Image: American street preacher Tony Miano
I recently wrote an article which appeared in the last RB Trumpet offering a critique of the contemporary "street preaching" movement. In recent months there have been headlines as several outsider "street preachers" have been arrested in Scotland. This has been reported among evangelicals in the US as evidence of increasing "intolerance" and "persecution" against evangelical Christians. David Robertson, pastor at St. Peter's Free Church in Dundee, Scotland has, however, written a couple of insightful articles that raise some significant questions about the methods of the street preachers who have been arrested in his country and how this affects the witness of faithful local churches like his own.
Back on October 4, 2013 he wrote Persecuting Preachers in Perth, questioning the wisdom of Australian street preacher Josh Williamson's arrest in Perth, Scotland. He closed with the following plea to Williamson:
Repent: I mean it. It is good when we can admit our mistakes and errors. The Christian life is one of continual repentance. You got this one wrong, brother. If I were you I would go to the police and apologise for the attitude and the provocation, for refusing to do what they asked, for the recording and tell them that you accept you were guilty of breach of the peace. Go to the shopkeeper who was so upset and tell him that you are sorry for disturbing his business and that you hope he will forgive you and not reject the Gospel just because of the way it was conveyed. Go to the churches in Perth and apologise for giving cause for the name of God to be blasphemed amongst the ‘Gentiles’. Write to The Courier and apologise to the people of Perth and the police for bringing unnecessary opprobrium on them. That will transform everything.
Listen: Perhaps you do this already but it’s worth repeating anyway. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the local culture. Mix amongst them. Hear the questions, the heartaches, the blasphemies, the joys and sorrows – and weep, and learn and love. Listen to the Lord. I’m sure you love his Word and desire to communicate it, but don’t presuppose that you already know all that is to be known from it. Let God communicate afresh to you every day the glorious gospel again and again. When that happens to you and I, we will be far better equipped to communicate the Good News.
Preach the Word: Continue to do open air preaching. You have a good voice for it. But find a suitable venue, get permission for an amplification system, take ‘rent-a-small-crowd’ from the church with you, have people handing out leaflets, don’t harangue people, learn to do dialogue, try music and drama and preach the word, in season and out of season. And when you are opposed don’t call down fire, don’t provoke to unnecessary wrath, be prepared to both persist and to shake the dust off your feet – and pray that the Lord will grant you the wisdom to know which one to do when. And I pray that God will richly bless your ministry and those of other faithful believers so that Perth, this ancient centre of Scotland will become a future centre of the Gospel in Scotland.
Then, on January 13, 2014 he had an article titled Crying Wolf--Is free speech being suppressed in the UK? in response to the arrest of American street preacher Tony Miano in Dundee. The article reads in part:
However let me offer another Christian perspective - despite the fact that I know even to question the orthodoxy of the persecution narrative in the UK is to open oneself up to charges of backsliding, theological liberalism, cowardice and 'shooting the wounded'. I am a Bible believing/teaching/evangelising pastor in this wonderful city of Dundee. I have ministered here for 22 years and have seen a church of seven grow into a church of 200-plus, with an increasing gospel impact.
It is hard work. There is an ignorance, arrogance and increasing intolerance that make it so. There is a 'famine of hearing the Word of the Lord', and yet there are many opportunities to give out the bread of life. The Christian churches in this city do tremendous work in schools, on the streets, amongst the young. We preach the Word. We write in local newspapers and engage in all kinds of creative evangelism. Solas Centre for Public Christianity is based here and we have not been shy in critiquing the dominant cultural narratives or seeking to bring the Good News in the public arena. That is after all our 'raison d'etre'!
We have many problems but here is the rub. We have the freedom to do so. We are not banned from preaching the Word of God, nor are we restricted (for now) in doing so. So whatever else the arrest of Tony Miano means, it is dishonest and wrong for Christians to say this means that the Gospel cannot be preached in Scotland today.
Of course the implied criticism is that those of us who are living and working here as Christians are not a) preaching the 'full' Gospel or b) getting out on to the streets communicating it. The truth of course is that there are many churches which compromise and there are Christians who are frightened and cowardly in their proclamation. But that is not all of us. From my perspective having worked hard in this city to build up good public relations with the police, council and local community groups; having tried to overcome the narrow and ignorant stereotypes of Christians that many people have; and having sought to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in many different ways and contexts (however imperfectly); the last thing we needed was an American preacher standing in our city centre with an amplification system, shouting out words that no-one understands, getting arrested and then finding it front page news in The Dundee Courier, the next day.
Don't get me wrong. I use the word 'American' – not because I have anything against Americans (to whom I owe a great deal), but because in our cultural context, evangelical Christianity is associated with Redneck, George Bush-like, Southern US evangelicals. Like all stereotypes, that is not fair- not least on the many fine American Christians – including those in my own congregation who are seeking to bear witness to Jesus Christ in a culturally, spiritually and humanly sensitive way. But that is the perception that the 'man in the street' has. And if we are seeking to communicate to the 'man in the street', then we need to take account of that perception.
Robertson's challenges to the methods of the contemporary street preaching movement are more pragmatic than the ones I offered in my article, which were primarily Biblical-theological, but they deserve a hearing. Simply put, he argues that such tactics lack prudential wisdom and are not helpful for kingdom work in his country.
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