It took an atheist to turn me into a street preacher.
I first met Peter at a coffee roaster in downtown State College, Pennsylvania.
It was a sweltering July afternoon, and sensible people were drinking their coffee in the air-conditioned indoors. Yet as I left the shop, I saw a solitary person sitting in the heat. This peculiar behavior, combined with a strange slogan on his hat, prompted a conversation. That conversation was the beginning of an acquaintance that proved catalytic to the formation of Discuss Your Faith (DYF), the open-air ministry of Resurrection OPC to the main campus of Penn State University.
But how did it happen? How did entrenched hostility to the claims of Christ foster a plan of deliberate engagement? The answer is simple ....
My friend Peter showed me the alternative. The alternative to evangelizing is not simply doing nothing. It is far worse than that-for two reasons.
First, non-evangelism communicates indifference. Penn Jillette, an American comedian and illusionist, is an outspoken atheist. Yet listen to what he says (in a YouTube clip entitled “The Gift of a Bible”) about Christians who don’t evangelize: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think, well, it’s not really worth telling’ em this because it would make it socially awkward ... how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
I mean, if I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you? There’s a certain point where I tackle you-and this is more important than that.”
Second, non-evangelism empowers distortions. When those who love the doctrines of grace stay home, we tacitly yield the harvest fields to those who love the doctrines of the Pharisees: the street preachers who twist a proclamation of grace into a legalistic harangue.
It was an example of the latter that Peter brought to my attention. He posted to Facebook a video of a typical PSU “evangelist.” The man ranted and screamed, until finally Peter turned the camera on himself and remarked, “Because he’s so full of the joy and peace of knowing Jesus.”
That was a convicting moment for me. It was easy to see the inconsistency between the street preacher’s behavior and his claims. But then a question occurred to me: “So what are you going to do about it?”
Now that was a hard question. For one thing, the prospect of street preaching terrified me. But secondly, this brought up another question with which I had been wrestling ....
One of the greatest challenges to church plants is meeting unbelieving people in spiritually significant ways. Making social contacts is easy enough. But the moment people find out that you are a Christian (or a Christian minister!), it’s as if a glass wall goes up.
The challenge is to establish explicitly spiritual venues: places where the gospel can be presented in a noninvasive, yet public, way. In such venues, those who choose to engage know in advance what to expect. Public worship offers one explicitly spiritual venue. Where can we create others? There are flea markets and street fairs. There are public parks.
There are also university campuses.
The question with which I had been wrestling the afternoon I saw Peter’s video was this very question of venues. Four people had just left our fledgling congregation, and I was wondering: what can we do that we’re not doing?
Then I saw Peter’s video, and I was trapped.
So what do we do at DYF? What lessons can our efforts offer to other Orthodox Presbyterians?
A preliminary activity to all evangelism is regular prayer. We must ask the Lord to bring us contacts, conversations, and conversions.
After this, we go. This is the first imperative of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Those who are dead in sin won’t come looking for the gospel; we must go looking for them. So I go to the Penn State campus, where I am joined by a handful of students from “ResPres.” We go every week, on the same day, at the same time. Our consistent presence sets us apart from the drive-by missionaries.
The next thing is that we notice. Before calling his first disciples, Jesus saw them in their own context. He spoke to those fishermen in terms they could understand-”fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-17). We seek to do the same. We begin with topics of existential concern for university students, and we try to translate biblical concepts and terms into non - “Christianese.”
The fourth thing we do is love. I use the same words near the outset of every sermon: “I’m not here to scream at you. We’re here because we love you and we want good things for you.” At DYF we don’t antagonize or bait our hearers. They bear God’s image as we do, and that deserves respect. This basic principle of Christian conduct (Matt. 7:12) applies in evangelism as in the rest of life.
The fifth thing is that we speak graciously (1 Peter 3:15-16). We don’t bludgeon students about their drinking habits or sex lives. Instead, we emphasize three points aimed at raising spiritual self-awareness:
1. All people, whether particularly religious or not, rely on something to give them identity, security, and success.
2. Admitting this essentially religious commitment is the only way to evaluate it honestly.
3. Whatever our functional savior, we should ask the big question: Will it kill me or save me? Can it erase my guilt and rescue me from the grave? Jesus can do all these things.
The final thing we do is ask permission.
Asking permission is a rule to remember in personal evangelism. (Doug Pollock repeatedly makes this point in his book God Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally.) If people stick around to talk to us at DYF, we don’t bully them. At every stage of conversation, we ask permission before changing direction. This respects the image bearer, heeds the golden rule, and helps ensure that the only offense presented is the cross.
God has blessed DYF with fruit.
We have seen one student come to faith. Another is seeking. A third expressed appreciation for our approach-though he still rejects our Savior. Beyond these individuals, every person who. walks by sees Christians risking scorn and speaking graciously. We consider this a valuable witness in and of itself.
DYF is a specific evangelistic ministry geared toward a unique community. Yet the steps outlined above are sufficiently general that they can be adapted by Orthodox Presbyterians everywhere.
Personal evangelism does not come naturally to me. I feel the visceral fear of man every time I speak. How do I deal with it?
First, I recognize that fear of man is a subtle form of self-worship. I confess that I fear people’s responses because I want to stand high in their opinions. What is the solution? Remember the gospel: it is Christ alone who makes us look good before the only court that matters. (On this point, I have received great help from Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.)
Secondly, I pray for love. There is a human soul behind even the most skeptical eye. By cultivating compassion, I become willing to lose my reputation for the good of others’ salvation.
Finally, I speak. I just do it. You don’t have to feel bold—you just have to act bold. Let your feelings follow as they will. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is following Jesus despite our fears.
The author is the pastor if Resurrection OPC in State College, Pa., a mission work of Westminster OPC in Hollidaysburg, Pa. New Horizons, July 2013.