Yesterday we were walking down Session Road, the “Main Street” of Baguio City. There were the normal crowds of walkers, strollers, and peddlers. It is kind of nice to find a bustling downtown when so many downtowns in the US have been destroyed by the automobile, suburban sprawl, and big box stores. Going further we periodically see beggars. Most are old, sitting barefoot or hunched over, head and eyes cast downward with a thin arm out with a disposable plastic cup in hand to receive coins. Others are handing out flyers for different things… commonly to buy a house or condominium, go to a certain restaurant, or to convert one to their religion. It is a lively place to be.
As we were walking down towards Burnham Park we started hearing yelling. At the top of some steps was a man holding up a large Bible. Behind him in a semi-circle were others dressed similarly holding up signs and Bibles. It was classic street preaching/evangelizing. They were wearing red shirts with a verse from the book of Romans on it. There were perhaps 15-20 people idly watching and others, like us, passing by with modest curiosity.
Going around the corner was a woman wearing the same red shirt. She was yelling at a young man leaning against a wall, standing up but still a bit curled up as if (perhaps) he wanted her to go away, but did not have the gumption to walk off. She sounded rather angry as she was saying “YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!! YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN JESUS!!”
We continued walking, but it gave me something to think about.
1. Is this method a good thing? I recall being in seminary and being told that one of the distinguishing characteristics of every “Revival Movement” has been open air preaching. I have always wondered about that. First, the great movement in China over the last few decades occurred with little to no open air preaching. The great church growth during the time of Antonine plague (for example) appeared to be triggered by the response of the church to suffering around them. Open air preaching appeared to have little to no connection. Even in cases where open air preaching clearly had a role (such as in the Great Awakening), was the open air component a universal or cultural characteristic? Perhaps it was a cultural characteristic since large public speaking events were popular back then and open air was a logistical necessity. I guess in the end, I am left with ambivalence. Clearly open air preaching can be useful in the right circumstances. But I have to doubt whether it has the magical quality ascribed to it by some who focus on it as engendering “revival.”
2. Is this evangelism? Evangelism is presentation of the good news of Christ in a way that can be understood and appreciated. Now suppose we accept this definition (hypothetically speaking). Then evangelism has an input component (divine revelation) and an output component (understood and appreciated). I believe both sides are important. If we only accept the second part (understood and appreciated) one can be left with an unhealthy pragmatism (whatever gets people to respond the way we want) springs up. Why not simply pay people to convert? I know of both Christians and Muslims doing this… if it works, how could it be wrong? Yet it could be wrong… and ultimately ineffective. On the other hand, one can picture the other extreme where presentation of the gospel is success in itself, regardless of the response. Anything that allows one to carry a message to another is justified. Why not hold someone at gunpoint and give them the message of the Gospel? If the message is given, who cares if it creates a positive response or an angry rejection?
I believe God cares.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not attacking this group. I don’t even know them. I was a bit surprised that the preaching was all in English, especially since all of the team members appeared to be Filipino. But I don’t know if they were a local group or a group that came on a short-term mission. They appeared to be (at least loosely speaking) Protestant. I don’t know if it is a heterodox group, orthodox group, or semi-orthodox group (all three groups are pretty common in the Philippines).
I do know that the group was loud, abrasive, and appeared kind of angry. The God they described sounded pretty unpleasant. (I do know that God has given us a choice between life and death, yet some evangelism methods seem to spend more time on God’s wrath than on His love and mercy.) Were they doing God’s work? I am sure they felt like they were? I don’t know. Were they effectively evangelizing– adorning the Gospel of Christ (as described in the book of Titus) or were they making the Gospel (and God) look ugly. Again I don’t know.
I really really really don’t know. Our group, Bukal Life Care (www.bukallife.org), focuses on psychoemotional care, and other types of ministry that could be described more as social ministry. Some would argue that we are failing to obey God since our normal methodology rarely includes a direct presentation of the gospel. Guilty as charged on that. Yet, because of our helping ministry, it is surprising how often people ask what group we are with, and what we believe. They actually appreciate that we work with a number of Christian groups (not just one) and that we focus on helping people understand God’s love. Very often we end up sharing the Gospel because we are asked to.
Is that better than trying to shove the Gospel down the throats of others? I think so. Those that argue otherwise like to quote verses talking about the power of God’s Word (sharper than any two-edged sword and not returning void). However, power without control can be more destructive than constructive. The power to harm and heal is in the instrument used… but being able to guide such power to heal instead of harm takes wisdom and skill.
I am not sure we all will ever agree. I am a BOTH/AND person in the area of ministry and evangelism, not EITHER/OR. However, I think it is important that we think about what we do and why. Much of the bumper sticker theology we are given for missions and evangelism seems to get people to do without meditation or reflection. “Just Do It” still demands “Do What? And How? And Why?”