There are lots of people in Britain that would love to see an end to street preaching. I confess I’m one of them. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I’m referring to those often good-spirited, well-meaning – and I’m sure lovely – people standing on busy high-streets, street corners or self-made podiums, microphone or loud-haler in hand, talking about God.
Now hear me right: I’m delighted and privileged to be living in a country where such freedoms are permitted. I just don’t think exercising those freedoms in such a way is doing anyone much good. Firstly, it irritates a lot of people, and I’m not sure it’s making many more conducive to exploring faith – in fact it’s probably doing the opposite. Second, it models a way of talking about God and faith that most find unnatural, awkward and can never replicate themselves.
Mike Bechtle illustrates this well in his book Evangelism for the rest of us. He cites a true story where a guy decides to walk down a busy high street trying to persuade women he doesn’t know to kiss him. He ends up getting rejected, ignored and slapped, but lo and behold, number 98 turns out to be his lucky number. After 97 rejections, he receives a kiss from a perfect stranger. The point is he could be tempted to go home that evening and think: “The strategy works! Success!”
On one level he’d be right, of course. He received his desired kiss. However he’d be failing to take into account the other 97 who walked away from that interaction more sceptical, more hard-hearted and more wary of men approaching them on the street than they were 24 hours earlier. It’s the same with street preaching. When people stand on a busy high street hitting people over the head with a message they don’t really want to hear, well every now and then number 98 might want to explore things further – and that’s great. But we must also take into account the other 97 who leave that interaction far less open to faith, because they think all people want to do is shove a message down their throat.
I find it interesting that when Jesus sends his disciples out in Luke 10, he does so with an entirely different strategy. “Do not greet anyone on the road,” (Luke 10:4). You heard him right – the street isn’t a great place to talk to people about faith. Instead he encourages to knock on people’s doors, sit round their dining room table, eat, talk, and stay. “Do not move around from house to house.” I’ve been going to church for over three decades of my life, and I’ve heard a lot of talks on evangelism over the years. The overriding theme of most has been “Go! Go! Go!”
It leaves me feeling a frantic need to run around like a headless chicken splurging about God to everyone I come across, alongside guilt for not wanting to do that. I can’t think of a single talk from the thousands I’ve heard that’s been about ‘staying’ with people; spending time with others; loving people, and over time, exploring faith in a way that doesn’t make people feel like projects. Rather than talking about friendship evangelism, let’s just talk about friendship – and if people don’t want to explore faith, love them anyway.
I realise there are exceptions to every rule: Philip’s conversation with an Ethiopian dignitary happened on the spot (Acts 8), Lydia essentially came to faith on the street (Acts 16), likewise Crispus and his family on the back of very little relationship (Acts 18), but it’s still a matter of plain common sense that people are more likely to open up and explore faith from a place of friendship than if you shout at them. If an end to street preaching helps the church become more relational, I think that can only be a good thing.