I didn’t know that the street preachers were going to be on campus. But it just so happened that I made plans to go for a walk with a student, starting from the fountain on Risman Plaza. And there they were: two men in their late-50s, taking turns calling the sinners at Kent State University to repentance. But it didn’t seem like there were prompting much repentance. Instead, the street preachers were surrounded by student-protestors, many of them draped in Rainbow Flags and Transgender Flags, like phagocytes surrounding a pathogen. Every now and then, one of the student-protestors would say something that prompted a roar of approval from the crowd. But I couldn’t hear much of the rest of what was happening.
Even so, it was clear: No constructive conversation of any sort seemed to be happening.
I didn’t meaningfully engage with any of the people or talking points in this scrum today — but I’ve been around long enough to know that these street preachers have been coming to Kent for years. They usually try to start the conversation by telling people that they’re sinners, and that sinners go to hell. Regular themes include sexuality and abortion. And the street preachers will often leap to conclusions about other people. Almost all “you”s; not many “we”s. It seems to me like they’re being deliberately provocative. All for the sake of drawing a crowd. But why?!? What do they think they are accomplishing for the cause of Christ? Their strategy seems counterproductive, widening the gap between God and sinners instead of building bridges.
Suffice to say: I do not appreciate their methodology.
I imagine the street preachers think of themselves as disciples of D.L. Moody or Charles Spurgeon. And maybe such street preachers had some effect in the 19th Century. But even if that is the case, I’m doubtful that 19th Century evangelistic methods just don’t work for 21st Century college students. Back in the 20th Century, advertisers and communicators focused on finding some sort of “Magic Bullet” for communications. They hoped that mass media could work like mass production. And such ideas seeped into the Church during that time period, as well: “If I preach just the right words, in just the right setting, then everyone who hears my words will be immediately impacted in the way I intend…” In more recent decades, those theories have lost favor. But we’re still living with the vestiges of those ideals.
Personally, I’ve been wondering more and more about the emergence of a “Post-Christian America.” Not that there won’t be any Christians in America, anymore. But there may need to be a shift away from demanding a central place in civic society — towards envisioning ourselves as a sort of underground, resistance movement. It’s an identity that has served the Church well in many previous periods of history. And I think it could serve us again.
It is, however, something of an antithesis to the street preachers on Risman Plaza. In Post-Christian America, we must learn to embrace interpersonal communication within a pluralistic society — protecting and advocating for each other’s rights to exist and participate in the public sphere, while still sharing our understanding of the truth of Jesus. Relationship will trump rational argument. Empathy and discretion will be more important than didactic skill. And above all, we’ll need to lead with love. Jesus himself told us, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). So, I’m excited to see how we will learn and adapt to be the Church in this context for this time period.