Once upon a time, street evangelism meant shouting about sin. But there’s a new wave of evangelists who are taking a very different approach, says Heather Tomlinson
Street evangelism has a bit of a bad reputation in the outside world, as well as with Christians. It conjures up images of angry men on street corners, shouting manically at passers-by.
‘They would preach the gospel but it’s very much judgement and hell,’ says Gerald Coates, the founder of the Pioneer network of churches. ‘I wouldn’t disagree with what [they are] saying, but that style of communication is the worst it could be. It’s not good news, it’s bad news.’
Perhaps that’s why evangelism in many UK churches for the past 20 years or so has tended to focus on Alpha courses or inviting friends to church: what we now refer to as ‘friendship’ evangelism. This works well for those who have winsome Christian friends with the boldness to invite them to evangelistic events. But what about everyone else? ‘
I passionately believe in strangers becoming friends and becoming disciples,’ says Chris Duffett, a street evangelist, Baptist minister and founder of The Light Project. ‘The pool of people for which Church is able to say “those are my friends” is getting smaller and smaller...I believe in street evangelism because I believe in meeting people.’
In our increasingly secular age, we often assume that strangers on the streets are immune to the gospel. You might have been put off going out on the streets yourself, because you’ve seen the dodgy tracts that get handed out or shouty, angry preachers being ignored or scorned. However, a new kind of street evangelism is succeeding in engaging today’s public with the gospel.
‘People are a lot more receptive than we might give them credit for,’ says Christopher Maguire, an evangelist who regularly goes out on the streets to pray for healing and share the gospel. ‘Especially once they’ve experienced the love of God.’
Sometimes that involves deliberately ‘doing outreach’ – but many have been influenced by what Todd White calls ‘lifestyle Christianity’ – being ready to pray for healing and share the gospel in our daily living, such as while shopping or waiting for a bus.
SAME MESSAGE, DIFFERENT METHODS
These new street evangelists are often using creative approaches in their outreach.
Chris experiments with communicating the gospel through art. ‘Art can communicate in a way that a preacher can’t,’ he says. ‘Take, “the cross of Christ is the key to heaven” – it’s a huge message. If I started to preach it, people would give me a wide berth.’
Instead, Chris made a large key and hung lots of small keys on it. ‘I welcomed people to choose one. Each had a unique message as well as an explicit gospel message: ‘The cross of Christ is the key to heaven’. People asked me, what is the cross of Christ? What is heaven? Over one week, we talked to [more than] 350 people who took a key. Each chose their own message.’
Chris has also used other forms of interactive art, including inviting the public to write what they wanted to do before they die on a board, and sticking chewing gum on a picture of Jesus to symbolise sin on the cross.
Music is, of course, another creative medium that already has a significant place in most churches, but until recently hasn’t featured much in our outreach efforts. Aaron Shah has been playing worship music on the streets for the past 18 months in Newcastle. ‘Most people thought I was a busker,’ he said. ‘I don’t take money but I do take the opportunity to tell people the gospel and why I’m doing this, if they’re interested. It’s an invitational way to do evangelism, in a way that’s not threatening.’
Steve Legg, a comedian and escapologist who also takes his magic show onto the stage says that he ‘loves working on the streets’: ‘It’s such an amazing way of reaching potentially thousands of people…People often think Christians are very serious, so making people laugh is a great way of communicating the gospel. Gospel means good news, so it should be fun and exciting. You can’t deliver it without smiling.’
HEALING ON THE STREETS
Another approach being used on the streets is to seek God for miracles. The Healing on the Streets initiative which encourages Christians to get out and pray for members of the public has taken on new life in recent years and many Christians are seeing results.
‘Jesus told people about the kingdom, but he also demonstrated it by healing or casting out demons,’ says Christopher. ‘What I’ve found is that if people see love, they’re interested. Part of demonstrating the love of Christ to them is to minister healing and to set them free from whatever it is that is oppressing them. Telling them who set them free leads them into that encounter with God.’
Daniel Chand has set up a YouTube channel with videos of his work. ‘The emphasis after a healing would be [on] telling them that life is short, and saying this has happened so you can know [Jesus],’ he says. ‘We’re not trying to force them into the Church, but we don’t water down the cross and eternity. That’s a must every single time. It’s not pushy, it’s always in love. Everything has happened by love, just loving people, with no other motive, no other agenda.’
Treasure hunting is a form of prophetic evangelism. This involves Christians praying for specific words of knowledge for the public before going out on the streets and giving out those words as God directs.
Gerald has seen results at his church in Leatherhead, Surrey, after going out every weekend in the summer for the past four years. He advises it’s best done on a warm sunny Saturday, when shoppers have time to stop and talk.
‘Some have got remarkable words of knowledge about people’s circumstances, or they ask a well placed question. Then we pray with them. We give them a blue card telling them where we meet [for church], and if appropriate, a piece of literature.’
Another theme in the new wave of street evangelism is to seek to love people through what could be described as random acts of kindness. Chris Duffett and his team give out free water or fruit with a Christian message alongside it, offering free hugs or services for people, such as walking them to their front door with an umbrella if it’s raining. ‘We do evangelism to share the gospel in a way that people receive,’ said Hannah Buerano, a missionary with YWAM London. ‘For one weekly outreach, we bring live music, teas and coffees, and we also offer face painting. There are a lot of children coming out of school at the time, so we want to bless the community in that way.’
At other events, the YWAM team carry signs that offer a listening ear to anyone who wants to talk. ‘What we’re trying to do is to bless people and to show the Father’s heart for them. I find that so many times, the kingdom of God seems distant to people, and the concept of “Jesus is here and Jesus is alive” is so far away. We can get so caught up in the doctrine instead of living it out.
‘It’s all about the Body of Christ going together and loving people. That’s what we’re called to be, the light of the world.’
Stories from the streets
Words of knowledge
Gerald Coates had a picture of a middle-aged lady wearing a tartan hat and holding a wicker shopping basket. But after the team’s allotted time outside he hadn’t found her, and so he assumed that he had got it wrong. Then, around the corner came a lady just as described. Enthused, he told her: ‘Ooh, you’re our treasure!’ She replied: ‘I’m no one’s treasure, my father always told me I was rubbish.’ This prompted the Christians to offer ministry. ‘We were able to talk to her and pray with her,’ says Gerald.
An atheist repents
In London last year, Hannah Buerano was performing music. Instead of donating money in return for the busking, people could take a piece of paper from a jar. The team had asked God what to write on these pieces of paper beforehand. One young woman’s paper said ‘Jesus is the truth’.
‘She started crying, and said “I am an atheist”,’ says Hannah, who then prayed with her. ‘I believe she gave her life to Jesus, though we didn’t see the follow-up… There was nothing that was really saying “repent, you’re a sinner”, but she repented, and had this real emotional reaction.’
Cynical teenagers surprised
Chris Duffett was on a street evangelism team with 12 bored teenagers who mostly didn’t believe that God could do anything supernatural – but one got a clear picture of a woman in a red jacket with a fur collar, wearing black boots, and with severe stomach pain.
After several hours, the teenagers were convinced it was all nonsense. But then they saw the lady, and when they approached her they discovered she did suffer from stomach pain. They prayed with her. ‘She had an overwhelming sense of being known and loved by God,’ said Chris. ‘She asked, “How does God know me?”’. Chris reports that the young people were ‘absolutely blown away’.
Daniel Chand’s first street healing happened on the same day he personally had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit. He says: ‘That night I went into Westfield shopping centre, and I went into the HMV store. I felt the Holy Spirit say, “someone’s leg”. I saw a guy who was limping, a Muslim. I said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you. Out of love alone, could I pray for your leg?” He looked at me a bit funny. I said, “I’m a Christian, I’m not trying to convert you or force it down your throat, but out of love alone can I say a simple prayer for you?” He said, “Ok, let’s see.” I just put my hand on his knee. I said, “In the name of Jesus, knee be healed! Thank you that you love him, thank you for your grace.”
‘The man was healed. He literally went running through the shop, and said, “How the **** did you do that?” I said, “Jesus just healed your leg because he loves you. Give your life to him and receive eternal life.”’
Preaching on a bus
James Hewitt was on a bus going into London, reading the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healings. As he read, he heard a woman with a rasping, painful-sounding cough. ‘It sounded so uncomfortable. I’m reading this story about Jesus healing. I’m thinking, “This is what I believe. How can I sit here reading this, believing this, and hearing this woman, and not do anything?” I decided to offer to pray for this woman. I asked her to take a breath and she started coughing again…I did this four or five times. Eventually she was able to breathe without any problems, without any pain.
‘I thought: I don’t want to leave it here. Everyone on the bus has just witnessed this. I got up and told everyone on this bus that Jesus has just healed this woman. Jesus is alive. He died on the cross and rose again.
‘I said, “I’m not just talking to you about dead theology or [a] set of philosophies. I’m preaching a living God. This is who Jesus is.” Everyone on that bus was able to see the power of God on display.’
FEEL THE FEAR AND PREACH ANYWAY
Most of these evangelists work through one-to-one conversations, but some preach too. Dominic Muir is a street preacher who set up Now Believe, a charity that organises outreaches around the country. He believes that preaching still has a role and is part of obeying Jesus’ commands. ‘I’ve been asked many times, “You’re not one of those awful street preachers standing on a street corner preaching hellfire and brimstone, are you?”’ says Dominic. ‘I understand it has a negative connotation. I’d like to suggest that’s because it’s been done badly, from a place of fear rather than love; not because it’s bad in and of itself, irrespective of the culture anyone might find themselves in.
‘The gospel still includes repentance, turning around, and that does need to be preached. But people will be able to tell if you are loving them or judging them. People have to know the gospel. It’s the only power for salvation. Jesus didn’t come to condemn, he came to save. So your posture on the streets is to come to save and not condemn.’
Though starting to preach is often terrifying, overcoming this brings spiritual rewards, says James Hewitt, the gospel event coordinator at Now Believe.
‘There is something in preaching, in sharing your faith – the courage in it captures hearts,’ James says. ‘People need to see others who are on fire for Jesus. People need to hear a gospel preached by someone who is radically in love with Jesus. In doing so, they’ll be exposed to that message. They’ll be encouraged to grab onto this anchor themselves.’
Daniel Chand usually works one-to-one but sometimes feels a specific instruction to preach. ‘A lot of street preachers will preach heavily on wrath, judgement and fear,’ Daniel says. ‘But I [preach] about love. [On one occasion] four people came forward and gave their life to the Lord.’
FUELLED BY GOD’S LOVE
Though these evangelists have a lot of positive engagement with the public, they also experience anger, rejection and even sexual harassment. The key to not becoming an angry evangelist is to learn how to show love in response. Hannah explains that those who react badly to street evangelists are usually coming ‘from a place of hurt’. ‘They’re coming from a place where they feel that God has abandoned them. Continuing to love people when they reject you is not easy. When we think…it’s not me they’re rejecting, it’s Jesus in me, then it’s a lot easier to take.’
Preparation through prayer and scripture can help us to respond with love. ‘This is such a front-line ministry, you have to be really in the word and be constantly filled with the spirit,’ says Dominic. ‘In the Beatitudes, Jesus says love and bless those who curse you. When people come and curse you or try to attack you…you love back.’
Dominic points out that throughout history, from the Gospels to the book of Acts to the great revivals, preachers have been physically assaulted and even killed. ‘So you know, this is normal.’
Today’s street evangelists stress the importance of having a deep and intimate personal relationship with God; many also feel it is essential to find other Christians who share the same evangelistic goals. ‘You need to be around people who will encourage you,’ says James. ‘Like-minded, encouraging people who are willing to push the boundaries of their faith. Whether it’s open-air preaching, treasure hunting or one-to-one evangelism, get yourself in community with people who are wanting to grow in it, who are wanting to go for the gospel. In that family you will find inspiration unto greater things.’
Five tips for street evangelism
Inspired to give street evangelism a go? Many ministries welcome people to come along with them. Here is some advice picked up from the evangelists:
Prayer. Pray and ask God what he wants you to do. Ask him for guidance. While out on the streets, ask to be shown who to talk to, and what to say.
Intimacy with God. An important prayer is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and God’s love, so that people can experience the fragrance of Christ. Most of the street evangelists talked about being secure in God’s love and in our identity in Christ as an important foundation for evangelism.
Love. Evangelists vary on whether the gospel is the first message. Some will offer blessings such as gifts or healing prayer first. But whatever the approach, all street evangelists emphasise the importance of showing genuine love for people and getting rid of anger, hurt or fear towards those who are negative or angry towards you.
Be creative. In expression, with art, performance and music – but also in terms of developing new outreach ideas.
Seek the spirit. Seek the fruits of the spirit but also seek supernatural intervention. Words of knowledge can stop people in their tracks in a way that more ‘natural’ means simply can’t.