimes I walk up to a stranger and engage them in conversation.  Sometimes I set up a Prayer Station and minister to those who come up to me.  Sometimes I have a casual conversation with a friend or family member.  Sometimes I try to talk with people over a cup of coffee.  And I have occasionally been a "sign guy" holding a cross on the street corner.

I know that some of these methods are modern-Church approved.  Some of them are not.  I know people who have been counseled to not be like me.  That's fine.  I know that we have this idea that open-air preaching used to be socially acceptable, but it is no longer an effective tool for sharing the Gospel in our culture.  We need to focus on finding culturally relevant ways to communicate with this generation.  However, I have learned something over the past several months.  I am realizing that open-air preaching has never been culturally or socially acceptable.  It has always been "out there."

But does appearing as a lunatic negate a means of communicating the Gospel?  All I know is that the first person who ever shared the Gospel with me was someone I viewed as living high atop the coo-coo's nest, if you know what I mean!  But the power was not in the person, but in the seed of the Gospel.  It took root and began to grow in me.    

So, let me try and get back to my point.  Should we be a pal or a preacher?  How should we share the Gospel with people?  Again, we have this notion that we either confront poor, unsuspecting strangers or we establish a friendship with someone, live the Gospel, and earn their trust so we can tell them about Jesus.  I actually want to put forth another option.  That is, preach the Gospel as you develop a friendship with them.  How did I come to that conclusion?  Jesus.  I could talk about Jesus as an open-air preacher.  I mean, Sermon on the Mount - come one, put two and two together.  But I could also take the friendship evangelism baton and talk about Jesus as the friend of sinners who hung out in their homes.  However, these two aspects of His life and ministry are not in isolation to one another.  They went hand in hand.  All the people He ate with and spent time with - how did He meet them?  Oh yeah, they heard Him open-air preach or saw him perform miracles.  The point is, He spoke the truth in love, He ministered while building a relationship.  What He did not do was earn the right to be heard by building a relationship BEFORE He spoke to them about the things of God.

This brings me to an issue that has been presented to me - that everybody has heard the Gospel.  What they need, I am told, is not more people preaching to them, but to see people living the Gospel.  I have to say, in almost 7 years of street evangelism, my experience has been nothing like this.  I find a shocking number of people who have absolutely no clue what the Gospel is and most cannot articulate why Jesus died on the cross.  This suggests to me that most people have never had a Christian share the Gospel with them.  Now, I cannot say for sure, but I have to assume that everyone has at least one Christian in their life - a family member, a co-worker, a classmate, a neighbor, or a church in their neighborhood.  I want to give the Christians the benefit of the doubt, but two different surveys show that only about 2% of Christians actively share their faith with others.  Maybe some are waiting until the time is right.  Maybe some are still waiting to earn the right to be heard.  But with 150,000 people dying everyday around the world, aren't we taking a huge gamble with the souls of the people we love?

I will admit, it is a lot easier to share in non-confrontational ways with people I know well.  I would rather share Jesus in a way that will gain the admiration of the people I talk to.  I do not particularly enjoy street evangelism.  But it is not up to me.  The question is not what method is most comfortable to me.  The question is not what method is most comfortable for the other person.  The question isn't even what gets the most results.  Those are all man-centered questions.  The question is what does God desire?

As I read through the book of Acts, I do not see the modern Church portrayed.  We do not see highlights of casual conversations between friends at a coffee shop.  OK, coffee shops weren't around yet.  You get the point, though.  I do not see Christians inviting unsaved neighbors to church.  We do not see Christians trying be liked or popular, for Jesus said they would be hated.  What we see, though, are the disciples going to the ends of the earth, from house to house, to the highways and byways, sharing with as many as will listen.  And the Lord was adding to their number daily those who were being saved.  What do we see?  We see 98% of modern disciples every once in a blue moon chalk up telling a friend that they went to church as evangelism.

So, yes - I will seek to meet the needs of people AS I also share the Gospel with them.  I will seek to build more and deeper friendships with non-Christians AS I sow the seed of the Gospel.  I will talk to strangers in coffee shops AS WELL AS on the street.  I will hand out Gospel tracts.  I will hold a cross.  I will open-air preach.  I will be a pal and a preacher.

So, I'm not sure if I was as clear as I wanted to be.  Maybe I made no sense at all.  The bottom line, it is my desire to share Jesus WHILE building friendships.  I am not the angry street preacher.  But I also do not want to be the person who gambles with the souls of my loved ones by holding back from talking about the things of God until I have "earned the right to be heard."  I will preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary I will use deeds.  Some will be offended and become angry.  Some will dismiss me as a lunatic.  Some will take interest.  Some will call out to Jesus.  None of those are what I set out to accomplish.

Here is my aim.  It is simple.  My desire is to stand before God and to not be ashamed.  I desire to be able to say to my Lord, "I sought to pattern myself after what I saw in Your Word."  I do not want to be ashamed and have to confess that I was motivated more by my pride, my desire to be liked and popular, or my "success rate."

So, that is me in a nutshell.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Paul! I really appreciated this article.
    I can't help but feel that "friendship evangelism" is fear-based and shows a lack of trust in God: If I mention God too soon they may bolt, I'll miss the opportunity, and they may spend eternity in hell. (Wasn't it Jesus who said if they don't listen, shake the dust off your feet and move on?)

    You said, "The bottom line, it is my desire to share Jesus WHILE building friendships." This makes sense to me. If we're citizens of heaven serving as ambassadors for Christ, shouldn't we expect these facts to come out when we meet people and converse?