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Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Woman in the Pink Coat

I saw you downtown this morning as I was heading back to my car, standing on a step-stool and yelling to make yourself heard. A fit-looking guy in his forties or early fifties, casually dressed in jeans and a fitted sweatshirt, your neat-trimmed beard streaked with silver. Nothing strange or threatening about you really, except for the shouting. From the way people cringed and hurried past you, I could tell they didn’t like it.

At first I thought you were ranting about something political, but then I saw the Bible in your hand. That made me curious. So while all the people around me kept walking, I stopped and listened.

You know, it wasn’t a bad message you were preaching, at least not the part of it I heard. You weren’t calling down judgment on the people passing by, or trying to badger them into joining your church; you were saying that God loves us, that He sent His only Son to earth to save us, and that no matter how bleak the world looks or how badly we’ve been hurt or how many times we’ve screwed up, there is hope if we trust in Him. I worried for a while you were going to say something weird or creepy, but you didn’t.

You were just … loud.

It was a funny thing, though. You obviously felt that the people in our town needed to hear this message, and you had enough courage to make a spectacle of yourself just to get the word out. But even though I stood in front of you for ten minutes, you never made eye contact with me, let alone stepped down from your stool to talk with me one-on-one. You just kept shouting at the general public, even though they weren’t showing any interest in what you had to say.

Do you know what that said to me, Street Preacher? It said that you weren’t interested in finding out about me as a person, or engaging in any kind of two-way conversation. It said to me that all you cared about was trumpeting your sermon to as many ears as possible, whether they wanted to hear it or not. I’m sure you didn’t mean it to come across that way, but it did. So after about ten minutes of waiting for some sign of acknowledgment from you, I gave up and moved on.

You know, Street Preacher, I believe you meant well. I believe you’re probably a genuinely nice person who cares about other people and wants to honor God, and that’s why you wanted to share the gospel with as many people as you could today, even if you had to embarrass yourself to do it. And I want you to know that even though I walked away from you in the end, it wasn’t because I disagreed with what you were saying. The truth is, I agreed with pretty much all of it. I even believe it’s a message everyone should hear.

But I also believe that what you were doing today was wrong.

Because, Street Preacher, you don’t seem to have done your homework or considered your audience.

There you stood in our picturesque tourist town at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning yelling about how the love of Christ reaches to the poor and abused and destitute, while 90% of your audience were well-heeled retirees and young professionals, and the other 10% were kids from the local high school eating out for lunch. Sure, they have problems and needs, but not really the same ones you were talking about, and they came downtown to eat and shop and go to the theatre, not to listen to a sermon.

Maybe you were thinking about the apostle Paul’s famous speech at the Areopagus in Athens, or Peter addressing the Jerusalem crowds on the day of Pentecost. Maybe you believed you were following in their footsteps when you got up on that stool and started to preach. But the Athenians of Paul’s day were known for their love of debate and new ideas, and they invited Paul to the Areopagus specifically to hear what he had to say — he didn’t barge into the Athenian marketplace and start preaching to people who were only trying to get their shopping done. And when Peter addressed the crowd in Jerusalem, it was because those people were already curious to find out what was going on with the Christians — he was answering the questions they already had, not trying to drum up an interest that wasn’t there. Later on, Peter would write to his fellow Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” 

Answering people’s questions about what you believe with gentleness and respect is a lot different, I think, from yelling sermons at people who haven’t expressed any interest in your beliefs in the first place.

Another problem with preaching to a reluctant audience is that unless people give you their full attention for at least a few minutes, most of them aren’t going to have a clue what you’re talking about. For instance, after I left you and headed into a nearby store, I overheard one of the staff telling another in horrified tones that there was “Some crazy guy out there yelling at people about Jesus”.

I’m afraid that’s all most people got from your message today — some guy yelling. Crazy. Sure, they heard you mention the name of Jesus, but what does that mean to them? They only caught a few words as they hurried by, and with so little context, you might as well have been swearing. We Christians disapprove of using the Lord’s name “in vain”, by which we mean careless or blasphemous talk about Him. But I wonder — could it also refer to using His name in ways that will only confuse people and make them think worse of Him when we do it?

I heard later that the police came and asked you to stop. I hope you didn’t argue with them, Street Preacher. I hope you didn’t assume that they were enemies of the gospel and that you were being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, because that isn’t what happened at all. You see, our local bylaws state that “if the City receives a complaint about busking on the sidewalk in front of a business or private property owner, the Police will investigate and can require the busker to find another location”. I’m guessing one or more of the shop owners complained about the noise you were making and the customers you were driving away, and I can’t really blame them.

If you still believe God’s called you to preach on the street, maybe you should try going to Speaker’s Corner in a park or a university campus, a place where speeches are welcomed and people are prepared to listen to them. Or you could wait around until the shops close and only the bars and restaurants are open, when there’s nobody left downtown but a few bored teenagers and young adults — they probably won’t appreciate you shouting at them, but they might be willing to have a conversation if you ask politely.

But if you insist on partially blocking the sidewalk in a major shopping area and yelling at people instead of talking to them, I’m afraid your ministry is going to be a lot less effective than you’re hoping for.

Yours sincerely,

The woman in the pink coat

RJA

Republished by permission of the author

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