In 2008 I had the privilege of going to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA. It was a great experience.
One day, as I walked towards the convention centre where the Assembly was being held, I thought, “This is interesting. We’ve got a protest. The Assembly is being picketed.”
The assembly was to debate the issue of homosexuals and lesbians in church leadership and here were several young men and women with anti-homosexuality placards, calling out, condemning homosexuality and the Presbyterian Church.
It was fairly confrontational. Look at the man on the right. He is leaning forward aggressively, shouting and, unfortunately, is making a very rude sign.
I happen to agree with what they were saying but not with how they said it. I went up to that man in white and said, “Please remember that many of us agree with you.” He looked somewhat taken aback. He said, “We heard this meeting was on and we looked up the web site and we saw that you were debating about homosexuals in the church. The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong. We felt to come and oppose this.” I said, “I’m not questioning your right to be here. Just remember that many of us agree with you.”
I don’t think they had stopped to understand the situation – just condemn it. The whole church was going to hell as far as they were concerned.
Note the attitude of the people passing by. Of course, everyone knew they were there but no one is even looking at them. People found them offensive.
Just a few paces further on, was another group of people. These people were part of a group campaigning for the church to include homosexual and lesbian people in all aspects of the church. They were holding trays of biscuits and smiling and asking those passing by if they would like a cookie.
Look at the attitude of people to them. Everyone is looking at them and there is warmth in their smiles. Who won this little battle?
In the end, the church made some very liberal decisions on this matter. I am not blaming the protesters but they certainly didn’t help. If anything, they would have caused some people to vote against their view. They alienated people. They achieved the opposite of what they hoped because of their manner.
Someone might say, “We should be preaching the truth boldly and, of course, it is sometimes going to be offensive. Who cares how people respond? Our task is simply to tell the truth. God will convict people’s hearts. God’s word will never return void. It doesn’t matter how we do it, as long as we do it.” Does the how matter?
There are times for confrontational preaching. John the Baptist pulled no punches in denouncing Herod for committing adultery with his brother’s wife. He was beheaded as a result. Jesus was very confrontational with the Pharisees in Matthew 23, in particular. God has always needed prophets who will stand firm against public opinion. I agree with all that. But what does the evidence suggest? One group was aggressive and accusing. People ignored them. The other was gentle and generous. People responded warmly. Might these guys have been more effective if they had been friendly?
Isn’t the point to win people’s hearts; to win them to your point of view? Being aggressive and accusing, generally, is not the way to win people over. Might gentle and generous be more effective?
John 12:49 49 For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.
Jesus was led by God not only in what He said but how He said it. The how matters. We need to be God-led in the how, just as much as the what.
Here’s another example from the Assembly.
I took this photo as I walked past this man. I didn’t know what his point was but it was interesting so I photographed it. There’s a clue though. The multi-coloured stole or scarf that he is wearing was worn by a large number of people at the Assembly who supported the inclusion of homosexuals. Its multiple colours speak of including all the different people on the spectrum of gender preferences. Note also the smile. He looks like a nice gentle man, doesn’t he? What does his t-shirt say? We’ll come back to that.
Later that day I saw him again. I didn’t realise it was the same person but his t-shirt intrigued me: Jesus, protect me from your followers. I went up to him and asked him if his primary concern was the homosexual issue. “Oh no,” he said. He talked about wanting the church to mean it when it says welcome. He talked about working with the deaf in churches but people not talking to them and pastors refusing to give him a copy of the sermon so that he could sign for them. He applied the church’s lack of welcome to the homeless and various other groups. Then he said he was gay and had been with his partner for 15 years but that wasn’t his only reason for protesting.
I asked if I could take his picture and he said yes. He was very pleasant and gracious. There was nothing aggressive about him despite the hurt he felt for others. I liked him. But his concern was that the church is often very unfriendly.
Let’s look at some other examples, not from the Assembly but from time I had in San Francisco.
This man’s placard says, “Jesus Christ loves you.” That is a very positive and caring message. There is nothing condemning in it. Jesus Christ loves you. Subsequently, I saw this man a number of times, always in the same part of town. But I never saw him talking to anyone – or anyone talking to him. And I never saw anyone taking any notice of him. Is it possible that placards don’t do the job, or that everyone is so familiar with him they simply ignore him?
Good on him for doing it and for having a positive message but, as a means of evangelism, my concern would be that it is so impersonal. There is no relationship. People are being spoken to by a placard, not by a person.
I decide that, next time I saw him, I would have a chat to him. I wanted to encourage him but I also wanted to hear from him how effective he had found his witness to be. However, on my last day there I didn’t see him. I saw this man instead.
San Francisco has been very liberal on sexual matters. It is one of the centres of the gay rights movement. I suspect you would have to be quite courageous to stand up for Biblical values on sex. He was sitting quietly, not getting in people’s faces, but his board was reasonably clear – well, reasonably clear. Seeing that I couldn’t find my other man, I decided I’d talk to this man. I asked him what sorts of reactions he got from people. He said they were diverse. I asked how effective he had found it. He said it was effective for him. This was his ministry. He had been doing this for 22 years – 7 days a week, 5 days here and 2 in a neighbouring city – for 22 years.
I told him I was a Christian. He told me to go around and read part of what was on the other side of his board.
It read, Sex and marriage are not for Christians! Marriage is of the flesh and not of the spirit. Christians are born again of the Spirit of Jesus Christ! And are one spirit or one life with Christ! A Christian life should be found in Jesus, and Jesus’ life should be found in a Christian! Marriage is of the world and not the walk of Christ! True Christians should live just as holy as Christ! And not by our own righteousness.
I clarified with him that he believed that Christians shouldn’t get married. That is exactly what he believed. We had a little discussion about that. I suggested that Paul encouraged Christians to get married; that Peter had been married; that Hebrews says the marriage bed should be honoured. He got out his Bible and had an answer for everything. Paul had been addressing the people of the world. Peter said he had given up everything to follow Christ so that obviously included marriage. He kept saying that Jesus didn’t marry and we are to follow Jesus. I said that if we were to follow Jesus’ example in every detail we couldn’t live in San Francisco because Jesus didn’t but he said the apostles travelled all over the world. I wished him God’s blessing and asked if I could take his photo.
What’s wrong with this witness? Isn’t it just strange? Christians sometimes just seem incredibly successful at appearing weird.
How effective are these various attempts at witnessing? I think we tend to shoot ourselves in the foot. Here’s what I think is ineffective: aggressiveness and condemnation like the protesters outside the Assembly; having no relationship with the people we want to reach but expecting placards or bits of paper in their letterboxes to do the work for us – like the Jesus Christ loves you man; being weird like the man whose board says, “Abstain from sex for the rest of your life.”
These guys were preaching in the same part of town.
They shouted at people telling us mainly about all we have done wrong. Again, no one appeared to be listening, but look at his minders. The guy in the white “trust Jesus” t-shirt was particularly scary. He was probably suspicious of my motives for taking photos but, boy, I got the evils.
This guy’s henchmen could frighten you out of the Kingdom for ever! Would it hurt to be friendly?
In trying to speak to not-yet Christians, does aggression work? Does accusing people work? Do impersonal approaches work? Does being weird work? Is that how non-Christians are influenced?
What does the Bible say about this?
1 Peter 3:15 15 …Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect
Col 4:5-6 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
What is the wise way to treat non-Christians? Graciously. But seasoned with salt. Does that mean that it should be gracious but have a little bit of purposefulness to it as well? This passage says make the most of every opportunity. We are not making the most of it if we are insensitive and turn people away, when God is calling us to be gracious.
Can I show you 2 other quick examples?
I didn’t know anything about Goodwill but I suspected it would have had a Christian foundation. Sure enough, its website says that it is part of an organisation started in 1902 in Boston by a Methodist minister who wanted to find a way to help the poor by recycling household goods and clothing from the wealthy parts of the city. My suspicion is that many more people have discovered Jesus through being helped than by having someone shout at them on a street corner. The question with welfare organisations is: Do they ever actually tell anyone about Jesus?
This example has nothing to do with Christians.
This man held up a notice offering free hugs. Look at the atmosphere in that photo. Why? Because he is giving, not asking. He is not demanding or condemning. And it is fun. He got a response when Christians were being ignored.
God does call some to preach on street corners and it can be effective but I suspect we shoot ourselves in the foot when we are aggressive, condemning, impersonal/unfriendly, strange and loud and intimidating. I think people are more effective when they are gentle, gracious, generous; when our approach is based on building relationships, when we go and meet people where they are at, in their culture and when we serve them. But maybe I am wrong. What do you think? Which approach is more like Jesus’ because that is the final test? Maybe next week we will analyse how Jesus evangelised.
But my suggestion is that we just be nice; that we be winsome. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “winsome” means “charming, winning, attractive, engaging, bright”. I think that is what Jesus wants us to be like. I think that is in keeping with those passages about being gentle, respectful and gracious. I think that is more like Jesus Himself. Let’s practise being winsome.
Of course, it is easy to criticise other people’s efforts. Ultimately, the question is: Am I more effective at introducing people to Jesus than these people? The Bible talks about speaking the truth in love. Some people seem to have real difficulty with the love but others have difficulty speaking the truth. How is God wanting to grow you so that you are effective?