As I sat down at Old City Java in Knoxville, TN, at 10:30 AM on Friday morning, I had planned to give some brief life updates, and some commentary on the fact that this was our first 4th of July spent in America in a couple of years. But as soon as I sat down with my cranberry-oat scone and americano, I started to hear the booming, distorted, crackling sound of a voice coming through a megaphone. For a few seconds I hoped it was just a strange, artistic touch to the song being played through the speakers of the coffee shop. But as one song ended and another began, it became clear this sound was coming from out on the street. I got up from my seat and popped my head out the door to investigate, and my fears were confirmed.
It was one of those preachers. You know what I’m talking about. Big, moderately offensive sign. A bright colored safety vest, perhaps to give them the appearance of authority. And a megaphone. This one was one of those fancy ones with a separate headpiece and the speaker attached to him like a backpack – that way his hands were free to hold the offensive sign in one hand and the (closed) Bible in the other. You’ve probably seen them outside of big football games, or on busy sidewalks in cities. There was a two week span at UTC where a main courtyard was taken over by an especially angry preacher lady. This man is pacing up and down the street – his words that are a mumble from afar simply become a louder, more angry mumble as he passes by the windows of the coffee shop.
I watch as each of the baristas and customers react to the sight of a man with a sign and a megaphone shouting up and down the street. One customer tells another “its one of those preacher guys” to which she responded “Oh, great” – sarcasm implied. Numerous customers simply shook their head in disgust and quietly grumbled to themselves. Some looked around the shop for someone else to affirm their head shaking and disgusted looks. One of the baristas walked outside for a second to observe, then walked back in and loudly exclaimed “Good God!” Now I can’t be sure… but I am 99.9% that he was not actually responding in amazement at how good the God of the Bible is.
While the guy is most certainly annoying, and it seems even the loudest setting on my headphones won’t drown him out, it mostly just makes me sad. Because as I look around at the small, but what I would say is a fairly representative sample size of people in the Old City on Friday morning, it is pretty safe to say he is not winning anybody with the Gospel of Christ. For somebody who is not following Christ, there are probably 1 of 2 things that can happen from encountering this preacher guy.
- If they already had a preconceived idea about how “Christians” act – hateful, bigoted, hypocritical, judgmental, or even just socially unaware – then this preacher guy was simply proving this to be true.
- If they don’t know much about the Christian faith, this is a terrible introduction. Any future encounters with church or the Christian faith will have this memory playing in the background.
(Now, before anyone fights me on this, it is worth mentioning that it is possible that a seed could be planted by the preaching of God’s word [though he is rarely actually reading or teaching God’s word faithfully] and that the Holy Spirit could choose to work through this guy. That is possible.)
Knowing how the preacher guy is being received even just within this coffee shop makes me frustrated that he is choosing to spend his morning this way. And it would be easy to continue to poke holes in his method and logic and theology. There are a lot of reasons why I think what he is doing is a BAD idea. But simply sitting in a place of judgment from my safe little seat in the coffee shop doesn’t really put me much closer to the heart of the Gospel than he is. So instead, I want to consider two challenges for myself, and for Christians as a whole, in response.
First, it makes me wonder how often I am actually a lot like him – proclaiming truth to people without actually engaging them as image bearers made to reflect the Glory of God. I think of 1 Corinthians 13:1 which says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” For the people in this coffee shop, the man’s words sound exactly like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. They don’t know him, and he doesn’t know them. Furthermore, there is nothing to imply that he loves or even cares about the people he is preaching to. Again, it is easy to pick on the guy, but I have to ask myself, how often do I do the same? I can stand in front of high school students and share the Gospel, but if I am not moving towards them with love, spending just as much time actually sitting with them and talking with them as I do preparing for a talk, then what is to say my words don’t sound like a clanging cymbal – or a muffled, crackling noise from a megaphone.
As Christians, especially in light of knowing that the general perception of the faith is often simply confirmed by people like the preacher guy, we have to be persistent in getting to know people, in moving towards them. It is ironic for me to be writing this in a blog post, because that is one of the ways we can so often fail at this. I see so many articles and Facebook posts that are basically the equivalent of yelling through a megaphone at our neighbor, rather than loving them. Now even people posting articles that proclaim a Gospel of outrage would say that the megaphone preacher guy is totally off base – but at least he has the nerve to say the things out loud that so many others are thinking or writing from behind a screen.
The second challenge for me personally is this: I feel so frustrated that for many, this angry preacher guy is their first impression of Christianity, and yet, I am not doing anything to counteract that. I am not actively going out of my way to make sure that the people who fill a coffee shop on a Friday morning would know the love and grace of Christ. I’m not sure that I know the best method to do so, but we as Christians should not be content with just sitting in judgment of the megaphone guy while doing nothing ourselves. I come to this coffee shop enough, I could be engaging in conversation with the baristas that I see week after week. Heck, I could use this opportunity to engage with the folks around me about the fact that the baristas sarcastic “Good God!” is true, even if the preacher guy is doing nothing to show it. So I can feel good about myself for not being the angry preacher guy, but I am a long way off from being Paul, who in the book of Acts, by being in the city and among the people, found ways to lovingly and boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ.
For Christians today, it is so important that we not be content with simply not being those obnoxious kind of Christian. We should not settle for our witness being the fact that we aren’t as annoying as other people who claim Christianity. Don’t get me wrong, that is a great start, and PLEASE don’t go out and invest in a megaphone. But we are called to go out and be active ambassadors of Christ. We are called to love one another, because He first loved us. This goes beyond just NOT being annoying. We have been given the Gospel of Christ, something that we have the joy and privilege of offering to others. Through conversation, through love, through care for our neighbor. Just not through a megaphone.