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Friday, January 04, 2008

Listen To Yourself

On Wednesday I was shopping with two of my children when we came across a street preacher. I have a great deal of admiration for such people because I don't have the courage to make myself that vulnerable. But on this occasion I was upset by what was going on as he seemed to be doing just about everything wrong.

I should explain that my husband worked with OAC (formerly Open Air Campaigners) for a while and received extensive training in street evangelism including the use of a sketchboard so I'm not simply pontificating over something I know nothing about.

Where Did He Go Wrong?
Firstly, the man was working entirely alone. He had no supporters to form the nucleus of a crowd. Without a small handful of co-workers it is next to impossible to attract bystanders because no-one wants to be the first to stop. Rent-a-crowd can perform two other vital functions. They can pray for the speaker and for passersby and they can engage interested people in conversation.

Even with a group of people already hanging around it is difficult to drag shoppers out of their own busyness and persuade them to stop long enough to hear more than a couple of sentences. The second mistake this preacher had made was that he had done nothing to grab people's attention. There are all sorts of ways of doing this. The sketchboard mentioned above is one, but musicians, drama, puppets and "magic" tricks can all be extremely effective in drawing a crowd. The preacher in the High Street had none of these. He was simply shouting at people.

His third mistake was in what he was shouting. This is what I heard as I walked past.

"There is a difference between saved & unsaved, regenerate & unregenerate."

I contemplated stopping to ask him if he thought that the unregenerate would know what "unregenerate" meant!

Failed Communication
The sad thing is that the courage and passion of this street preacher were wasted because he was completely failing to communicate with the dozens of people passing by at a distance of at least 20 feet. To be honest, the whole situation was rather embarrassing.

What has all this got to do with Prayer College? Well, it struck me with renewed force just how bad Christians can be at communicating. We fail to engage with "the unregenerate" because neither our language nor our lives speak of the huge compassion our glorious Saviour has for them. We fail to engage with our brothers and sisters in Christ because, instead of being honest with one another, we hide behind the masks of the way we think we should speak and behave as believers. And we fail to engage with God because we think prayer has to comply to a particular format.

Prayer Styles
It's very interesting to be in a prayer meeting and listen to how others pray. There are those who have a "prayer voice" in the same way that some people have a "telephone voice". They change their tone and sometimes even their accent so that they sound more formal or respectful. Then there are the ones whose vocabulary completely changes so they sound as though they've been transported back to Shakespearean times or are regurgitating a theology text book. Some pray-ers seem to want to preach a sermon to God and still others decide to tell Him every detail of a situation with which He is already completely familiar. There are the list pray-ers who gabble off a whole series of requests like a customer at a drive-through fast food outlet and the repetitive ones whose prayers you could recite by heart because they've said exactly the same words every time you've heard them pray.

Friendship Prayer
Do any of these people sound as though they are talking to their best friend? Both Moses (Ex 33:11) and Abraham (Jms 2:3) are described as being in a friendship relationship with God. Jesus has called us His friends (Jn 15:14-15). It is an awesome privilege to be able to talk to the Lord as a friend and not one to be taken lightly. We should not diminish the value of what is available to us in that friendship.

I would be deeply offended if my dearest friends were to approach me in any of the ways I've listed above. We have intimate access to the Lord and it is nothing short of an insult to fail to communicate with Him at a heart level.

Friendship is about sharing joys and struggles without the need to weigh every word carefully. I want my friends to feel they can tell me anything that concerns them. I'm not bothered whether they use exactly the right words and I'm certainly not going to correct their grammar or pronunciation if I think they've got it wrong. All I'm interested in is whether we have understood and empathised with one another. The best friendships are the ones where neither person feels the need to put up any guards and there is complete mutual trust. Our prayer lives should be like that.

Prayer College Assignment
Listen to how you pray and think about whether you talk to God as to a friend. Do you put on a performance or are you being completely yourself? Perhaps you have a liberty in your personal devotions but not in corporate prayer times. Of course, there is a degree of intimacy with the Lord which may not be appropriate in a public meeting, but we have to be wary of praying to impress other people rather than simply talking to God. Make it your goal this year that the way you pray in public will encourage other, less experienced, pray-ers to open their mouths and pray simple prayers.


Anonymous said...

I suppoer being faithful to God like Jonah or Noah is not good enough, he should definately follow your "rules" instead.

Handsworth Wood Christian Fellowship said...

Hi "anonymous" and thanks for your comment. It raises a lot of questions which aren't really the remit of Prayer College but I will respond.

I want to start by emphasising again that I admire street preachers as it's not something I can do. I was not questioning whether this man was endeavouring to be faithful to God, simply whether his method was appropriate to his environment.

I certainly wouldn't want to lay down "rules", to use your word (not one I used in this post) as Scripture clearly teaches that we are to adapt the way we present the gospel to the culture around us (1 Cor 9:19-23). I do NOT mean we should adapt the gospel, but how we communicate it.

What disturbed me was that this dear man was giving his all, but was not being heard because he had created unnecessary barriers, particularly the barrier of language, between himself and the people he was trying to reach.

When the Holy Spirit came upon the believers at Pentecost, God gave them the ability to speak in the vernacular of those Jews from around the world who were in Jerusalem for the festival.

It seems to me that a God who would perform such a miracle in order to be understood would not want the awesome good news of reconciliation with Him to be hidden behind theological words which are incomprehensible to the very people He loves and is longing to reach.

Just because we have spoken, it doesn't mean that we've been heard. As Christians, it is our responsibility to do all we can to ensure that people do actually hear AND understand. I have seen effective street evangelism and spoken with many street preachers. I know that the Lord uses it to bring sinners to salvation and restore backslidden believers. That's why it so saddens me when what is being done, even though from right motives, simply turns people away.

As for the little "tricks of the trade" to draw a crowd, you only have to read Jeremiah and Ezekiel to see how God uses dramatisations to get his message across (Jer 13:1-11, Ez 12:1-16 etc etc).

I'll finish with a nice little quote I once heard which illustrates just how rediculous it is to fail to put our message into a format that ordinary people can understand:

"If English was good enough for St Paul it should be good enough for everyone else."