Today was a weird day. While at Fresno State University, I witnessed the worst street-preaching I’ve ever seen. I also witnessed what God can do with a few humble servants who want to show love while preaching truth to a crowd of disgusted atheists, Mormons, Muslims, and at least one Catholic guy. While telling the story, I’m going to write some things that have been going on in my heart lately as I think about communicating effectively to people who are different from us.
I was at Fresno State with my colleagues Gabi Vehrs, Kyle Goddard, and Clinton Wilcox, with hopes of engaging the students on the issue of abortion. We haven’t had a lot of success with Fresno State’s busy students in the past, so we set up a small JFA exhibit that we hadn’t used before at FSU as an R&D test, and just invited a few seasoned pro-life advocates to join us and test the outreach tool and its effect on FSU students.
A few decent dialogues later, we heard some loud noises coming from the Free Speech Area. We looked over, and I saw three street-preachers yelling at the students, some of whom stopped to listen.
Before I describe what they were saying, I should say something. I don’t think all street preaching is bad. I think people like Ray Comfort can be very effective, but he’s a seasoned evangelist who has gained some very helpful skills and a lot of experience. I generally prefer relational evangelism, because most people are going to take the words of a friend much more seriously than the words of a stranger. That being said, a thoughtful street evangelist can get some people thinking about religious ideas, and obviously that’s a good thing.
The first thing I saw was their signs. The big sign said “JESUS SAVES FROM SIN AND HELL” on one side, and the other side had a long list of mainly sexual sins that people go to Hell over.
Another lady held a sign that simply said “YOU DESERVE HELL” on one side and “JESUS SAVES” on the other.
I noticed a clear difference between their signs and the ones we set up to engage in dialogue about abortion. Their signs had declarative statements on them. Ours always ask questions, like “Should abortion remain legal?” “When do human rights begin?” “In what cases should abortion be legal?” We even experimented with a poll table at UC Irvine last Fall that said, “Do pro-lifers annoy you?” (We had some great conversations in front of that poll table!) We’re asking questions that invite people to come and share their opinion with us so we can have an evenhanded dialogue. We’re not interested in just shouting at people as they pass by.
The woman holding the big sign was doing the preaching. She described herself as a “warm-up band” for her husband. I later learned that her name is Cynthia, or “Sister Cindy.” Her group travels around doing exactly what I witnessed. There’s even a Wikipedia page about her husband, including accounts of some horribly racist things he’s said while street-preaching.
Sister Cindy was yelling about the evils of lesbianism and marijuana. As I got closer to hear her, I actually thought for a second that she might be an atheist putting on a skit or something, because I saw every bad street-preaching stereotype I’ve heard of, except literal Bible-thumping. The woman wasn’t holding a Bible at all, as that would have prevented her from holding her sign while using her other hand to point her long finger in girls’ faces while literally calling them “whores” who are being “tempted by lesbianism.”
Her voice was grating, and her attitude was hateful. I don’t use that word lightly. She tended not to respond to questions, preferring to preach instead. When she did answer questions, her answers were loud, sarcastic, and rude, with a clearly mocking tone to her voice. “Holier than thou” doesn’t begin to describe the attitude this woman had. Her disdain was palpable.
And it grieved me.
I tried to engage the preaching woman, but she refused to talk to me. I made a comment to an atheist who made a sign to counter the “YOU DESERVE HELL” sign that simply said, “You Deserve Respect.” I told him that as a Christian, this kind of behavior embarrasses me, but he didn’t have much to say to me. He was too busy yelling at the preachers.
I walked away feeling helpless. A crowd had formed around this hateful woman, and it felt like there was nothing I could do about it. I got emotional. I felt angry. I wanted to cry. I know that God can do anything and that He can use anybody, even wretches like these street-preachers and me. But I also felt like every sentence these people yelled put the people in this crowd farther from meeting my Savior.
A little while later, I walked back to try again. I decided to engage the one with the “YOU DESERVE HELL” sign because she wasn’t preaching, and nobody was talking to her. I sat on the grass, introduced myself with a smile, and asked for permission to ask her a few questions. She was happy to oblige.
My goal was to convince her that some methods of communication are more effective than others. I think some people feel like as long as you’re doing God’s work, you don’t need to worry about being effective. “Just let God do the work!” “God cares about obedience, not success!” Yes, God is doing the major heart work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be effective. We’re the hands and feet of Christ. He wants to use us to do His work. We should take that really seriously.
Our conversation didn’t go very well. This woman cares only about what other street preachers do on college campuses. I told her that Ray Comfort goes on college campuses, and she remarked that her group is more effective than Ray Comfort. I should have asked her how she came to that conclusion, but I was stunned and literally turned speechless. She added that the Bible says, “Where two or more are gathered, Jesus is there,” so all they need to do is get a (very) small crowd together and let the Holy Spirit do His work.
They don’t see any problems with what they’re doing because they have a few stories of people spilling their guts to the preachers after hearing them. I responded that “anecdotes don’t necessarily make good arguments.”
I did pretty well in the beginning at asking her questions and listening to her long, rambling answers. About 10 minutes into the conversation, she started making heterodox statements about people not being born in sin, and how Christians like her don’t sin at all! Here’s the brief exchange we had about that. Notice how badly I fail to ask questions at this point. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I was pretty much in debate mode, which I regret now.
Me: You haven’t sinned at all today?
Her: Of course not! I can’t even remember the last time I sinned!
Me: Then I think you’re deluded.
Her: You said you’re a Christian. You’re saying you sinned today?
Me: Of course I have! I’m still human. I have a sin nature that won’t be completely gone until I’m in Heaven.
Her: What sin did you commit today?
Me: Self-righteousness, to start with.
Her: And what did you do about that?
Me: I came and talked to you!
Her: What do you mean?
Me: Watching your team makes me feel self-righteous because I think I’m a lot better at talking to atheists than you are.
Her: That’s not a sin. If you had hit me, that would be one thing…
Me: No, I can sin with my mind without hitting you. And some of the prideful feelings I have right now are not of God.
It wasn’t long before I ended the conversation, which was going nowhere. I walked back to our pro-life display, having failed a second time to change anything. I started talking to Gabi about the feelings I was having. Meanwhile, a larger crowd had formed to watch the car wreck in front of them.
Then Gabi said, “Maybe I should go up and quote the ‘greater love hath no man than this’ verse.” I responded that 1 Corinthians 13 would be better, because I’ve never personally heard a more clanging cymbal than this. I’ve been thinking about this passage more lately because my brother Tim has written an excellent pro-life piece based on the poetic structure of 1 Corinthians 13.
Seriously, you should go read it now. I’ll wait.
Gabi asked me more seriously: “Really, should I do it?” I responded that she couldn’t make anything worse and that this crowd needed to hear a different kind of Christian today.
So we prayed. We prayed for the people in that crowd, whom God loves in a way we can’t possibly understand. We prayed that God would help us love these people like He does. We prayed for wisdom. We prayed that God would open people’s hearts.
And then we walked confidently into spiritual battle. (Click here for appropriate mood music to open up in another window.)
Gabi recruited a young Muslim to join her in a loud dialogue to divert the crowd. It worked. The crowd immediately turned to listen to this new person.
Gabi spoke passionately, with both clarity and compassion, about the need for people to engage religious ideas and examine the evidence for each of them. She preached against religious pluralism and intellectual laziness. She talked about how people from different religions should be able to have good dialogues together, listening to each other while attempting to find common ground, with the ultimate goal of finding more truth together.
Sister Cindy was furious. At first she tried to interrupt Gabi a bunch of times, but Gabi refused to engage her. Cindy got right in Gabi’s face and yelled, “I am in charge here!” Gabi just kept preaching, and the crowd was clearly more interested in what she had to say than Sister Cindy’s tired message.
Eventually, Sister Cindy decided to preach a little ways off, hoping the crowd would abandon Gabi and form around her. It didn’t happen, as the picture below shows. Sister Cindy is in the red shirt on the left, yelling at nobody, because the members of the crowd are listening to Gabi and beginning to engage each other in religious dialogue.
Pretty soon everybody was talking to each other. Myself and a Catholic guy named Anthony talked to an atheist named Devon for a while. The main topic of our conversation was about not judging an entire religion based on the hypocrites, especially if those hypocrites are going against the religion’s teaching. I also engaged Devon on whether the Bible is more trustworthy than Harry Potter. (Devon’s actual comparison.)
Meanwhile, Gabi and Clinton talked to a Mormon for a while. Small groups formed all around and engaged each other for about 20 minutes.
What’s the takeaway here, besides an effective method of diverting a crowd from a hateful preacher? I think we should be thoughtful about the way we communicate to others. Some methods of communication are clearly more effective than others. So pray about it, and then try some things and reflect later on what went well and how you could improve.
But don’t be so afraid of failing that you become paralyzed and don’t engage at all until you feel like you have something perfect. That attitude would have led Gabi not to do anything, because it was not at all clear whether anybody would listen to her.
No, we had an idea, we prayed about it, we thought about the right strategy, and then we did something. Anybody can do that.