Recently, while visiting a local beach city here in Southern California, I watched a group of street evangelists as they talked to tourists in front of a liquor store. I’ll admit that I’m not usually involved in street preaching. It’s definitely an acquired skill; some people are really good at it (Ray Comfort comes to mind immediately), but others are not as gifted. This particular group of Christians was walking back and forth on the sidewalk carrying signs displaying Bible verses and proclaiming the wrath of God toward those who won’t repent and toward those who refuse to accept Christ’s offer of salvation. While the messages were Biblically accurate, I couldn’t help but think that their approach was a bit “off-putting.”
Many years ago our youth group encountered a street evangelist who took a similar approach. His efforts were often met with great resistance; his signs were brutally direct. I wondered if the message was the problem, so we tried crafting signs that were more “inviting” and less provocative. Our efforts met with the same response. We were heckled, resisted and abused. Even when our signs were worded so carefully that we nearly lost the exclusive truth of the Gospel, people still found our efforts offensive. Finally a young man on the street asked the question that illuminated the problem: “What are all you people protesting?” The question caught me off-guard. “We’re not protesting anything,” I said, re-reading our signs carefully in an attempt to understand how he could misinterpret our efforts. But his question made perfect sense.
Even though our “words” were not “words of protest”, our “actions” were “actions of protest.” Think about it for a minute. If I told you I saw a group of people walking back and forth in a limited geographic area carrying signs and talking to anyone who was willing to engage them, what would you think I was describing? A picket line? A protest event? We have a cultural context for this kind of behavior; it is the behavioral language of protest. Before I even get close enough to see what’s written on those signs, I’ve already started to interpret the behavior of the group and it’s not a favorable interpretation. Protestors are generally regarded as angry people who want an injustice to be righted. Most of us want to avoid protestors and few of us think of picket lines as the location where winsome interaction is likely to occur.
As I watched the efforts of that local Christian group of street evangelists, I couldn’t help but believe they limited their impact by using those signs. They took the time to carefully craft the language of the text on the placards without considering the language of their actions as sign holders. After my own experience using signs to proclaim a message on the streets of Utah, I’ve decided to think carefully about the perception created by this approach. While I never want to sacrifice the direct, exclusive and honest message of the Gospel, there’s no sense in adding offense. I don’t want my evangelism to look like a protest.