"I've always said that I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn't proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn't believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.” Penn Jillette (atheist)
It's funny, or maybe a sad indictment, that a challenge like this should come from the mouth of a prominent atheist rather than a Christian. Ten years ago, I was “convicted into mission” by a similar quote from an anonymous atheist. We may not like reading the words of those who don’t share our beliefs—the authors may even be working against our fundamental convictions about life, faith and everything else, but the real question is: do they have a point?
I have just returned from my first week-long mission with the Open-Air Mission—we were based in London, arriving on the morning of the most recent terrorist atrocity. I thought it might be useful to give you a flavour of my experiences during the week and a reminder of the viewpoints that are prevalent in society today.
Our team started each day with a short Bible study and prayer for the contacts from the previous day. We then hit popular tourist spots including Speaker’s Corner, Leicester Square, the National Gallery and Covent Garden. The men diligently carried the bulky display board and poles everywhere we went. Establishing ourselves in each location for several hours, the preachers took turns sharing the Gospel.
The presentations were varied: the most memorable, from my perspective, was a simple statement posted in large letters: “Your sin will find you out!” The preacher then passionately exhorted people to ensure they were ready to stand before God when the time came. Others displays were more detailed and attempted to draw people in with cultural relevancy: posting pictures of famous people and asking the audience if they are good or bad people then explaining why none of us are good in the sight of God.
Regardless the style or words used, all the messages were Gospel centred and sought to make people think about eternal matters. Indeed, if people only paid attention to the first part of one message: STOP AND THINK, then that would be real progress in a world of never-ending distractions.
On a slight side note, Christians often approached to encourage us and regularly commented that they hadn’t realised we were even allowed to do this. Christians take note that as long as you don’t block access routes, you can set up displays and preach the Gospel in any public space. Free speech is still protected, for now.
I attended the mission as a supporter. My role was to stand in the crowd and observe those who were listening. If they began to drift away during the talk, I was to move with them and attempt to get them into conversation about what they had heard or, if that failed, at least try to give them literature to take away. I could also give out Gospel tracts to passers-by.
I wanted to include details of the people I met during the week here, I have shortened their names to avoid identification:
- D, male, late 50’s or early 60’s. Background as an evangelical Christian but switched to Russian Orthodox several decades ago. He planned to attend a Baptist church that afternoon with his wife. D seemed to find the message of salvation too easy and wanted to add something to it through mysticism or rituals that take place in church. He struggled with those who call themselves Christians but after conversion continue living worldly lives.
- M, 82, Asian man. Didn’t believe in an afterlife and thought we would all just stay in the ground. Had lost his wife in recent years.
- Refused name, man in his 50’s or 60’s. Militant Catholic wanting to go into all the history of the faith in minute detail and debate and argue with Evangelicals.
- L, female, young Filipino student serving in a coffee shop that we used. Catholic without assurance of eternal destination. Stated that she hoped she would get to heaven.
- Very old Jewish lady. Stated that her greatest need was health and that she didn’t believe Jesus even existed. Became angry and ended conversation.
- C, female, 19, American student. Discovered after an hour of conversation that she was high on LSD. She admitted that she takes drugs because she feels empty inside and is searching for meaning in life.
- L, male, 30’s, American but lives here. Turned away from faith due to serious problems in life—divorce, partner having abortions, debt and drug abuse. Was shaking throughout conversation. Stated that he would return to his Christian faith one day as he knew he needed to sort things out.
- J, male, 30’s or 40’s, American just visiting. Part of a cult teaching the writings of Alice Bailey. Explained that he thought that faith needed to be more complex for people with greater intellectual capacity.
- K, female, 40’s. American living in London. Appeared to be Christian on the surface but had significant doubts and had been investigating other religions. Possibly struggles with mental health problems as she started talking about sensing that she would be talking to random people later that evening.
- J, female, 20’s. Lives in London with lesbian partner. Angry about the focus that Christians tend to place on homosexuality as the greatest sin. Lots of good questions about suffering, God, the Bible etc. Described herself as agnostic.
- E, female, 50’s or 60’s. Living abroad and working as a doctor although schooled in England. Sceptical about the afterlife—had seen the uplifting effect of faith in those who are dying or suffering trials. Wanted to believe and felt the weight of her sin as she tried to reach God through good works/morality. Knew deep inside that it wasn’t enough and struggled everyday as she searched for peace.
- A, male, 40’s, Muslim man working for prominent organisation. Wanted to chat for longer but on his way to work. Worried about lack of assurance of heaven and feels the weight of his sin. Trying to reach heaven through good works.
- C, female, 20’s, Catholic lacking assurance of heaven and wanting to stay in contact.
- Jewish couple, 40’s. Trying to rush off as wanting to photograph everything during their visit. Didn’t believe Jesus is Messiah and trying to get to heaven through good works.
These are most of the contacts that I had during the week. I haven’t included how I dealt with each person: what I said to them or how I tried to resolve their issues or questions. I hope instead that reading their basic details will cause you to think about how you might respond if confronted with these situations.
You can see that the issues are wide ranging but that few people are confident in their atheism. Romans chapter 1 tells us that God created us with knowledge that He exists and the external evidence is in creation for all to see, that is why we are without excuse if we ignore Him and suppress that knowledge.
The majority of the people I spoke to took literature after the Gospel was explained. One person asked me “Why do Christians do this? Why do they go out on the street and try to persuade people of their viewpoint?” My simple answer was “Because I care about you.” There is no other answer—we are volunteers—we are not paid anything and give our time freely. We are not people who enjoy winning arguments for the sake of it or people who enjoy getting into awkward conflict. We are not rewarded for adding members to the church. We are not asking for donations or selling books. We love people enough to tell them the truth that unless they respond to the message of hope in Jesus, they are facing a lost eternity in hell, forever.
None of the people we spoke to made professions of faith on the spot—it may sound odd but I actually found it refreshing that we didn’t have any reported conversions during the week. Genuine conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit that takes place in the heart. It is rare that someone is ready to surrender their life to Jesus at the point when we first meet them. The Bible makes it clear that a person should count the cost before making the decision and that their understanding should not be in doubt. Our role is to plant the seed, we are not responsible for the growth.
My most profound moment was not during a conversation and may not seem to be significant at all. A few of our team had set up at a location that had not been tried before—just outside the Embankment tube station. A preacher was faithfully sharing the Gospel on the street corner. I was standing across the street listening and watching. People were milling around and heading in all directions. They mostly seemed to be in a hurry. Some were rushing in and out of shops or grabbing a coffee, others were hastening to catch a train or heading back to work. The preacher was ignored in the main with the odd grimace by some as they heard the name of Jesus or were reminded of their sin.
I was suddenly struck by the meaninglessness of the frenetic activity that was going on around me. People scurrying like ants in a whirlwind cycle of purposelessness—they obviously believed whatever they were doing was important. They had missed the fact that the only really important information was coming from the lone street preacher standing on the corner passionately proclaiming the truth about life and eternity. However, most of the people had probably dismissed him in their minds as another religious nutcase and didn’t give the incident another thought.
I wonder how many people will stand before God on Judgement Day pleading ignorance of the way of salvation when they had a clear opportunity to listen to that faithful preacher on the streets of London. I’m sure at this moment whatever it was that kept them so busily occupied will be a source of eternal regret. How tragic to be so caught up in trivial worldly things that don’t last when taking a few moments to STOP AND THINK may have saved your soul.
Although I quoted an atheist earlier, I prefer to make the message positive. Rather than asking how much we have to hate a person not to evangelise, my question to you is: Do you love people enough to tell them the truth?