The summer of 1988. Mike Dukakis won the democratic nomination to run for president. Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf had both triumphed at Wimbledon. George Michael and Def Leppard were dominating the charts. And I went on my first (and last) foray into street witnessing.
It was an idyllic summer evening. The sun had begun its lazy descent toward the western hills while the light sparkled like a cache of diamonds on the surface of the lake. Though the air was finally cooling, the heat of the day was still radiating up from the pavement that had been baked through the long, fiercely hot afternoon. Despite the lingering heat, it was the perfect time of day to be sitting on a patio enjoying a dinner out. Or for a trip down to the emptying beach for a cooling dip in the lake. In fact, I could think of a million things I’d rather be doing.
But instead here I was, stuck peering out the dirty window of an old white van. The church van was filled with several teenage recruits, kids like myself who had been chosen for a special mission. The subdued mood hinted at the air of sobriety and impending sense of danger shared by the passengers. You see, we had been recruited for a most dangerous assignment. Each of us had been equipped with a handful of tracts, a Bible, and a clear set of guilt and terror inducing instructions to guide us through the rite of passage for a whole generation of pietistic youths: we had been commissioned to go street witnessing, something akin to a two year Mormon mission compressed into a handful of Saturday nights.
The method was relatively simple and straightforward, if somewhat nerve-wracking. We were to approach people randomly as they were going about their business with the singular purpose of enquiring into the state of their eternal soul. If they failed to provide the right answers within the first few seconds – a recognition of their poverty of sin and the salvation available exclusively through Jesus Christ – we would switch immediately to sober warnings of the fires of hell.
As we rode along we were instructed that we would be sent out by twos. The biblical logic pointed to the precedent of Jesus sending out his disciples (See Luke 10:1-24). As admirably pietistic as that may have seemed, the implicit practical logic was even more compelling: people who travelled in pairs were less likely to be physically assaulted (i.e. to get their $#%^ kicked).
We the neophyte evangelists were supposed to be “Spirit-led”. That is, we were supposed to follow the “promptings of the Spirit” in seeking people to target. Practically speaking, that meant looking for people who were stationary (e.g. sitting on park benches or standing at bus stops) or who were not walking too fast. (Needless to say we were instructed to bypass anybody who appeared to be under the influence, no matter how stationary they were. No sense in wasting the Words of Life on somebody already in deep conversation with Jack Daniels.) The next step was to strike up a “casual” and “natural” conversation with the goal of getting out your warning of perdition along with the ticket to salvation as quickly as possible. After all, there were other souls to be saved.
The youth pastor, not the coolest chap you’d ever meet, suggested that an opening like “Good evening, how are you?” might be sufficient, but we naturally gravitated toward something a bit less painfully awkward like “Hey, how’s it goin’?” Not that it made much difference: virtually any greeting beyond “Hi” was enough to elicit a suspicious look from a perfect stranger. Anyway the whole focus on openers was arguably a moot point because the moment we lurched into our fire and brimstone hortatory all the good will bought by amiable openers would evaporate quicker than an ice cube in a furnace.
We tried to have some semblance of a smooth plan, but there was no denying the fact that our transition from introductory pleasantries to warnings of hell was about as “smooth” as the transitions on a Christmas album song list. Think, for example, of the shocking shift from the jocularity of “Jingle Bells” to the sobering lyrics of “We Three Kings”: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” That was us. We played like your favorite Christmas album, making leaps from a Jingle Bells introduction to a stone cold tomb climax all in a matter of moments.
Like most kids, I dreaded accosting people, but I was driven by a very deep fear that my own embarrassment would result in Jesus being embarrassed of me on judgment day. I knew the passage all too well. My fifteen year old brain would constantly run through end-times scenarios like this:
Father: “And who is this sorry specimen my Son?”
Jesus looks at me and blushes with embarrassment: “Um, uh him? I don’t really know him. All I remember is that he was ashamed to witness for me in the streets of his home town.”
Gak! Oh no!
The Father’s countenance darkens like a gathering thunderstorm: “Oh really? For shame!! Very well then,” he turns to me, his eyes like flaming coals, “Depart from me into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels!”
Fears of eternal damnation could provide a mighty forceful impetus to quell the fears of rejection on the streets of my home town.
Despite this abiding fear of posthumous rejection, my misgivings about approaching people randomly on the street still remained. And those misgivings seemed to provide further corroboration that I was sinfully ashamed of Jesus. After all, why else would I have such reservations? It was a truly miserable spiral. Oh wretched young man that I am!
Consequently the fear that I had about street witnessing drove me back to evangelizing. To prove myself I had to get out there and get people to pray the sinner’s prayer or pay for eternity.
In a moment the engine died away and the door swung open to fields ripe for the harvest.