What Should “All Things to All People” Look Like?

This past week, I unintentionally bumped into an episode of what I personally find to be “spectacularly unappealing” Christian evangelism, the very same kind of in-your-face, hellfire-and-brimstone technique that totally turned me off to Jesus when I was a young man.

The photo below was taken with my cell phone at 1:12 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25. I took a late lunch that day and decided to take advantage of the awesome weather with a walk down to Brady Commons on the MU campus. On my way back to work, I took a route that intersected with Speakers Circle, “one of the only places in Missouri where someone can speak without a license,” and came across this man proclaiming Jesus as the only way to salvation. He was speaking to a fair number of people, most of whom were, of course, young college students. I can’t say for sure if the person speaking that day was the well-known/infamous Brother Jed or not; I don’t think it was him, but I did not venture close enough to make a positive ID.

Nowadays, whenever I happen to run into someone publically proclaiming the name of Jesus, I really want, more than anything else, to be able to cheer them on and offer up my strongest-possible encouragement, perhaps even shout “Amen, brother!” The best analogy I can come up with is that of an overly-anxious parent at his son’s first Little League game, crazy-desperate for “my little slugger” to hit one out of the park…or at least get on base. But my gut-level response is that, all too often, the ball in this particular “game” is being missed by a mile.

I want to be very slow to critique anyone who has the strength of character to preach in the streets of 21st-century America. There are multiple verses in the Bible that leave no doubt as to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of men and women (Acts 2:14-41), even if the person speaking the Word is not doing an especially winsome job (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). While I am clear that someone might indeed come to Christ via an enthusiastic street preacher (Romans 10:14-15), I still have to wonder if even more people are turned off by this particular manner of evangelism and/or handed some more ammunition with which they can discredit and dismiss Christianity.

I am convinced of this man’s – and other street preachers like him – sincerity, but I found myself mulling over a few questions as I took in this scene: “Is there any evidence of authentic, self-sacrificing love in what this person is saying/doing? Is it abundantly clear by this person’s words and actions that he or she truly loves people and is willing to meet them where they are, just like our Lord did?” Isn’t this the single greatest measure of faithfulness to Christ, as revealed within the pages of the Bible (Matthew 22:37-40)?

For the ten minutes or so that I listened to this street preacher, I did not hear anything that was in error, per se, and I agreed with the underlying truth statements he was making. Yes, Jesus is the Christ (Luke 9:18-20), the one and only Son of God (Acts 4:11-12), and no one finds salvation apart from Him (John 14:6). Yes, I believe that King Nebuchadnezzar was used by God to visit judgment on the disobedient Israelites (Jeremiah 52:1-30), and yes, I believe that judgment and wrath is being stored up for those in our midst who do not know Him (Romans 1:18-25). I’m just not sure that college students can hear these truths boldly proclaimed the same way a 49-year-old man does.

It also seemed to me that the guys in the foreground of this photo were viewing this Christian witness as a carnival spectacle. They were not discussing whether what was being said might be true or not; they were focused instead on the kinds of things many college students are focused on – things like their weekend plans and the pressing need to get some laundry done ahead of Friday evening. It seemed clear to me the speaker was not making much of an impact on these guys, and as I glanced around Speaker’s Circle I saw more of the same…young people not quite sure what to make of the street preacher, content to view what was taking place as some sort of religious oddity or (worse) freak show, or even largely oblivious to the truths being pronounced just yards away from them as they enjoyed a little sun between classes.

So my question is, “Was the sincerity and truthfulness of this street preacher a fair representation of what Jesus calls us to do?”

Looking at the life of the Apostle Paul is, I think, immensely relevant to this question. Instead of moving from city to city and presenting himself as the authority speaking down to the unwashed masses of the ancient world, Paul instead sought (without sinning!) to become “all things to all people that by all means he might save some” to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). Paul’s humility allowed him to set aside his unparalleled relationship with Christ (2 Corinthians 12:2-6) and modify his style of delivery such that he could effectively and lovingly minister to Jews, Greeks, and/or Romans. In a recent blog posting entitled “Between Shadow and Reality,” Ravi Zacharias effectively discusses the increasingly-urgent need to meet people where they are, to blend sound doctrine with practical assistance, to demonstrate the love of Christ in a tangible way:

Love remains the most powerful apologetic. It is the essential component in reaching the whole person in a fragmented world. The need is vast, but it is also imperative that we be willing to follow the example of Christ and meet the need. What does this mean for us? It means giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus and telling the recipient to thank God and not man for that gift. Only eternity will reveal how deep and how real such an impact is, but our calling is clear: to let our light so shine that men, women, and children will see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven … That is apologetics completed. That is confirming to the mind by the visible touch of the body. The mind is to the soul what the body is to the shadow. When we can touch both we have demonstrated the power of both thought and deed. It lifts the message out of the shadow and brings it into the light. Such is the power of love. Unless we understand a person’s pain we will never understand a person’s soul.

Jesus told his disciples that people would know that they belonged to Him if they loved one another (John 13:34-35). Indeed, while Jesus affirmed everything in the Old Testament and the law of Moses (Matthew 5:17-18), He also boiled it down for all of us by saying that if we loved God with all our hearts and loved one another, we’d give clear evidence that we belong to Him. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that the only thing that matters is faith working itself out through love (Galatians 5:6).

People will stop and pay attention when we as Christians help others to our own detriment.

My buddy Mark Carson is a natural carpenter/builder; his talent for this type of work is blazingly obvious. A few weeks ago it came to my attention that one of the door frames on the backside of my home had completely dry-rotted. Slivers of wood were literally falling off anytime the door slammed shut. My carpentry skills are not even in the same ZIP code as Mark’s. I surely could have replaced the door frame on my own, but the best-case scenario is that it would have taken me an entire weekend. Mark showed up at my house and knocked it out in something like two hours, freeing me to spend time with my wife and kids. Secure in the knowledge that my door had been fixed properly, I was also coincidentally freed up to minister to others in ways that would not have occurred had he not provided our family with “a cup of cold water” exactly when we needed it.

Silent evangelism with a wrecking bar and a circular saw. In my humble opinion, that’s the kind of commitment to Christ that stops people in their tracks. “So, what was in it for Mark to do that?” Nothing, really, except to show gratitude for the grace and mercy that he has received through Christ…and an opportunity to offer it up to others. The street preacher I encountered on Wednesday was, as far as I could tell, not interacting with his listeners or seeking to find out where they were hurting. And rest assured, college students are all hurting in one way or another as they try to make sense of their lives. I’m not at all suggesting that this man should have been pulling people aside to find out how he might help them out with a home-repair project, but it might have gone over slightly better with this younger crowd had he invested something of himself in their lives, perhaps handing out ice-cold bottles of drinking water as he preached. Just a thought.

John 7:37-38 (ESV)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”

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