It happened again yesterday. The campus on which I work had the blessing of hosting one of “those guys,” as I heard several students describe him. You know the kind. The kind who uses his right as an American citizen to come on to public property with either his bullhorn or PA system and “evangelize” the “sinful,” “fornicating,” “homosexual,” “Philistines” that permeate public university campuses.
Instead of all those adjectives, I call them “college students” and I don’t think they’re that different on a spiritual level than the people one would meet at a grocery store or in a mall, but college campuses being the breeding ground of satanic ideas as they are, are the only sites of which I am aware that are fortunate enough to benefit from the “ministry” of these individuals.
This particular individual did not initially catch my attention. Instead, it was the crowd control barriers and the police cars driven into the rotunda with accompanying officers that first alerted me that this would not be just any day on campus. After completing a quick workout at the rec center I made my way to the student center where I was privileged to hear the piles of condemnation this individual was heaping on his hearers in the name of “evangelism.” Being hungry, I didn’t listen to the full force of his rant, but I heard plenty of key words, most of which are relayed above.
After lunch I hung around the student center, refusing to become another face in the crowd that might encourage corner preacher man. I made my way around the periphery, listening to his rant and quietly dropping into conversations small groups of students were having about him and their opinions of his message. The overwhelming consensus was, “I hate that they let people do stuff like this.”
I will not argue that citizens should not have the right to access publicly owned property. I think they should. We should also be free to exercise our right to free speech so long as it is not in the name of hate-mongering. But as a Christian who has determined that God is leading me to pour my life out in the service of Jesus by spreading the Gospel on campus, I have a real issue with individuals who determine to exercise their particular brand of “evangelism” when it requires they have a police presence or when it is spread in such a way that they know they are intentionally placing themselves in physical danger.
Allow me to elaborate. What I’m hoping street corner preacher man just doesn’t understand is that his methods of evangelism, while possibly effective in some segments of society or in the world, are incredibly ineffective with the audience to whom he is speaking. Increasingly, relationships are the currency for sharing the message of the Gospel. When cultivating a relationship isn’t possible, a calm discussion in which individuals are invited in to dialogue about spiritual matters is incredibly more effective. For reference, see I Once Was Lost, College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture, and/or Questioning Evangelism.
Which, in my mind, begs the question: what is your motivation, Mr. Corner Preacher Man? I know you will say that you are burdened for the lost, sinful souls of students and feel that unless someone does something drastic, they will burn in hell for their sinfulness. I am doing something about it. Not only me, I know countless individuals who have dedicated their lives to sharing Christ with college students. They do good work. Please, let us do what God has called us to or work with us.
“I’ve talked to college ministers and they aren’t concerned about the lost,” you might counter. Respectfully, I’ve heard this from other ministry leaders and what they mean is “they don’t want to do what I want to do.” Please, do not insist on your method to the detriment of ministry that is happening simply because you aren’t aware of it or think it invalid for whatever reason. And don’t kid yourself. Your methods are turning students off to the Gospel and it is not because they are offended at the message of the Gospel. They’re offended by you and the God you claim to represent that would make someone so angry, hateful, and seemingly crazy (their words, not mine).
Perhaps what we need is a new understanding of the goal. Whereas evangelism methods of the past have made conversion seem like flipping a switch in which someone intellectually ascents to an argument, performs one action, and is “saved,” nowadays conversion is described more like sliding down a continuum. Let’s say an individual starts at “1” on the continuum, describes him/herself as an atheist and is openly hostile to spiritual matters. I hate to break it to you, Mr. Corner Preacher Man, but yelling “sinner” from the corner is going to reinforce every negative thing this individual believes about spiritual people, particularly Christians. What is much more effective is a concerned believer forming a relationship with this person, being faithful to love him/her while showing and sharing Christ, and being willing to be the person who moves him/her from a “1” on the continuum to a “4” or “5.”
It’s a lot more work and it takes a lot more time which is exactly why, Mr. Corner Preacher Man, I want to work with you. I love your passion. I love your zeal. But you have to understand that your (hopefully) good-faith effort at sharing the Gospel with students makes the job of myself and others like me exceedingly more difficult. In your efforts to convert sinful students you have (hopefully) unintentionally moved that student I’ve helped moved from a “2” on the continuum to a “6” back down to a “3” and it has nothing to do with the fact that I haven’t shared the Gospel with him. Instead, it has everything to do with how I’ve shared the Gospel with him.
That’s where I want to help you. But you have to give up the fantasy that no one else cares or is bothering. We do care and we are bothering. Please stop making our job harder than it has to be.