Bullhorn Evangelism – how churches make an impression without making enemies

Every now and then I have encounters with judgmental Christians which leave me shocked and at a loss to explain the visceral hatred they display. Sometimes the encounters are less traumatic and simply baffling. I marvel at the capacity for misdirected believers to contradict themselves and the faith they claim to be promoting. However, I am happy to say that I encounter the opposite far more: loving faith communities who go out of their way to communicate the Gospel in winsome and innovative ways.

The Sunday Conundrum

In recent years I’ve journeyed to South Africa to compete in what is billed as ‘The Ultimate Human Race’: the Comrades Marathon. It has been historically been held on a public holiday, but due to pressure from government to preserve the honour of the now annual Freedom Day on June 16, the race organizers have been forced to move it to a Sunday since 2007. The disruption caused by the 90km run rules out Saturday, which leaves Sunday. This meant that about 100 churches faced serious disruption along the route due to road closures. This presented churches with an interesting dilemma about what to do. Churches could respond on a scale that went from protest to engagement.

The Bullhorn Evangelist

As South Africa has many conservative churches that have a legalistic approach to the Sabbath day, the battle lines had been drawn. In 2007 I remember the first encounter with a Sabbath-protestor. He was a portly man with a long ZZ-Top beard dressed in khaki standing on the back of a utility vehicle with a large bullhorn. I ran past him at 5:45am in the morning, pitch black still and 15 minutes after the start in a residential area. He was berating the 15 000 or so runners who swept passed him like a human river loudly with his oversize bullhorn. Promises and dire warnings of consignment to an eternity of hell replete with burning flames for all us sinners were shouted forth with great vigour.

In the time that it took me to get within, and then past earshot of this thunderous Pharisee I experienced an intense embarrassment and deep shock. I was incredulous. I shudder to think how many thousand attitudes against the Gospel and Christians were reinforced by this metaphoric stone thrower. Who attends church at 5:45am in the morning in anycase? What about the poor people living in the suburban street that this man filled with his caustic caterwauling?

Further on down the road a more nuanced bunch of Pharisees had planned an altogether more gentle form of judgement. They had commissioned a large banner proclaiming our judgement. Underneath the banner they stood in a tight bunch, led by a man with a guitar. They were singing chorus style praise songs which juxtaposed the proclamation of judgement above their heads. I was not shocked by them, just annoyed and bemused. I wanted to engage in conversation with them about whether or not they protest every Sunday of year, given that the majority of the population do not attend church. Or was their self-appointed role of pronouncing judgement reserved for this special day? Instead I ran on.

Grace Wins

Thankfully further down the road the message of grace had won the day with all the other churches I encountered. Some had set up unofficial aid stations outside the church property and were encouraging and supporting runners by providing refreshments and warm support. Other churches had signed up to run official aid stations and large banners proclaimed their identity.

Their support and presence helped me deal with the Pharisees I had encountered earlier on, but the shock still remained. I’m happy to say that since then I’ve run the gauntlet of the Sabbath enforces twice and I have not encountered them. Rather, the amount of churches getting in on the act has increased. The race follows a 90km route from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and passes over a 100 churches. If my memory serves me correctly the church protesting in 2007 was now supporting runners. They are still singing but this time not offering judgment but refreshments instead. Some churches completed their service in the morning and then held a church picnic on the route to cheer the runners along, others had signed up to look after an official water point and had to be on duty from early in the day until the bitter end.

Being At The Heart Of The Community

Churches are of course involved in a massive range of community services and initiatives that they host. Increasingly, when faced with large community events held on a Sunday, churches are looking out for opportunities to reach out, getting outside the walls and boundaries of the church property and in some cases cancelling or moving their planned worship services. Those who cancel their services recognise that worship is encompasses more than just singing and sermons and regard their worship for that particular Sunday morning to be by means of an act of service. Many of these churches no doubt take a huge financial hit as a consequence, further underlining their determination to serve their local community.

A classic example is Clean Up Australia Day, the next being Sunday 3 March 2013. North East Baptist Church in Brisbane has been a key organiser of the local Nundah fair, for many years South Pine Community Church was one of the largest voting booths in SE Qld for elections of all types, from Council through to Federal. There are plenty of churches across Australia who are not just relying on their own self-generated and sponsored events and initiatives but also partnering with local councils, businesses, schools etc.

Churches are demonstrating to their local community that they are an integral part of many important community events, central to the fabric of local community. They see an engaged church serving their local community. That speaks louder than any bullhorn can and leaves a good impression that often serves as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block. Credibility earned through hard yards like this is critical to helping people at least be at a starting point to consider exploring faith more deeply within the Christian community. Are there any large community events that your church is engaged in?