My curiosity regarding evangelism piqued during my cross-cultural internship in the Philippines last year, and it stayed with me when I went back to seminary. The truth is, seminary was really causing me to doubt a lot of things, and I began to wonder what the point of learning so much of everything was for—just to interact with Christians? When I was in Bible College, I worked as a bartender, so I got to talk to a lot of non-Christians about God. I felt like I had a purpose. But after moving here, I found that I became the bubbled Christian that I had always dreaded becoming. I felt empty inside.
What was evangelism, really? And who could I talk to about this feeling inside? My mind drew a blank. I feel like “evangelism” is almost like a cuss word in today’s Church; stirring up images of old, grumpy fundamentalists holding signs of some kind of overemphasis on sin in one hand and the Holy Bible in the other. If evangelism was a person, the Church has been pretty non-inclusive, prejudiced, and judgmental of her. None of my Christian friends seemed to have a practical idea of what evangelism looked like. Pastors might preach a sermon or two with a snippet in it: “We should go out and share Jesus with the world!” and then… nothing. Or evangelism was ousted in place of community service (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Assuming that because I was interested in evangelism that I didn’t care about social service, people quoted St. Francis to me: “Preach the gospel at all times; use words, if necessary.” I got what they meant, but I couldn’t help thinking, “But how about the telling people part? Didn’t everyone in the New Testament sort of verbally tell people about Jesus? What’s so wrong about using words?” How would God teach me about this illicit passion growing inside me?
This summer, we went to London for a week to train with K180 (Kerygma 180), a street preaching and evangelism ministry based in the Greater London area. I wanted to learn more about evangelism and to see it done practically in day-to-day life. I longed to witness a revamped Western expression of Christian evangelism. Surely, God would show up here. Gareth and Jason, my big brothers in the faith, trained us for the week. During my first day of training, the K180 team set-up to preach and engage with people on the crowded intersection of Ealing Broadway. I saw the mass of human beings that were walking by and minding their own business—except, of course, to notice the weird religious people on the corner putting out a “Jesus loves you” sign and free Bibles. Assigned to speak my testimony to this scary mob, I fought the very real urge to cry and run away. An overwhelming, irrational fear took over me. I knew that the UK and Europe as a whole embraced post-Christian worldviews. The red box I was supposed to stand on suddenly looked like a gallows. Why did I decide to do this? Everyone thinks we’re crazy! What if we offend someone? What if they laugh at us? What if nobody listens to us?
We all prayed together for the speakers and those who would engage people in conversations. Then we began. After Gareth finished playing some happy songs on his guitar, he warmly introduced me: “Now I just want to introduce my friend, Christianne! She’s visiting from America and she’s going to tell you about how Jesus changed her life!” Gulp. Here it is. I took one last deep breath, stood on top of that red box, looked at hundreds of faces, and with a loud voice, I told all of Ealing Broadway, London just how amazing the love of God was and how He saved me. I told everyone about how I was raised in the Church, but was sexually abused by my pastor-father; how I hated Him and the Church as a result; how I realized through the Bible that God is different from imperfect humans; and that God is a loving Father, despite what people or the Church have done to me. I told them about how Jesus came to set us free from sin; how He did this in my life. My concerns for what people thought about me suddenly transformed into what I hoped they would believe about God. Then I introduced the illustrated Gospel message speaker.
All of a sudden, I felt like a bird who had been set free from a cage. I stood on that red box and a strange feeling came over me; the feeling of unity with all of the Christians who, decades and centuries before I existed, had stood on top of something before masses of people, proclaiming the goodness and the wonders and the salvation of God in Jesus Christ. Rejection was minute in comparison to the one or ten people who might hear something from God; who might talk with us about Life. I felt God reaching out to their hearts like I’d never experienced in the Church before.
Later on in our training week, I would use a sleeping mask and then a Fisher-Price children’s toy to preach a few illustrated Gospel messages myself. More often than preaching, we would stop to talk to people about Jesus on the train, on the bus, in fast-food restaurants, in bathrooms, in airports, wherever. Sometimes it would just be a quick, “Hey, this might be weird, but I just want you to know that Jesus loves you!” Other times, if we felt the context allowed it, we might strike up a deeper conversation: “What do you think about God?” Asking questions like that were socially out of the ordinary, but more often than not, we were answered with honest dialogue that ended in, at the very least, inspired thinking about the question.
Throughout our training we were surrounded with an evangelism team—more like family—who encouraged us every step of the way. Our team was made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life. I used to think that the people who went out to evangelize were always bold and confident and strong, but the reality is, that’s such a stereotype. Everyone was always a little afraid when God prompted them to evangelize, whether on a box to many or at the coffee shop one-on-one, but they were obedient anyway. I was encouraged to know that we were working with normal, everyday Christians who were still praying for God to give them courage and boldness to do His work—it’s not like they were all extroverted superstar orators who had overcome the social oddity of approaching strangers with an even odder topic. But they’d seen enough of what God could do so that even an initial reluctance to evangelize would transform into willful obedience for the benefit of those God wanted to reach that day. We collaborated with several other street teams in the city as well, and I was surprised to see the number of people who cared deeply about evangelism as a ministry of the Church.
I realized that what K180 was doing out there was beautiful. The team wasn’t angry or hateful—another stereotype I’d thought about evangelists. They opened up with upbeat guitar songs about Jesus, told testimonies about how He changed their lives, and preached faithful Gospel sermons communicated through weird, quirky items like giant inflatable dice and swimming pool lifesavers. It was unique and joyful and it was different. And it wasn’t ineffective—I’d never seen so many people in my life willingly engage with Christians to talk about God! I was shocked to find that most people were obliged to share their thoughts on Jesus, eternity, and their own spiritual journeys (or lack thereof) quite freely. It’s not like every person we talked to was “saved,” although we obviously prayed for that. But I do believe that every single conversation we had was a seed that was planted for the next Christian to water; another step in the journey toward salvation in Christ, which is of utmost importance. Everything I experienced was a far stretch from the typically stigmatized evangelism I’d heard about my whole life—it completely obliterated any of the negative images of this ministry that I’d previously held onto. I realized that while the Church had witnessed several forms of evangelism gone wrong, there were hardly any efforts to find a way to make evangelism better. And there definitely are better ways. We’ve just been throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Now I’m back home in Grand Rapids, and I know that God’s given me this experience for a reason. It was one of the most refreshing times of my life. I hope to encourage my seminary and church communities to build up this spiritual discipline in their everyday lives.
Sometimes when evangelizing, you might get the one-off angry person, like Atheist health food store guy we met: “Actually, I’m wildly against Jesus and any kind of proselytizing whatsoever!” But sometimes God will let you in on His plan: “You know what? Earlier, an Australian pastor came up to me and started telling me about God. He invited me to his church. And now you’re talking to me. You think God’s trying to get my attention?” This was from a man who we stopped to ask directions from. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t—but even if it doesn’t, who knows? Maybe God will use that conversation ten years down the road to save them. Evangelism is pretty exciting because you never know who God has in mind for you to speak to! Obviously, not everyone has to preach on a red box on a crowded street, but I do believe that if every Christian decided daily to listen for God’s nudging to speak to someone about Him, whether it’s the whole Gospel or even just three words, many more orphans would be made sons and daughters of our good Father. ∞
Christianne Zeiger is a 3rd-year M.Div. student from San Diego, California. She hopes to be a pastor of evangelism and outreach in the future.