Engaging with darkness, or just entrenched spiritual and emotional ignorance, is not a hobby of mine. In fact I tend to avoid it wherever possible. I have dealt with evil spirits and even been used to remove a demonic spirit here and there. In saying this I am not boasting in the least. I am reminded that our Lord taught his disciples, who were also empowered by his Spirit to deal with demonic spirits, to: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Last Saturday I was in Tuscaloosa enjoying a totally gorgeous fall day. I saw some friends, visited some Bama tailgaters and soaked in the ambiance of Alabama football before the kickoff at 2:30 p.m. Around 1:45 I decided it was time to walk down University Avenue to Bryant-Denny Stadium. A few hundred yards from the stadium, as throngs of people were moving along at a rather slow pace, I heard a street preacher just ahead of me on my left. At first I ignored him.
Hearing street preachers is not entirely new for me. I’ve heard them many times in Chicago and other cities as well. A few months ago I heard an open-air preacher in a public park who was actually doing a fairly good job of preaching from a New Testament text in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Some people were actually listening respectfully to this brother as he spoke kindly and clearly about Jesus and the gospel. But last Saturday was very, very different. I was shocked as I paid more careful attention to what this man was saying and how he was saying it. He was clearly angry, speaking like an automaton who was filled with what seemed like pride. Clearly no one was listening to him and no tracts were being handed out or taken by anyone so far as I could see. He held a Bible in one hand and some note cards in the other and just ranted on and on about everyone passing by him going to hell. He was quoting Bible texts (as proof texts) but there was no explanation, just condemnation and judgment with his few texts.
My first reaction was simple. I thought about how foolish this kind of witness was, not because the good news is foolish to cultured despisers but because he was foolish in his manner of witness. His effort was totally ineffective from what I could see. Crowds just kept passing by him as he spoke. No one listened and no one engaged with him. His tone and manner never changed. There was no earnest pleading and nothing remotely human/humane about him. He just kept following his script of hateful condemnation. Like a broken record he just kept saying the same things.
The whole scene lasted for about 90 seconds as I walked toward this man and then by him. After walking about ten yards past him I thought, “I will ask him what the good news is and see what he says.” So I turned around and walked back. I suppose this was my big mistake of the day but I was genuinely curious and interested. I walked up to the man and said, very calmly, “Can I ask you a question?” He heard me and after a long pause said, “Yes.” I noted immediately that he would not make eye contact with me. I proceeded anyway. I said, “I’ve been listening to you as I walked along here and I wonder if you have any good news to offer to me this afternoon?” He began to rant in his response and got aggressive with me. He talked more about hell and judgment. I persisted (briefly) and then said the magic words. “I teach evangelism and I am not hearing anything from you that remotely sounds like good news. What are you attempting to do here?” He became aggressive and extremely agitated. I became more emotional as well. It all became tense in a hurry. Two other men came up beside him and got right in my face. I do mean “right in my face.” They were less than two feet from me and now it was three on one.
The next question was something like this: “Who are you to ask us this kind of question?” And then the bomb fell: “Where do you teach?” I answered, “The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College Graduate School.” You would have thought I fired a shot. The whole scene went bad quickly. I was told that Billy Graham was a false prophet and was going to hell. I was also going to hell as well since I taught at a place called the Billy Graham Center. Several things were said about Dr. Graham’s soul and ministry and then these three men all said to me, “You are also a false teacher and you are clearly going to hell.”
You can smile if you like but I was shaken. I have never had anyone get in my face and say to me, “You are going to hell.” I responded by asking, “How do you know that since you know nothing about me or my life or faith?” Further, “How can you know what only God knows about a soul?” The answer was repeated like a mantra: “You are a false teacher and you are going to hell.” Now three guys were taking me on and all of them saying the same thing over and over. At this point a police officer intervened (who was watching these guys the whole time). He asked me to move along. I happily did. As I walked away one of the preachers said, with his parting shot, “It is clear you are going to the football game since you are wearing an Alabama shirt so this also proves that you really are going to hell.”
I had never thought that going to see an Alabama football game amounted to a ticket to hell. Seriously, I think you get the drift. These guys were just a little quick to judge. For them Athens clearly had nothing to do with Jerusalem (if you follow my drift here) based upon my blogs from earlier this week.
I was genuinely upset. My heart was racing and my mind was spinning. I began to get a stress headache immediately. I am sure I was in a fight/flight mode inside. I walked toward the stadium and actually ran into a three foot steel post as I walked along since I was not paying attention to where I was going and was in a bit of a daze. After I got inside the stadium to my seat I rested and reflected and then grew more calm. Then it all hit me – these guys are not evangelists.
The truth is that these men are not doing Christ’s work at all. They may be very confused, fearful and (even) misguided Christians but it is more likely that they are self-righteous bigots who know little, if anything at all, of the real (experienced) love of Christ. I realized I am not to judge them but I also needed to form some reasonable response to what just happened. I now wonder the following:
- Are these guys doing Christ’s kingdom work?
- What spirit really controls this kind of activity being done in the name of Christ?
- Should I have even tried to talk to these men?
- Does anyone ever listen to these kinds of guys?
- How much harm does this kind of “witness” do for those of us who sincerely seek to bring good news to our neighbors?
I’d really like to know what you think. I’m serious. Do you know anyone who has ever been brought to Christ because of someone preaching this way to them in public? Do you personally know anyone like these guys? (I do not.) Am I missing something here?
I have told you my story as best I remember it. I have played this over and over in my mind. I am still disturbed by it. It all makes me cringe and fearful about religious zealots who think they do Christ’s will in these contexts.