Guest Post by R.J. Anderson @rj_anderson
Dear Street Preacher, I saw you downtown this morning, as I was heading back to my car. A fit-looking guy, early fifties, casually dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, your neat-trimmed beard streaked with silver. Nothing strange or threatening about you really, except for the shouting. From the way people 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. You weren’t calling down judgment on people, 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 badly we’ve screwed up, there is hope if we trust in Him. I feared you might say something creepy or weird, but you didn’t. You were just… loud.
It was funny, though. You obviously felt people needed to hear this message, and you were brave enough to make a spectacle of yourself to preach it. But even though I stood right in front of you and gave you my full attention, you never made eye contact, let alone stepped down from your stool to talk. You just kept shouting at the passing crowds, 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 dialogue. 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 nearly ten minutes of waiting for you to acknowledge me, I gave up and moved on.
You know, Street Preacher, I believe you meant well. You’re probably a genuinely nice person who wants to help people and honor God. And I want you to know that even though I walked away from you in the end, it wasn’t because I’d rejected what you were saying. The truth is, I agreed with every word of it. I even believe it’s a message everyone needs to hear.
But I also believe that what you were doing today was wrong.
Maybe you were thinking about the apostle Paul’s famous speech at the Areopagus , or Peter on the day of Pentecost . Maybe you thought you were following in their footsteps when you got up on that step-stool to preach. But the philosophers of Athens invited Paul to their gathering to hear what he had to say — he didn’t barge into the Athenian marketplace and start shouting at people who were only trying to get their shopping done. And when Peter addressed the crowd in Jerusalem, they were already curious about what was going on with the Christians — he was answering questions they already had, not trying to drum up 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.”  Graciously answering people’s questions about what you believe is a lot different, I think, from yelling sermons at strangers who haven’t shown any interest in your beliefs in the first place.
Another problem with preaching on the street 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 on 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 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”, which we understand to 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 street preaching, maybe you should try going to Speaker’s Corner in a park or university campus, a place where speeches are welcomed and people are prepared to listen to them. Or you could wait 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 might be willing to have a conversation, if you ask politely.
But if you insist on half-blocking the sidewalk 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.
The woman in the pink coat
Footnotes:  Acts 17:16-33,  Acts 2:1-41, 1 Peter 3:15-16
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BIOGRAPHY: R.J. Anderson isn’t trying to hide that she’s female, she just thinks initials look more writerly. Born in Kampala, Uganda to Canadian missionary parents, she grew up reading C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa, and hanging out in her brothers’ comic book shop. She is currently the author of six published novels for older children and teens, including the UK-bestselling Knife (2009) and the Andre Norton (Nebula) Award-nominated Ultraviolet (2011). Visit her website at www.rj-anderson.com or find her on Twitter at @rj_anderson.