When I was a student at Indiana University in the late 1970's, there were a couple of sidewalk evangelists who regularly stationed themselves along a main campus thoroughfare and harangued students on their way to and from classes. They carried big floppy King James Bibles and dressed like Secret Service agents, complete with sunglasses. They would shout at the students, accusing them of all sorts of sins, threatening them with hell, and calling them to repent – real hell fire and brimstone stuff. Often, a group of students formed to harangue them back. The students would heckle them and call out challenging questions. It was quite a show.
There did not seem to be any real engagement. None of the students seemed to be genuinely interested in, let alone attracted to, the message the evangelists were presenting. As a young Christian, I mostly found it embarrassing. I usually walked pass the spectacle with my head down, hoping not to be associated with either side.
Once, though, as I sat under a tree within earshot of the debate, one of the evangelists said something that I could not ignore. He made the claim that, since he had become a Christian, he no longer sinned. This idea can be found the “holiness” tradition, mainly among some Pentecostal groups. But, having listened to this guy for some time, I didn’t believe it.
Embarrassed or not, I was fool enough to rush in where angels fear to tread. I got up, walked through the ring of students and said, “Wait a minute.” I pointed out that in 1 John it says that if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. The evangelist countered with another text. For a few minutes, with a crowd of students watching on, we played dueling Bible verses.
Suddenly, the evangelist looked at his watch, said it was time to go, packed up, and left. Most of the students began dispersing and I turned to go on my way.
But, from behind me, I heard, “Wait.”
I turned around and saw a small group of students remaining.
One of them said, “Now it’s your turn.”
They began to ask me questions about my faith. I attempted to answer as best I could and offer a different understanding of Jesus from what they had been getting. I was struck with the genuineness of their interest. These were some of the same students who had been heckling the evangelist just moments ago. But, like the Greeks who came to Philip in John 12, they wanted to see Jesus. They just couldn’t see him through the presentation of the evangelist.
That experience has stuck with me through the years. I know from experience that people are hungry for the good news of Jesus. I also know that many people inside and outside the church have been presented with versions of Jesus that have not sounded or looked like good news.
If we want to share that good news we need to live and talk in ways that demonstrate that it really is good and that it really is news. If we want to make a defense of the hope that is in us we need to do so with gentleness and reverence toward those to whom we are making that defense.
Among other things, that means loving people as they are and engaging them respectfully, taking genuine interest in their own stories, their own hopes and fears, their own wisdom and understanding. Unless we do that, people are unlikely to care what we have to say anyway. And until we do that, any challenge we might present to their personal beliefs or morals will ring hollow.
The same is likely true for whatever critiques we offer of social and political issues. That’s what the evangelists all those years ago did not understand. But, if we understand that and live it, there are people who want to see Jesus.
Now it’s your turn.