Street Preachers: Giving Christianity a Bad Name

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Street-preachersEvery major city has its street preachers. Standing near train stations and bus stops, in parks and public squares, they hold up signs, handout leaflets and proclaim messages about sin, death, heaven and hell. ‘Sinners deserve hell’; ‘Judgement is coming…seek Jesus now’; ‘God hates the wicked’. Whether purposeful or not, these preachers often come across as angry with a threatening message: repent or burn in hell. Every city may have them, but that does mean they are a positive addition to the tapestry.

I am convinced about one thing in regards this style of evangelist, they give Christianity (and religion in general) a bad name and create an even wider gulf between the non-believer and faith. In fact it’s not only non-believers who are their target; Hindus, Muslims and an assortment of Christians (Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons) are informed in no uncertain terms that their faith is of the devil. Then of course there are the ‘standard sinners’ under attack as described via their placards; ‘fornicators, thieves, abortionists, liars, drunks, adulterers and sodomites’.

Open-air preaching is certainly nothing new. The great philosophers and sages of the ancient world discussed some of the noblest ideas in the public forum. Jesus of Nazareth spent three years in public ministry with much of that preaching to huge crowds on hillsides and in the market place. The mendicant friars of the middle ages such as the Franciscans and Dominicans were renowned as the wandering preachers of Western Europe. The Protestant Reformation has spurred numerous passionate preachers, with Billy Graham, affectionately known as ‘America’s Pastor’, topping that list. Lastly, one shouldn’t forget Bishop Fulton J. Sheen whose weekly television shows in the 1950s and 60s drew up to 30 million viewers per week earning him the title from Time Magazine as the first ‘televangelist’.

There is no problem with street preaching per se, the positing of ideas in the public square can challenge people to think outside their own personal experiences and views. Various countries have what is often called ‘Speakers Corner’ where open-air public speaking, debate and discussion is held. This is most notably found today in Hyde Park, London on the spot of the old Tyburn gallows where public executions were held and the condemned were given the opportunity to pronounce their final words.

Even if street preaching has venerable roots, the general populous in the Western World is far softer than they once were and less prepared to hear ideas that are contrary or challenging to their own. In a politically correct ‘me generation’ there is a lack of critical thinking and the ability to reason objectively outside one’s own personal tastes. That is not to say though that the message of Christianity is only suited to a tougher audience. The core of Christianity is a message of love and a call to freedom, and while that can easily be high jacked, the message remains correct and does draw believers to seek to better themselves.

It is true that Jesus often got around saying “repent and believe” but it is also true that he knew where a person was at and so he would sit with adulterers by the side of the road or have dinner with tax collectors so as to be able to establish a relationship, to be able to diagnose exactly what that individual person was in need of. Telling people as they walk by the train station that they are going to hell does no one any favours because it is severely out of context and the rebuke is seen as a personal attack.

If you are game enough to debate fundamentalist street preachers they will tell you that they are simply preaching God’s message, yet while some aspects of their message may be true (i.e. we are all in need of ongoing conversion), if their presentation is only bringing about anger in those who hear them, then they need to ask themselves if they are fairly representing a God whose chief description is said to be of love and His Son who metaphorically referred to himself as a gentle shepherd.

What modern (and growlingly secular) people most need to be told about is their fundamental goodness. Yes we are fallen and yes we all have our personal struggles, but God created man as good and good he remains. If fundamentalist street preachers, by their actions, make a person turn further from a possible return to God, then they really will have something to answer for.

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom ( which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said "All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not". Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.

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4 thoughts on “Street Preachers: Giving Christianity a Bad Name”

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    Firstly, I know the following will probably get me villified by all and sundry, but I have to say I agree strongly with this piece.

    But, I would also add that the growing ‘Charismatic’ phenomenon, even in traditionalist circles now, is counterproductive, and is often found hand-in-glove with Street Evangelism.

    I take Deacon Looney’s point, however, I would ask what “much success in leading fallen away Catholics back to Confession, and others to RCIA” actually means.

    We have to look at both aspects – ‘Evangelism’ and ‘Charismatic’ – in the light of the fact that, in many cases, both appeal only to particular personality profiles and rely heavily on mesmerising speakers and a psychosomatic response. People who are not motivated by these ‘drivers’ will be repulsed.

    In other words, what’s taking place isn’t a sharing of the Gospel, so much as collective effervescence, bait-and-switch, or some other psychological phenomenon. Like this:

    They tend to attract extroverts (in its technical sense) and often people with a high susceptibility to neurosis and suggestibility, which are often vulnerable people going through some sort of crisis.

    Some would argue it is great the sick (neurotic) are being attracted. The problem is, evidence shows they are not healed, and I’ve often had to pick up the pieces of what I can only describe as spiritual abuse as a result of ‘Evangelical Catholics’ (not in George Weigel’s sense!).

    From the perspective of interpersonal dynamics and psychopathology, I think they’re more trouble than of any real benefit as many of those who to return to Church through these routes require constant ‘fixes’ (attending conferences or hearing these motivational speakers), and often that anything that is not ‘edutainment’ is considered ‘boring’.

    In other words, Street Evangelism – or any of that type of Evangelism – and the Charismatic, at best, both raise expectations too high, and most people who come in via these routes often stay, dare I say it, quite shallow and spiritually weak, but at worst, end up merely compounding neurosis and suffering.

    Sadly, like the people in the video below around a dead tree stump, I’ve seen behaviour almost indistinguishable from it by Traditionalists round a monstrance:

    That’s why I’d argue my hero, Frank Sheed, was fundamentally different. If you read his work, you realise just how aware he was of distortions, and how they take spiritual, psychological, and doctrinal forms. In short, the Catholic Evidence Guild, like the great Evangelist GK Chesterton, was sane.

    Let’s have more sanity and we’ll get real converts. Converts to Christ rather than Snake Oil, or Dopamine and Adrenalin rushes.

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    Along the same line of reasoning…

    In Catholic Apologetics now, it’s predominantly proof-texting back at Protestants. Lobbing grenades at each other, as if they’d roll over and admit or see our grenades are better.

    But, has it struck others that every time we proof-text, we are affirming that Sola Scriptura is the correct way to resolve disagreements, and the Catholic Church is therefore wrong in the way she has approached disagreement over the centuries? Or is it just me?

    On alternatively, Isn’t every proof-text given to a Protestant a tacit admission the Catholic Church is wrong and they are right on what constitutes the foundational arbiter of the matter at hand?

    Catholics who disagree with me on this might quote 1 Peter 3.15 at me, for example. (Hope you see the irony, as a Catholic did do this very thing to me when I raised it in discussion.)

    But the passage – if we’re going to go there – is about giving a defence, not a bible text.

    We have to remember that Chapters and Verses are ‘novums’, in the sense that before Archbishop Langton put in the Chapters, in the 12C, the Catholic Church, was reading the Bible without chapters, let alone verses.

    Let’s not let Protestants define our game strategy like we seem to be allowing them to run everything else.

    Let’s have Catholic Evangelisation, Catholic Spirituality, Catholic Apologetics.

    in other words, offer something that is actually significantly different from what a Protestant will do. They base theirs on their own erroneous presuppositions about these matters which we do not share if we compare them with the Tradition.

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