Most Friday nights during the school year, a group of Wheaton College students takes the train into downtown Chicago together. Their purpose? To share the gospel with the people they meet that night in the city.
Last year, Wheaton’s Chicago Evangelism Team traveled to Millenium Park, home to one of the city’s most popular attractions: the Bean. When students began to approach people with pamphlets, a park employee told students they were forbidden from doing so. Similarly, when one student began preaching, they were told that they were breaking a Chicago ordinance. Read The Chicago Tribune’s report.
This account comes from the lawsuit four students filed against the city of Chicago last week, alleging that the city’s park rules improperly restricted their freedom of speech. The rules divided up the park into 11 sections and banned the public from “the making of speeches and passing out of written communications” in all but one of the sections. That section was not the Bean, which was where the students specifically wanted to evangelize.
The public’s strong reaction against evangelism comes as more and more companies are aggressively trying to sell you on their brands and products, says R. York Moore, the national evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA.
“Now, as we see, people tend to associate proselytization with big tech companies or someone trying to sell you a credit card,” he said. “...It’s no longer unique.”
Moore joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss why evangelism can make us feel uncomfortable, what bad evangelism looks like, and what makes public proclamation of one’s faith beautiful and unique.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #179
When you heard this story, what went through your mind?
York Moore: First of all, we need to give thanks for these brave women and men, who are obviously doing something that's increasingly socially unacceptable, something that is uncomfortable—both for the person who's proclaiming, as well as for the one who is willing to hear.
Within Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which is in 172 countries, there are people who are proclaiming the Gospel at their own peril, and they are paying a very high price for doing evangelism, which is one of the core aspects of the Christian faith. And so for these Wheaton students, we have to at least recognize the courage that it takes to actually get on that train and show up at The Bean and approach people.
We have to also ask ourselves this: what would motivate someone to actually do something that is so socially unacceptable, at their own social peril, at the cost of their own comfort? Why would somebody be so motivated to do something like that with their valuable time?
What are your thoughts about public evangelism or evangelism in public spaces?
York Moore: I grew up as an atheist. We had a sign on the front of our home that said, “The Moores, The Atheists.” But when I became a Christian, I immediately and intuitively began to do this same kind of activity. Now, I didn't know that it was called evangelism to be quite honest with you, but all I knew was that I had this radical experience with the God of the universe, He revealed himself to me, He was real, and I had experienced His love and I wanted everyone around me to know that same experience.
But the reality is, no matter what the mode or method, evangelism is always risky business. And there's always an element of discomfort, both for good reasons and for bad reasons.
I became a Christian 30 years ago and I think our expectations about what is socially acceptable have definitely changed.
On a personal level, there's really no other spiritual discipline in my life that is similar to the proclamation of the Gospel. It does something in me—in terms of my conviction and commitment to the larger kingdom of God. I can read my Bible privately, I can pray privately, I can even fellowship with non-Christians somewhat privately, but with the proclamation of the Gospel—whether it's done between two individuals or if it's done to 90,000 people—there is a spiritual transaction that happens that is unlike any other aspect of our Christian faith.
Furthermore, I'd say that the public proclamation of the Gospel, like what the Wheaton students did, does something different than private evangelism. We can share our faith individually with our neighbors, and our co-workers, and our relatives—and we should do that, that should be the mainstay of our evangelistic activity—but when we proclaim the Gospel, we're actually doing more than just passing along information. There's a spiritual transaction where we're actually violating the laws of the spirit realm.
So if in reality, we live in a world that is governed by all kinds of principalities and powers that are at work against the expansion of the kingdom of God, then the proclamation of the Gospel actually steps over that line. And it does so in a symbolic way, in a way that's very meaningful and effective. I've seen tens of thousands of people come to faith in Jesus through my preaching ministry, but even if none of that work happened, when we proclaim the Gospel what we're actually saying is that there isn't a place on Earth, there isn't a person in this realm, that doesn't actually belong to God. That they owe their very breath to Him, that the places where they're walking belong to the Lord of the universe. That's what public proclamation does.
Why do you think there is such a resistance to public evangelism—both from Christians and non-Christians?
I do think the environment is incredibly complex and this issue seems like a simple fight to say we should be able to preach the Gospel wherever and whenever we like. But it's a little bit more complex than that, particularly if we consider what bad evangelism does to the public perception of Christianity and Christians.
One issue is that I think we're actually seeing the normalization of secularized proselytization. By and large, evangelism has been the domain of evangelical Christianity until recently. But now people tend to associate proselytization with big tech companies or somebody trying to sell you a credit card, and so it's no longer unique to us. In fact, a lot of big tech companies have a position that would be on par with an Executive Vice President of Operations and they call that person an evangelist—literally that is on their business card. They are an evangelist for the company.
There is this kind of normalization of the role. And that has created an environment where the general public no longer expect to be evangelized. And so when we go to a place like The Bean and we see the public proclamation of the Gospel, it's jarring. There's something unusual and out of place about it. And it causes us to recoil in a way that it would never have done five, 10, 20 years ago.
In other of parts of the world the public proclamation of the Gospel is normal, it's on every street corner. But in America it's fallen on hard times. There's this growing perception that evangelism, and missions in general, is an expression of an injustice. I do think the way in which we practice evangelism will either accelerate that perception or it will actually help to heal the misperception of what the Gospel is and what it does.
But again, the reality is that there isn't a place in our corporeal existence that doesn't belong to Jesus Christ, and whenever or wherever the opportunity should arise, we have to proclaim that. It doesn't matter if we're on an airplane, in a prison, or a public park.
But having said that, as not to sour the public perception of Christian evangelism and the legitimate role of the evangelist in the public realm, we ought to normalize our practice of proclamation in reasonable public spaces. And in my opinion, Millennium Park is such a reasonable place. It's the very kinds of places that are protected under our free speech laws. And if we don't express our right to free speech in those kinds of places, the inertia around evangelism, the progression of incremental adoption around comfort is going to cause us as a society to increasingly reduce those places where the Gospel is legitimately sanctioned for proclamation.
So as the social perception and policy restrictions continue to push proclamation out of view, Christians will eventually have no choice but to pay a higher price for the proclamation—either as lawbreakers or subversives. And that's actually what we're starting to see in many of our universities, that our proclamation of the Gospel is becoming an act of subversion.
Your argument is very interesting in the sense that you do not ground it in freedom of speech or any other human rights, you ground it in more of the sense of human need—that everybody needs to be aware that God is everywhere in the universe and we owe our existence to Him. Can you elaborate more on that?
York Moore: What's probably more foundational to the point I'm trying to make is the eschatological reality. In Revelation 11:15, it says that there will come a day in the apocalypse where the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Christians live as if that's already come to pass. So there isn't a home, a school, a jail cell, an airplane seat, that doesn't belong to that Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And when we proclaim the Gospel, we're expressing our faith in that reality.
We are also expressing our belief that the person that we're sharing the Gospel with matters deeply to God. It is not just a speech act. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul says “our Gospel came to you not simply with words.” And that's largely the problem with bad evangelism. Bad evangelism is almost always a speech act. What Paul does enforces in that verse is that our Gospel did not come simply with words. It came with power and with the Holy Spirit and from deep conviction. How often can you say those four things come together in public proclamation? Not very often. And that's part of what we have to repair, the holistic expression of Gospel proclamation.
What do you mean by “a speech act”?
York Moore: If we turn on the news, there's no two-way communication. There's no interaction. I'm merely being influenced by the speech act of the broadcaster. And the Gospel was never intended to be merely a speech act. The apostle Paul says, “Our Gospel came to you not simply with words.”
That's one of the reasons why I really dislike that quote, “Preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.” It's a terrible quote. There's no Gospel proclamation that isn't also a speech act, but it can never merely be a speech act.
Paul was actually exalting the primacy of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel, but it's hollow and illegitimate when it is merely a speech act, and that's why there are these other expressions: that it comes with power, it comes with the Holy Spirit, it comes from people of deep conviction.
Another example of public evangelism is the classic crusades, which are usually done in a public space. Can you talk about how that's different than doing evangelism at The Bean?
York Moore: The difference is that we're actually inviting someone to come hear a speaker or group of speakers. There is a buy-in, they're saying yes, they're attending, they're sitting in the seat. But when we're proclaiming the Gospel in public settings, we are treating buy-in simply by a person's proximity. While you're free to get up and move, by and large this is something that is being done in the environment that you haven't really agreed to.
But it doesn't mean that one is legitimate, and one is illegitimate. If we move our evangelism into stadiums and classrooms and church buildings, we're in a sense proclaiming in a public way but that's very different than that line in the sand that I'm talking about. The one that comes against the principalities and the powers of darkness and violates the assumptions of the kingdom of darkness by proclaiming the Gospel in a public place. Both are needed and one is not better than the other, but they do different things.
Can talk concretely about how trying to be sensitive to culture and cultural norms is also part of doing evangelism?
York Moore: What we're seeing to some degree, both in the church but certainly in the secular environment, is an emerging world view and a social adoption that identifies Christian evangelist with oppression and injustice. This is because some of the tenants of the Christian worldview are seen to be harmful to people because it seeks to change them.
So by the very nature of proselytization, you are taking on the assumption that one way is good and that people need to be changed. But in this emerging world view that is seen increasingly as an instrument of oppression and injustice, and I think that's only going to accelerate.
This will be particularly problematic in places like universities, public high schools, prisons, and other controlled environments, but eventually, it will sour people's perceptions of public proclamation in general because it will be identified as an expression of injustice on par with racialized hate speech. In fact, there are already lots of people who are starting to make the argument that religious proselytization is an expression of injustice.
What can Christians do about this? How are you're challenging Christians to fulfil their calling to evangelize and be sensitive about those liminal spaces?
York Moore: There's a word that isn't very common in the United States, that word is “polarity.” In the Western mind, we are linear thinkers: there is a zero-sum assumption with every question, that there are winners and losers, and one loss has to come at somebody else's victory. In Eastern thinking however, everything is about balance and it is about polarity.
And so a polarity is a tension that exists between two durable poles that is never actually supposed to be resolved. So some tension should never be resolved. Whereas in the Western minds we think every point of tension, every point of discomfort, every problem has to be resolved with a solution. And the Gospel is full of polarities that are supposed to be lived into.
When we have an either-or, zero-sum game, we never have a full expression of the Gospel. That's why in the very first book that Paul wrote, in the very first chapter, he says our Gospel came not only with words. How the Western mind reads this verse is: “It didn't come with words, but it came with power, of the Holy Spirit, and with people of deep conviction.” And we see that as a list of four things.
But that's not how Paul meant it. It's actually two polarity dyads. When the Gospel comes, it comes with words and power. There's the polarity. And those two things are always to live in a symbiotic relationship. We can't make evangelism simply about words and devoid of power. But then he gives us a second polarity dyad: That the Gospel is rooted in the divine power of the Holy Spirit and delivered through people of deep conviction, a person who's all in.
How do you approach public evangelism with your work at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship?
If you read the Gospel, almost every story of Jesus is what my kids would call “cringey.” There's a cringe nature to the stories of Jesus. He was so disruptive and created such discomfort. Now He's the God of the universe and we're not, and that's why I do think we need to think carefully about how we're practicing evangelism.
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, for instance, has been doing evangelism for 80 years in the US, and we've never seen so many students come to faith as we're seeing now. My team got together, and we created what we now call proxy stations, which are these interactive art stations that use a person's encounter with a beautiful piece of art to help them experience the heart of God for them and for the world around them. And there are many different versions of these, we have dozens and dozens of them now all around the United States and we've used them overseas.
But I'll tell you, when you see a group of college students line up to be evangelized because of this method, it gives you hope for the public proclamation of the Gospel. In fact one student came up and he said, “You know what? I know what you're doing here. I don't like it, but this thing is so cool, I have to do it.” Now that's good evangelism and the church should hold out for good evangelism.
Can you talk a little bit more and specifically about how this experience that you've created works?
York Moore: There are many different versions of it, but the idea would be basically the same: you'd set up in a common area, a lot of times we have to have permit beforehand, and these art stations will have about three or four different stages.
The initial approach would be a simple question asking if a person has a moment to respond to a series of questions. And so there's that initial buy-in. And the guide will ask them about their level of awareness about for instance child prostitution. And instead of telling us their answer verbally, we have ways for them to actually indicate the level of awareness. We'll give them ribbon to pin on a piece of art, or dollars to pin on a mattress, or a marker to write out a sentence or two reflecting their knowledge. And so there's a way in which they enter into the process experientially.
And then we'll ask them a question like, “Do you think there are any spiritual dimensions to human trafficking? Or is this simply a public health crisis, or is it a crisis of law?” And so we migrate the conversation into a general overview of spiritual issues. And we'll bring in a verse of scripture. We'll talk about God's love for the poor, the marginalized, or the oppressed and how Jesus saw people and had compassion on them.
And then we'll ask them if they would be interested in hearing about how the spirituality of Jesus actually provides real life solutions for issues like trafficking. And if they agree to that, we continue to share with them. And almost always, if they've gone through the first two or three steps, they agree to do the fourth step.
And there's no bait and switch. We tell them upfront we're a Christian organization, we tell them upfront we're talking about the role of spirituality an issue like trafficking, or and the response has been incredible. When you're honest with people, you're not trying to trick them, you're not trying to foist something upon them, and you treat them like free-thinking adults, by and large people are interested in having an interaction, even if there's discomfort involved.
And we have seen literally thousands of students pray to receive Jesus through these proxy stations. Almost never is there any kind of pushback that you would normally associate with the guy in the middle of the sidewalk screaming his head off. I would hate to see that kind of evangelism go, but the problem is almost always we've only seen that type of evangelism done poorly—from cults and from wackos who convolute the Gospel with all kinds of problematic theology—but what these Wheaton students are doing is a beautiful expression of the Proclamation of the Gospel.
Why do you see innovation and evangelism as really important things to team up together?
York Moore: If we're going to be wise and persuasive, we have to do so in a way that's socially palatable. There's a danger that we water down our Gospel, that we're not people of great passion and conviction, and the great revivalists fought against that. But I do think the time is past now for us to just assume that we can perform simple speech acts and have any kind of impact on the public. If we're going to win a willing ear, we need to be persuasive, and that means thinking critically and creatively about the context that were ministering in. How to actually draw people's attention rather than turn them away. If all we're doing is turning away people from hearing, the chances are zero that they will actually hear God's love and respond to God's love.
One of my heroes says that our best foot forward is going to be through commitment to social good. So could we not partner with our political leaders, our business leaders, our nonprofit leaders to address things like the growing poverty in our urban centers, undocumented persons and their needs, issues of creation care and fighting human trafficking?
There are lots and lots of conservative Christians that see those things as a distraction from the Gospel, and I would simply go back to that Revelation 11:15 verse and say there isn't a place in this world that doesn't belong to Jesus, there's not a person that he doesn't care for, and that people who are suffering—whether it's from poverty or from coercion or mass incarceration, people who are suffering at the expense of or because of systems of Injustice—those are people who are suffering because of the brokenness of the world of this world. And the Gospel is good news, not simply for the hell to come, it's good news for the hell that we're in right now.
When I was an impoverished, young African American boy living homeless on the streets of Detroit, I needed the Gospel that came with not just words but also with power. I needed to be saved from the hell that I was in, not just the hell to come. And that's why thinking creatively, coming up with solutions that actually evoke a healthy cognitive dissonance in the public, that evoke them to consider Jesus, are going to be increasingly important.
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