Yesterday morning, rail commuters were thrown into turmoil after passengers evacuated themselves from a South Western Rail service, fearing a fellow passenger was ‘acting erratically’. What was the cause of the panic? The Guardian report:
A man with a rucksack began reading what appeared to be extracts from the Old Testament, when the train stopped at a red light outside the south-west London rail station.
Ian O’Sullivan, a passenger on the train, stated:
He was quite well spoken and calm. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to talk to you about something and that something is the word of the Lord, Jesus Christ. He’s here to heal your sins. The Bible tells you that homosexuality is a sin and sex before marriage is a sin. You need to repent”.
Apparently other passengers reported that the man mentioned ‘doomsday’ and ‘the afterlife’. Mr O’Sullivan claims not to have found the man threatening, so said a number of other passengers, but despite this, ‘people started pushing and shoving, with another passenger warning the man that he was scaring people’. Thus ensued a panic that led to people prising open the doors of the train and jumping onto the tracks. When the guard asked why people were on the tracks via the public address system, despite those inside the carriage stating this was untrue, one lady claimed ‘there’s a man and he’s going to kill everybody’.
The Guardian report:
The guard came to the carriage, spoke to the now “sheepish” man and searched his bag, but found only a water flask and books.
“The guard did a brilliant job of trying to keep things under control,” O’Sullivan said. “He established pretty quickly that there wasn’t a threat.”
When the train eventually got to Wimbledon station, British Transport Police officers questioned the man, but he was not arrested. O’Sullivan said a number of passengers offered to vouch for the man, insisting that he had not threatened anyone.
Reading the report, I was reminded of a comment I’ve heard attributed to Dick Lucas. Lucas acknowledged that the very nature of the gospel will inevitably make Christian people seem weird. There is no getting away from that. However, we need to be sure that we are not making ourselves weirder than we have to be. Whilst primarily in view were the elevation of extreme political views or certain lifestyle choices to the same level as belief in the gospel itself, never has this advice been more pertinent than to how we approach evangelism.
Inevitably, there will always be those who find any form of evangelism a bit odd. Dwight Moody’s quip that he preferred evangelism the way he did it to the way they didn’t is often on the money. But I hope we can all agree that standing up on a packed train wearing a rucksack and, apropos of nothing, denouncing homosexuality and sex before marriage is an example of being weird for no particular reason. If, indeed, you doubt it, note the people literally risking their life jumping onto live electrical train tracks in order to get away from this guy should leave little doubt. It is heartening that the guy was not arrested (as is wont these days) and we can all stand up for his right to say such things freely. But, as far as evangelistic technique and pastoral insight go, one doesn’t need to be a genius to see this is pretty awful.
As ever, there is a balance to be struck. As I noted here, at some point you’ve ultimately got to share the gospel. Far too many of us do very little evangelism altogether out of fear we might look a bit weird. I hate to break it to you, but they called Jesus weird first (cf. John 10:19f). Whether you do much evangelism or not, if you love Jesus you’ll be called weird regardless. At the same time, some of us don’t take care enough to make sure that we aren’t being weirder than we have to be. We seem to have no problem doing strange things – objectively odd behaviour, even according to believers with the deepest sympathy for what you are trying to do – that do not commend the gospel to unbelievers (and, I am sure, whatever you are doing that is your ultimate goal).
I had a conversation with a friend recently about this. He recounted a story about someone who, with the very best of intentions, determined to deliver a gospel talk in such a way that did not commend the gospel. The setting, approach and even some of the content was awkward and, frankly, strange. My friend was entirely sympathetic to what our brother was trying to do but, in the end, put his finger on the issue. He said: ‘the saddest thing of all, everyone in the room was embarrassed and thought this was odd behaviour but the guy thought this was the most normal thing in the world’. By all accounts, it wasn’t.
The point here isn’t to avoid all forms of evangelism that anyone might find odd. You can always find someone who thinks your approach is weird, regardless of what you are doing, because they are essentially ashamed of the gospel. Some simply find the very sharing of the gospel itself weird. And, to a degree, they are right. But that is not a weirdness we can avoid.
The point is that we shouldn’t be weirder than we have to be. Whilst we cannot compromise on sharing the gospel itself, we must think very carefully about how we are coming across when we do it. Is our very approach to evangelism going to put people off even before we have said anything at all? Are there things we could do that would faithfully proclaim the gospel to those who need to hear that would not be perceived by most people as immediately odd? Is our content contextually appropriate or are we lacing our evangelistic content with stuff that is so culturally irrelevant, or meaningless, to those we are trying to reach that the content is just weird?
Of course, use whatever means and opportunities God gives you to share the gospel with those round about you; just don’t be weirder than you have to be. And if you are ever tempted to harangue terrified commuters with random OT texts whilst wearing a rucksack that could reasonably be mistaken for a bomb, maybe take a deep breath and don’t.