How To Get Over The Embarrassment Factor In Evangelism

ReutersA street preacher in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just before Christmas I was in central London, soaking up the atmosphere and generally playing the country yokel dazzled by the bright lights (I live in the Cotswolds, a long away from the smoke). It was fun, until I came across a Christian.

He held a Bible in his hand and was preaching on a street corner about repentance and fleeing from the wrath to come. The pavements were rammed, but there was a magic eight feet of space around him as people hurried by, desperate to avoid him. It didn't worry him; he was blank-eyed, yelling slogans and not interested in making eye contact, but he was evangelising, and that's all that mattered.

We've all seen it, and it makes many of us cringe. And just to be clear, I don't think all street preaching is bad, though what I heard then wasn't great. But what worries me is the hold that kind of evangelism has on our collective psyche. Not that we'd want to do it, but that somewhere deep down there is the idea that this is what it's about: the voice crying in the wilderness, the declaration of truth to a post-truth society, the proclamation of non-negotiable fact to people who don't want to hear it.

At a quite fundamental level that's true. But it's not the whole truth, and one of the problems with this perception is that it can make us terribly guilty about evangelism. If that's what it is, we just aren't going to do it.

This is a particular problem for evangelicals, of whom I am one. Even more awkwardly, I'm a Baptist evangelical, and British Baptists have as one of their three Declarations of Principle that "it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world."

But what happens when people just don't want to hear it? Are we supposed to tell them anyway? And just what constitutes "witnessing"? Is the full-on, "You're a hell-bound sinner unless you accept Christ as your saviour and Lord", or is it more just being nice to people?

That's the sort of negotiation most evangelicals make, uncomfortably perhaps and not always efficiently, most of the time. We'd love people we know at work to become Christians and we know we ought to be helping them, but we aren't sure how to do it. And we don't want to come across as weird, because that destroys relationships; and we really don't want to come across as pushy, like that street preacher, because that could land us in a disciplinary hearing.

There are no straightforward answers, other than to follow Peter's advice: "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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Peter 3: 15-16).

But an experience I had a couple of years ago has stayed with me. I was at a major denominational seaside conference which featured, among other things, a prayer outreach to passers-by. We were split into groups, subdivided into pairs and sent out to accost people, asking them if they had any prayer requests. It was a terrible ordeal for someone so introverted he regards text messaging as the greatest invention of the century, as it means he doesn't have to talk to people. Here was the wisdom of sending us out in pairs, though: my companion was originally from India and thought the whole thing was perfectly natural. "In India we could talk to hundreds of people," he said.

We managed about a dozen between us, only one of whom had any prayer requests. The refusals of the rest ranged from polite to brusque, if not downright hostile, though there was one delightful lady who turned out to be a Methodist deacon. She was in a hurry, unfortunately. It was not really a positive experience.

Compare that with a experience a little later. A prayer labyrinth had been created on the beach by the pier. Two intricate circular pathways, one raised, one flat, had been drawn in the sand. People were encouraged to walk them to the centre, slowly, using the time to think about their own pathway through life. If they wanted, they could pick up a piece of beach rubbish at the entrance and leave it in the middle, symbolically abandoning their troubles and sins to the grace and mercy of God. I had intended to do it, but in the end just watched others as they walked. It drew a crowd, with a good number of people curious about what was going on. I explained it to one man who asked me if I knew anything about it and only afterwards realised that I had had an unforced but genuinely spiritual conversation with a total stranger.

And perhaps that's the key: evangelism works when, to coin a phrase from Bishop Lesslie Newbiggin, it provokes questions to which Christ is the answer. It's not enough to answer questions no one is asking, no matter how true those answers might be. Our first task is to inspire curiosity; only then can we try to satisfy it.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods