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.
Thanks Stephen, I think that it is helpful to apply this to how we do specific forms of evangelism. Often I think things are “weird” because Scripture is misapplied or history is misunderstood so we fail to do something appropriately contextualised. For example door to door – I am a firm believer in this as a means of making contact with people who would have no other contact but 1. Don’t harangue people when you can introduce yourself politely and leave appropriate literature and contact details. 2. Why send 2 people to the door? That’s both weird and intimidating I think this comes from Jesus sending the disciples in 2s but is a contextual misapplication. Go in 2s but have one person on one side of the street and one on the other! Secondly “street preaching” I suspect is partly from Paul and partly from people like Wesley but context would be that there would have been places where people would orate and you’d go expecting that. Nearest equivalents now are Hyde Park corner for speech and debate, busking and flash mobs. You can also very naturally give out free literature or a DVD without being weird, conduct a survey etc etc .. 3. The literature we give out “tracts” .or specifically unattractive bits of paper asking questions no-one is asking or shoehorning the Gospel into a story or fact sheet, then there are the 1980s format red-top newspapers. This stuff goes in the bin. On the other hand, a smartly presented copy of Luke’s Gospel -is more likely to be read.
Yes, agree with your thrust
Stephen, great post and I love the title! I read the article on the BBC yesterday and at first thought it provided a good example of where British society is at–running away from God and taking offence at the Bible message. However, I then read the details and realised, like you, that there was obviously more to it than that and that this guy, whilst probably well intentioned, had probably not put his thinking cap on that morning. I wondered then whether it was his first time evangelising and whether he just thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what will happen if I do this….” I guess either way he has learned his lesson and will try a less life threatening approach next time.
Dave, I’m not sure that the examples you have provided are comparable to this incident. People have different preferences and methods, but God can and has used them all. The Open Air Mission set up boards in town centre locations all around the country for street preaching. These are not necessarily approved venues for debate but they get the Gospel out and many useful conversations take place. Likewise, UBM (Christian Answers) do the same. I have even heard of people being converted through the Judgement Day sandwich board types who patrol the streets and of someone being converted after reading a small piece of tract that he had earlier ripped up.It had stuck to his jacket and simply said “God” on one side and “eternity” on the other. Let’s not dismiss methods that God is still using but seek to be wise in how we deliver the Message, perhaps avoiding wearing rucksacks and talking about death on packed commuter trains!
Hi Natalie, 1. You may have missed my point which is not that door to door and open air work are wrong but that there are some incredibly weird and unhelpful ways of doing things. 2. What if we were to find out that listening to the man on the train was one person who was convicted of their sin and repented does that suddenly make his weirdness okay and destroy Stephen’s argument above? Sadly we have another problem as evangelicals -because we believe in God’s sovereignty we misinterpret his ability and even willingness to work through our mistakes and even our weirdness because his glory comes first as permission and approval for our mistakes and weirdness. 2 people turning up at someone’s door is a weirdness -and intimidating -you would not normally advise your nan to open their door to them. A person ranting in the street isn’t that much different to the bloke on the train. So frequently in life we hear about God working through people’s bad choices. I’ve listened to some terrible sermons and given feedback to that effect (I’ve also preached some terrible sermons) – we sometimes find that God in his sovereignty overrules but we still learn from it. I hear the same vague stories about someone who led their unbelieving boyfriend to Christ. Still counsel strongly against dating unbelievers.
There is a widening gap between Joe Public and your average church-goer. Joe Public won’t go near a church let alone into one. However, he might stop and listen to a preacher in his town centre as he happens to be passing one day. He might even be willing to engage in conversation if asked what he thinks of the message. Whilst engaging in Open Air work, I’ve met many people in recent months who have never heard the Gospel. A sad reality in the UK. This would have continued to be the case had a preacher not gone out of his comfort zone and stopped them in their tracks. This is totally different from bringing up random topics on a train whllst wearing a rucksack. I’ve never seen anyone running away from a street preacher in real fear for their life. One preacher just had a text that said “Be sure your sin will find you out!” Maybe some would find this offensive but people were reading it. We have to find creative ways to engage people and somehow get them to stop and think.
Christians in closed countries are envious of the freedoms that we enjoy yet we wonder if taking advantage of these freedoms is culturally appropriate. I agree that two people on a doorstep could be intimidating or confused with JWs or Mormons but there are some areas where it works, I think it’s more about knowing your local area.
Perhaps it’s just a case of differing opinions as to which methods should be used.
PS I agree with you totally on the missionary dating thing. Will God bless disobedience?
Hi Nathalie, I think I we may be still talking at cross purposes. 1. I am actively engaged in cold contact evangelism including door to door and open air work. 2. There should be a legitimate conversation about what is the most effective way of doing things. 3. Part of that conversation has to be the challenge -do we do things in a way that is weird which may at least be creating more of a stumbling block than we need and we may benefit from the insight of others or at worst may also be hindering the Gospel work of others who are active in this field. I doubt (and strongly hope) that most of Stephen’s readers are not about to get on a train with a rucksack and start talking about death. However, I take the point here not to be that this is the benchmark for weirdness and providing you don’t do that you are okay. Rather a challenge to all of us that we can end up doing and saying things that are a little bit weirder than need be at times. 4. If the discussion is just at the “wasn’t that bloke weird” then I actually think we are having the wrong discussion here and risk being judgemental because the other and perhaps more pertinent point to that example is this: There are a lot of people in society and because the church loves and welcomes particularly in the church who behave in ways that are extremely weird. This may because of mental health issues or because of the social environment they have lived in that they don’t know or are unable to live within the norms of social conventions. Society wants to laugh at and exclude people like that. We have a pastoral responsibility that does not permit that type of exclusion and protection. So for me the follow up question is “If our focus is on the type of behaviour exhibited by the guy on the train -how do you pastor people like him?”
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