On Friday evening, Clarke and I decided to check out First Friday, a monthly event in the downtown Phoenix arts district where hundreds of businesses – restaurants, galleries, bars, and other retailers – stay open throughout the evening to attract people who might otherwise never visit them. In addition, there are numerous food trucks, street entertainers, and a myriad of vendors (we bought some local raw honey). And then there were the street “evangelists”.
Ah yes, the street evangelists. They were everywhere, trying to capitalize on the throngs of people meandering their way up and down the streets and through the various venues. Bullhorns and karaoke boxes abounded, and almost without exception, the messages being screamed at the crowds were unsettling, even for those of us who follow Jesus.
Maybe unsettling isn’t the right word. More like embarrassing. These supposedly well-meaning souls were turning the gospel of Christ into a circus. But not the fun kind, like the ones we used to look forward to attending when we were kids. This was the kind of circus that has the scary clowns that give you nightmares. Seriously, over and over we heard variations of a message that sounded something like this:
“You’re all sinners. Unless you repent, you’re going to hell. If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, you’re not okay. You’re lost and doomed. The wages of sin is death. The end is near.”
Not once did we hear about the love of God, who sent Jesus to redeem us and give us eternal life. There was nothing attractive about these shrill messages. They were full of fear and condemnation. Apparently these folks seem to have missed the part of the Nicodemus discourse (John 3) where we’re told that Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn us.
I understand that there is a brand of “evangelism” that supports what these street preachers were doing, but it has never been proven effective. Sure, some people may fall under conviction out of fear or guilt, but they usually walk away from the faith just as quickly because they were drawn to it for all the wrong reasons.
Not once in the gospels or the rest of the New Testament do we find any examples of people being bullied and berated into following Jesus. The message of Christ has always been one of attraction, not fear and compulsion. Jesus and his disciples loved people into the kingdom by building personal relationships with them, not screaming at them on the street corners.
In the Old Testament, the standard practice of the prophets was to stand on the street corners and shout out their warnings to the people. With the exception of Jonah, this never proved effective. The people ignored these preachers and scoffed at them. Most of them were viewed as crazy or fanatics, and most of them were martyred as a result. You would think Christians thousands of years later would get a clue and see that this was not an effective way to spread God’s message to the lost.
It has been demonstrated over and over that the best way to reach people for Christ is to meet them where they are, understand where they are on their spiritual journey (and everyone is on some spiritual journey, whether they know it or not), and then gently show them that life with Jesus is desirable. Salvation was never meant to be fire insurance, but rather the access point to a life of grace, peace and joy, where we can have full fellowship with our Creator.
The gospel (literally “good news”) has always been about invitation. If you are going to throw a party, you wouldn’t think of standing outside the nearest 7-11 and yell at everyone who passes by “Hey you, ugly person! Come to my party or else bad things will happen to you!” I imagine people would think you’ve lost your mind. You might provide some entertainment with your antics, but I’m pretty sure you won’t have to worry about running out of chips and dip at your party.
Why would anyone think that inviting people to Christ in such a manner would be well-received? Jesus told us to not be stumbling blocks for those who are trying to find their way into the kingdom (Matthew 18:6-7). I fear that most of these preachers were being stumbling blocks to the people that heard them screaming these messages of fear and condemnation. I could see the looks on the faces of people as they walked by, snickering or rolling their eyes. Clarke and I cringed every time we heard one of them, knowing the damage they were doing to the gospel message.
I suppose that if Jesus was to show up at the next First Friday event, He would shout something more like this:
“Hey, beautiful person. I love you and want to fill your life with wonderful blessings. If you are willing to be my friend, great things will happen to you and you will have an amazing spiritual journey. Come along, there’s always room for one more in my Father’s family.”
Have a blessed week!
This piece originally appeared on David’s blog, Sunday Dinner with Pastor David.
Photo credit: Marnie Pix, via Flickr, cc.