At the Abbot Kinney festival in Venice, CA a month ago, I noticed a contrast between two different kinds of outreach. One group had rented a booth at the street fair and put up a banner that said, “I ♥ Jesus because I’m Muslim” and politely offered a free English translation of the Qur’an. The other group had no booth or anything to give, but instead walked through the crowd armed with offensive protest signs and megaphones. I recognized some of them as the same shaved head, fully tattooed sign holders I’d seen a month earlier at the Festival of the Chariots, an annual Hare Krishna parade on the Venice Boardwalk.
In Los Angeles, it’s become too common to see these protesters from officialstreetpreachers.com around town that I didn’t think much of it at the time. But a month later, while dressed in a harmless superhero costume on Halloween night, I reflected on that again as the protesters casually told me to go to hell. I realized it sort of makes sense in a twisted fundamentalist way to protest an “evil” Halloween carnaval, gay pride parade, or Hare Krishna festival, but why were they also doing this at an ordinary street fair? I can understand from a recruiting perspective that any large gathering of people is a prime opportunity to make converts, but then why not rent a legitimate booth like the Muslims did? The Muslims’ goal was clearly to hand out copies of the Qur’an, and based on that their booth was a success. But in ten years of observing these street preachers I have yet to see them accomplish anything more than a shouting match. Of course, the vast majority of people just try to ignore them. Only guessing, I would venture that nobody has ever changed their religion after reading an offensive protest sign.
But clearly, the “official” street preachers don’t really care about how ineffective their tactics are. They’re not trying to engage people, they’re not handing out Bibles, they’re not promoting any kind of goodwill. It seems all they’re really trying to do is give every person a chance to reject their gospel before going to hell, and what better way to do that than by making Christianity look hateful, offensive, and undesirable. My heart goes out to the passersby who see this as the voice of Christianity simply because it’s the loudest. How did the Good News ever get so distorted as this?
Much the same way that tracts and door-to-door salesmanship were the signature outreach techniques of the 20th century, protests seem to have become the 21st century model for ineffective evangelism. We see it predominately in our politics, and if the decline of the Tea Party and demise of Occupy have taught us anything, it’s that these tactics don’t really win converts in the longterm. Unfortunately, what these people mistake for activism these days is merely just America’s latest folk expression de jour. But being desperate to be heard is no excuse for not trying to be successful at communicating your message.
This belligerent sign-holding as a substitute for actual evangelism doesn’t seem to work, but does seem to do real harm to the image of Christianity and the gospel message. Some basic etiquette is in order: If another religion is having a parade, then don’t rain on it. If people are going to a street fair to browse the booths, then get a booth like everybody else. If people you don’t like are having a get-together, then just leave them be. The Gospel may be offensive to some, but that doesn’t justify being overtly offensive in your presentation of it.