One of the great joys and frustrations for any street evangelist sent out by his local church is the ongoing work of encouraging and facilitating the public evangelistic participation of the church family. During my 17 years of full-time street evangelism ministry I have experienced firsthand both the joy and frustration. The joy is always well-placed and the frustration is sometimes understandable. However, there have been times when my frustration has been unjustified and self-serving.
I thought about offering tips and strategies in this article for motivating other Christians to take to the streets. After all, Christians, to the extent that they are able, ought to at least consider including street evangelism, in one form or another, as part of their biblical, lifelong pursuit of making disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). However, I changed my mind about halfway through the writing of this article. The original title was “Street Evangelism: Getting Your Church Family Involved in the Work.” But then I asked myself the questions, “As my church’s evangelist, how important is it to get my church on the streets? Is it possible to make it too important?”
The answers may surprise you.
If you’re a street evangelist you just might find my answer to the questions more encouraging than any tip or strategy I can give you to help you motivate, guilt, or prod your church family to take to the streets. You may even find yourself relieved.
A Question from a Street Evangelist
Recently I received a message from a fellow street evangelist. It was his message that motivated this article. Here’s what he wrote:
“Tony, I hope you don’t mind me asking you for some advice. To date, my elders are content with sending me in the outreach work that I do. I am very interested in extending an open invitation to my church body to join me in the outreach work that I do, but this brings up some questions in my mind. I believe there is a place in this work for everyone, but how do you go about determining what role someone should take when they join you on the streets? How do you determine if someone should simply be there for support or hold a sign, or take a more vocal role in seeking to converse with people? I see on your posts that people from your church body join you in your work and so I’m hoping you can give me some insight. Thanks again for your ministry!”
I asked my brother in Christ a clarifying question.
“What do you mean when you say your ‘elders are content’ with sending you out?”
“So, what I mean by that phrase is that they have always been supportive of me going to share the gospel. I make a point to submit my plans to them when I am going to an event, and they have always approved. But my outreach endeavors have never turned into opportunities for the church to join me, it has always been me going with maybe a couple of brothers who happened to be interested. I want to change that and so I did make an announcement at this morning’s service about an upcoming Christmas Parade that I will be preaching at. I am hoping that there will be some interest, so far interest has been minimal.”
He Has It Good
While I haven’t asked him, I wonder if my fellow evangelist knows how good he has it. I hope he does. If he doesn’t…
Hear me, brother; I can’t tell you how many evangelistic Christians wish they had the kind of pastoral support you have.
He has elders who send him to the streets (the biblical model) and provide him with the care and support he needs to to do the work. His relationship with his elders is such that he submits his evangelism plans to them and “they have always approved them.” This means the evangelist and the elders are likely on the same page regarding the church’s philosophy for evangelistic ministry and the methodology for carrying out that philosophy of ministry.
I can’t tell you how many times young Christian men champing at the bit to hit the streets have contacted me, sometimes almost in tears, wishing their pastors would vet them, disciple them, call them, send them, shepherd them, even correct them.
Yes, my friend has it good.
Many evangelists lack this critical, biblical, working relationship with their elders. Some wish they had it. Others couldn’t care less. And most aspiring, zealous evangelists likely find themselves somewhere in between, maybe a bit indifferent because some other street evangelist (probably a self-appointed one) told them it wasn’t that important.
Why the Biblical Elder/Evangelist Relationship is Rare
So, why is this biblical, working relationship between elders and aspiring evangelists so rare?
The aspiring evangelist might be a nomad. He either doesn’t have an attachment to a local church or his attachment is superficial and/or in word only. He might be a member of a church, but there is no human authority in his life greater than the man in the mirror. He might boast that it’s just him and his Bible. But the Bible isn’t the authority in his life, either. If it was, then he would obey the Bible and properly submit himself to the authority of the local church. Instead, he plays eisegetical hopscotch with Scripture the same way some Christians do when they try to justify women preaching in pulpits, on street corners, or outside of abortuaries.
Another reason for the rarity of the biblical elder/evangelist relationship is weak, vacillating, fearful, pragmatic, and/or indifferent leadership.
Evangelists have told me that their pastors have said that they don’t want to be known as “that church”–the church on the streets “pushing people away from Jesus” (a sentiment and figure of speech that denies the sovereignty of God in evangelism) with signs, gospel tracts, and street preaching.
Some elders reject street evangelism because they are still clinging to the half-century-old, heretical, dare I say demonic, evangelistic method often referred to as “Friendship Evangelism.”
Sadly, there are other pastors who might want to raise up street evangelists, but to do so would buck against generations of church tradition or a deacon who holds the purse strings. Shepherds know all-too-well that sheep sometimes bite.
Still other elders might want to raise up street evangelists but the men expressing interest in taking to the streets are not the kind of men the elders would want to send. So, instead of working through that difficulty by discipling not-yet-qualified men they might either table the discussion until the prospective evangelist gives up and moves on or they might nix the idea altogether.
Undoubtedly, there are other reasons why biblically healthy elder/evangelist relationships are rare in local churches. What I presented above is not an exhaustive list. However, it is based on numerous conversations with evangelists over the years.
I believe every church should seek to raise up qualified, called men to serve the church as evangelists. It seems that my friend’s church has this philosophy as part of its DNA. My church does, too.
By now the reader may be wondering, “When is he going to answer the question?”
Soon. But not yet.
The Street Evangelism “Community” and Its Unbiblical Hierarchical Structure
I entered into the street evangelism realm in 2004. By then, I had been a Christian for 16 years. I had engaged in evangelism prior to 2004–quite a bit of it, including a mission trip to Venezuela (late 90s) during which I preached in the open-air (years before I had ever heard the term “open-air preaching”) at the training academy of the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas (Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigation Service Corps, CICPC). The CICPC is Venezuela’s equivalent to the FBI. But it wasn’t until 2004 that I was formally introduced to street evangelism in its various forms, as it is most commonly defined and practiced today. Like an untold number of Christians around the world, it was the writings of evangelist Ray Comfort that resulted in my first purchase and distribution of gospel tracts, engaging total strangers in gospel conversation, and eventually heralding the gospel in the open-air.
No sooner had I started engaging in street evangelism than I was introduced to the hierarchical structure of what I would come to know as the “street evangelism community.” At the time (but no longer), a parachurch organization existed that sought to encourage Christians to engage in public evangelism, as well as network and provide training for evangelistically minded Christians. I joined the group and was almost immediately introduced to a few Christians in my area who were going to local malls to distribute gospel tracts and engage people in gospel conversation.
The organization had a website. I think it was called a “message board” back then. It was a place for Christians to talk about evangelism, compare notes, share ideas, and complain about the local church. It is where I first heard the term “Club Frustration.”
To be a member of “Club Frustration” one simply needed to be a member (or attender) of a church where public evangelism was either avoided, discouraged, mocked, or otherwise negatively considered. “Club Frustration” was a place where misery loved company and where ecclesiology didn’t seem all that important.
In addition to facilitating “Club Frustration,” the organization also had an internal rank structure for its members. A member’s rank within the organization was determined by the number of gospel tracts the member distributed. Those members (men and women) who open-air preached were considered the top dawgs.
For the next dozen years, I subscribed to and promoted the unwritten, accepted hierarchical structure of the street evangelism community–a structure that was unbiblical. It was unbiblical because, although maybe unintended, it put more emphasis on the vehicle that carried the gospel message than on the message itself. To be sure, no one I knew in the street evangelism community would say the gospel message’s vehicle was more important than the gospel. Everyone I knew in the community would be offended by even the suggestion of method over message.
However, anyone who had any amount of time in the community who would deny an ascending rank among evangelists based on methodology was simply being dishonest. When you entered the street evangelism community you started by distributing gospel tracts. You progressed to engaging strangers in conversation. And you hoped to one-day ascend to “the box.” You hoped to one-day reach the perceived pinnacle of the street evangelism community–to be known as an open-air preacher.
One pastor who, himself, is a fine street evangelist with many years of experience, summed it up well when he wrote:
“It’s what happens when you take modern motivational tactics for sales teams and baptize them. Which is exactly what that structure was based on. Much like the rest of mainstream evangelicalism’s ideas about what evangelism was, going back to D. James Kennedy.”
It seemed like a perfectly natural progression to me. After all, I came from a way of life in which a rank structure was very important–deputy sheriff, training officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and upward.
Years ago, I started hearing Christians say something to me that made me wince. Having established myself in the street evangelism community (a very small community, just a niche, when compared to the much larger Body of Christ), and by then having attained a level of notoriety in that community that afforded me opportunities to speak in churches and at conferences, people would often approach me to tell me how much they appreciated my “ministry.” They would say things like: “I love your videos.” “You’ve encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone.” “I thought you were taller.” “I just hand out tracts.”
“Just.” What a horrendous, four-letter word when used to describe a Christian’s evangelistic efforts. Over and over again, I would hear it. “I just…”
The people saying it meant well. They were being kind, respectful, appreciative, and encouraging. But they didn’t realize what they were saying. They were vaunting one method of public evangelism (namely: open-air preaching) over others. They were minimizing and marginalizing their own evangelism efforts because they were errantly comparing their efforts to other methodologies they saw as more important, more courageous, more biblical, and (I hesitate to say it for fear of encouraging the use of the word) more effective.
It happened so often; it got so bad, that I started gently yet firmly rebuking people who used the word “just” to, in effect, apologize for the way they engaged in evangelism.
“I just hand out gospel tracts.”
“I just strike up conversations with people.”
“I just stand on the street with gospel signs.”
“I just talk to other students at school.”
“I just share the gospel with my co-workers.”
“I’m a shut-in, so I just share the gospel online.”
“I’m just a homeschool mom…”
Oh, what a disservice open-air preachers (including this one) have done to the Body of Christ by making and allowing Christians to think that open-air preaching is the pinnacle, the be-all-end-all, the goal of public evangelism!
It is true that open-air preaching is not for everyone. It is not for women and it is not for every man. But that in no way makes open-air preaching more important than other forms of biblical evangelism.
The GOSPEL is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), not the manner in which that gospel is disseminated or communicated. The well-designed gospel tract isn’t where the power lies. The gospel printed on the tract is the power. The gift of gab, the ability to tell stories, being a good listener, or having the ability to apologetically crush a person’s worldview is not where the power lies. The gospel being communicated is the power. A booming voice, command presence, a whimsical demeanor, and eloquence of speech is not where the power lies. The gospel being preached is the power.
The gospel is the power of God!
So, what does this have to do with my fellow street evangelist’s question about getting his church family on the streets? In a word: everything. Not only have street evangelists erred by establishing a rank structure regarding forms of street evangelism, they have also–maybe inadvertently, maybe unintentionally–errantly ranked street evangelism over other forms of biblical evangelism.
I am So Very Blessed
The evangelist who contacted me wrote:
“I see on your posts that people from your church body join you in your work and so I’m hoping you can give me some insight.”
I praise and thank God that my friend notices that the evangelism efforts of Grace Fellowship Church (a church of only about 40 members, not counting children) involves many members of my church family. While I am an evangelist commissioned and sent out by my church to do the work of evangelism on the streets of our community and beyond, my church’s evangelism extends well-beyond the work I do.
There are times when I am blessed to have as many 20-30 members of my church family (including children) on the streets with me–holding signs, distributing tracts, talking to people, with a few of us men also preaching the gospel in the open-air. I saw this more than once during this year’s outdoor farmers’ market season. There are other times when one or two of my brethren will join me on a street corner. For a time, a mom in the church would come out every Thursday afternoon with a couple of her kids to join me for sign evangelism. Most recently, three of my brethren (Matthew, Callie, and Donnie) joined me for a special day of ministry in Waukesha, WI.
Yes, I am blessed to be a member of a church that not only understands the importance, but also the necessity of public evangelism. Our church has become known in our community as “the church at the farmers’ market,” “the church on the street corners,” and “the church that goes to the parades.”
It Can Still Get Lonely Out There
The above testimony being true, I still spend most of my time on the streets alone. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that I conduct most of my street evangelism during the day when most of the men of the church are at work and most of the women are tending to their children and their homes.
Yes, it can get lonely out there. And yes, there have been times when I have had to fight off negative thoughts, even bitterness because more of my church family is not out on the streets with me more often. That loneliness and bitterness, I have learned, at least for me, was born out of selfishness and an imbalanced emphasis on street evangelism over all other forms of biblical evangelism.
The answer to the occasional loneliness and bitterness is not getting my church family on the streets more often. The answer is repentance–my repentance.
What I’ve Learned
I began this article by asserting my familiarity with both the joys and frustrations of encouraging and facilitating the street evangelism efforts of my church family. I have testified to how blessed I am to be part of a church family that knows the importance and the necessity of public evangelism. I am thankful that our church is known in our community for its evangelism efforts. I acknowledge that it’s not always easy getting members of my church family out on the streets and that, in years past, I have elevated street evangelism over other forms of biblical evangelism.
I should and will continue to encourage my church family to take to the streets with the gospel. I will do everything I can, under the authority and direction of my elders, to provide and lead opportunities for members of my church family, either individually or in groups, to engage in public evangelism. As for my work on the streets, I will keep doing what my elders have called me to do–proclaim the gospel to my community and beyond. And, because of what I’ve learned, I can fulfill that mission without loneliness or bitterness.
What I’ve learned has resulted in a better understanding of my role as an evangelist. The goal of my work, as it pertains to the edification and evangelistic equipping of my church family, is not to get the other members of my church onto the streets. I will not be able to say, “My work here is done,” if I happen to be successful in getting everyone in my church to engage in public evangelism.
You see, my goal, my mission is not to get my church family involved in street evangelism. It’s to help them to engage in evangelism.
Here are some examples of how I have assisted my church family in evangelism away from the streets.
A couple of moms of large families (we have several large families in our church) came to me asking for a gospel tract to give to people who approach them in public to comment or ask about their many children. So, I wrote this one.
A brother in the church, himself the head of a large family, has his family involved in a number of home-based businesses. He came to me one day asking if I could write a gospel tract to give to customers. So, I wrote this one.
A sister in the church came to me looking for counsel on how to engage her Jehovah’s Witness sister in gospel conversation. I suggested she write her sister a letter. We talked at length about content, tone, and we later talked about how to handle her sister’s response.
Another brother in the church was faced with the potential of being required by his employer to refer to a male employee as a female employee. We talked about the possible consequences for doing that which is right, according to Scripture, as well as the evangelism opportunities such a decision could create.
From time to time, the elders ask me (and other men in the church) to provide a brief word of edification, based on the morning sermon, during our Sunday evening gatherings. When appropriate, I make evangelistic applications during these presentations.
Blogs, videos, pictorial journals, one-to-one conversations with church members about evangelism-related subjects, and the like round out my edifying and equipping work as an evangelist in my church.
Of course, I continue to remind my church family of the open invitation to join me on the streets. But my church family, with their diverse spheres of influence (families, jobs, social networks outside the church, etc.) have the potential to reach many other people with the gospel–people I likely will never meet on the streets–people they likely will not see when they are on the streets with me. If my encouragement to them is limited to joining me on the streets to fulfill their biblical, evangelistic obligations, then what about all those souls they touch every day that aren’t going to stop to talk to me at Harrison and Locust, or we won’t see outside the farmers’ market or walking into an abortuary, or we won’t run into at a parade? What about them?
So, How Important Is It To Get My Church Onto the Streets?
To my evangelist brother who contacted me for help:
As an evangelist sent out by your elders, it is important to do what you can to encourage your church family to take to the streets to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. After all, Christians are commanded to go into all the world with the gospel (see Mark 16:15). But, street evangelism isn’t all-important. It is not even most important. It is but one form of biblical evangelism.
Your goal should be to edify and equip as many members of your church family as you can to fulfill the Great Commission, in keeping with the personality God has given each of them, according to the context of life where He has placed each of them. For some in your church family, that work may result in them taking to the streets. For others, it may not.
There will be times, maybe many, when no one hits the streets with you.
Don’t let it discourage you. Don’t let it embitter you toward your church family. Continue, with your elders’ blessing, to do the work they have called you to do–the work that is consistent with your personality, giftedness, and the context of life where God has placed you. If your elders have sent you to the streets and the streets are where you want to be, then go; do the work. Rejoice and be glad. Smell the roses knowing that from time to time you may prick your finger with a thorn.
Be thankful for your elders. Be thankful for your church family. Be thankful for any time members of your church, whether few or many, whether rarely or often, join you on the streets. Be thankful for every time you have opportunity to edify and equip your church family in the area of evangelism, away from the streets. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Encourage and equip the men in your church to be evangelists in the workplace and as the shepherds of their homes.
Encourage and equip students to be evangelists on their campuses.
Encourage and equip stay-at-home moms to be evangelists at their dining room tables as they nurture and educate their children.
Encourage the shyest people in your church to do something, anything to further the gospel. Hold their hands. Pat their backs. Gently nudge them along.
I do my church family a disservice if I limit my evangelistic edification and equipping to street evangelism. As an evangelist in my church, I need to be ready, willing, and able to edify and equip them to reach people everywhere–not just on the streets. To do so, my church family has to see me as more than a street evangelist. They have to see me as an evangelist–an evangelist at all times, to all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations.
Encourage your pastors to be evangelists in the pulpit and, when their duties permit, on the streets with you. Lovingly and respectfully remind them, when appropriate and if necessary, of this extra-biblical maxim: “speed of the leader(s), speed of the team.”
The evangelistic heartbeat and pulse rate of the church is their responsibility, not yours. It is also their responsibility to determine how best to utilize those church members who join you on the streets. Yes, give your input. Yes, report to your pastors what you see from and in members of the church family when you’re with them on the streets. Make suggestions. But remember, if your elders are functioning as shepherds who will give an account to God for how they kept watch over the souls of their flock (Hebrews 13:17), then they know the church family better than you do–maybe, in some cases, better than the people know themselves. So again, how the church family functions (activities, roles, responsibilities) when it takes to the streets to engage in public evangelism is their responsibility, not yours. They may entrust you with field leadership in their absence, but they are still the shepherds. You are the sheepdog.
Be the very best street evangelist you can be. Don’t do it on the guilty backs of your church family, but on their supportive shoulders instead.
Don’t make or let your church family think their evangelistic efforts off the streets, whether large or small, are in any way inferior to your evangelistic efforts on the streets. Don’t allow a hierarchical evangelism structure to form in your church the way it has formed in parts of the street evangelism community. Be a catalyst of evangelistic growth in your church, not evangelistic division or indifference.
For those members of your church family who aren’t doing anything at all to further God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel, love and support them the same way you would love and support a member of your church struggling with any other sin. (Yes, refusing, whether out of fear or indifference, to communicate the gospel to lost people is sin.) Lovingly, gently, firmly, consistently, persistently reprove, rebuke, and exhort them with great patience (2 Timothy 4:2)–not as their pastor, but as their brother. Spur them on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) by helping them to see that evangelism is a wonderful (not the only) expression of the fulfillment of the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Do this while regularly reminding yourself that your goal as the church’s evangelist is not to get them involved in street evangelism, but to get them involved in evangelism.
And remember, the barometer of your church’s love for the lost and for the gospel of Jesus Christ is not how many members join you on the streets, or how often they join you, but rather how many members communicate the gospel to anyone, regardless of location. Yes, get them on the streets if you can. It’s a wonderful, biblical way to spread the gospel. But your role as your church’s evangelist, as I’ve tried to communicate in this article, is much bigger than that, much deeper than that.