I became a “real” Christian aged 15. I was linked with a church that considered its main priority was to preach the gospel to the “unsaved” so they too might become real Christians. I have been associated with that church for much of my life (including being an Elder for 20 years). While I have had my disagreements over the years and did not think overall we have done a particularly good job in that regard, and have missed many tricks, like engaging with those outside (both Christian and non) and making a practical difference to the world at large, I have been, more or less, in agreement with this and its many other beliefs and aims.
I have reflected on what the gospel is and why it is important (see here), although my understanding is somewhat more sophisticated to what was presented to me while I was a youngster. Even so, the “ABC” is still the bedrock of what I believe. “A”: Admit you are a sinner and you need saving from your sin; “B”: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can save you; “C”: Confess him as the rightful Lord of your life. My biggest gripe as a youngster was that an inordinate amount of time was spent going over the “ABC” of the gospel directed entirely at “the converted” in the walls of the church.
In fairness, there was a long tradition in the church to go out of the church building and share the gospel with the great unconverted masses and, while community activism was not high on the church agenda, I learned that many of the church members were good neighbours and role models for those espousing the virtues of random acts of kindness. One of the regular activities of the church in my youth was conducting an Open Air service in front of the Puppet Theatre (now taken over by Adventure Island), and as a new Christian I was invited to say a few words. It was there I cut my preaching teeth. For many a year, other than on occasions in my India trips, I have not done much Open Air preaching and my impression is most Christians are not keen on this activity.
Reasons include: public perception – it could be misconstrued and seen as the domain of fundamentalist bigots; people are scared of making a spectacle of themselves before those potentially hostile; our more diverse and multi-cultural society makes people think twice before doing this. And yet, the UK has had a long tradition of preaching in the open air (referred sometimes as street preaching) and up to recently it was considered an acceptable activity, even though preachers may be fair game to those intent on mocking what they do. But changes are afoot, and these give cause for concern. The concern is some aspects of free speech that might offend some, e.g. gay pride marches, are deemed to be ok, and woe betide them who object, and others like old fashioned gospel preaching isn’t.
I refer to Mike Overd, who has been in the news recently having been arrested and fined by the courts, for inappropriate attacks on minorities by his choices of scripture whilst preaching. Even as I write a report has come in highlighting what has happened: “Two street preachers have today been convicted of a public order offence, after a public prosecutor claimed that publicly quoting parts of the King James Bible in modern Britain should “be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”. Prosecutor Ian Jackson also told the court that “although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611, this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016.”
I suspect many, maybe most, of my readers will agree with the courts rationale, and far be it from me to give my seal of approval to anything that is abusive toward someone whose lifestyle, beliefs etc. one merely takes exception to. I have not heard Mr Overd preach but I do believe that some zealous types could do with adopting a more winsome approach and being more sensitive to those their remarks are directed to. The aim surely should be to proclaim the glorious gospel and not to have pops at particular groups of sinners one happens to especially dislike. Given the culture encourages baiting of counter cultural types, a leaf should be taken out of Jesus book as to the best way to deal with this. But if we stop any whose reasoned, not designed to promote hate, views we happen to find offensive, we are on a slippery slope. Religious liberty, and the right to think, believe as one sees fit, is something worth fighting for.
Yet it seems to me there are grave concerns for religious liberty: the long held tradition of street preaching is being threatened by those who tell us what should or should not be said and an opportunity for people being able to hear the truth, however unpalatable, is being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. There is an irony insofar in today’s meeting Theresa May had with faith leaders she reiterated the rhetoric of her predecessors that faith communities play a vital role in national life and should be free to speak as they see fit – but not when it comes the street preachers saying stuff deemed to be unacceptable by the self-appointed thought police.
In another report: “Convicted preacher vows to return to the streets” Mr Overd gives his reason for preaching and why despite this set back by the courts he will continue to preach. Having listened to the interview, there is little I can disagree with it and I sense his motive is one of compassion. The heart of any true gospel preacher has to be to get the message out to the unsaved, and while we might have honest disagreements as to what is the best approach, it is a sad day when my country, with its long Christian tradition, tries to hinder this. Even so – every cloud has a silver lining – Christians have too often become too soft and have forgotten their calling to make disciples (Matthew 28:19,20). A bit of opposition may be what is needed to awake us out of our sleep. It also means my role in fighting the culture wars is far from over.