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BROADCASTING: Tony Miano speaks the gospel on Hollywood Boulevard.
Greg Schneider/Genesis
BROADCASTING: Tony Miano speaks the gospel on Hollywood Boulevard.

Men on the street

Religion | Many praise street evangelism, others dislike it. Our reporter watched and spoke with many street evangelists, compared those who discuss with those who rant, and discovered more variety than meets the eye

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

LOS ANGELES—I am deeply conflicted about street evangelists. I’m a Christian, a missionary’s kid, a pastor’s daughter. I attend a church where the conclusion to every sermon emphasizes the need to evangelize. We have “Evangelism 101” seminars, mass street evangelism march-outs, mission groups, prayer sessions—anything to save more souls. 

So I’m pro-evangelism—and yet, I cringe when I hear street evangelists blow horns, interrupt public events, thrust tracts into the hands of passersby, and yell, “Repent or go to hell!” In my multiethnic, church-peppered neighborhood in Los Angeles, a walk down to the supermarket means running a gauntlet of well-meaning evangelists shoving gospel tracts and CDs into shoppers’ hands. 

What can be wrong with that? I respect the sun-withered old man wearing a white fabric band over his hunched shoulder. He struts around holding a big picket sign probably heavier than he is. The band and the sign urge all readers to repent and turn to Christ—those who can read Korean, that is. He sometimes sits in solemn silence next to a person waiting for the bus.

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I respect the packs of middle-aged ladies with tight perms, who on special days (Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) march from block to block, passing out pamphlets that advertise their church events—but, like many others, I hop to the other side of the street and hasten my steps when I spot them in the distance. (Once, a lady literally chased me down and insisted I take a pamphlet home, even though I protested I already have a church. “Just in case,” she said, then added, “And go tell your friends.”)

People call Los Angeles many names, most of them tongue-in-cheek, with unmasked condescension: La-La Land, Tinseltown, a city “100 miles wide and 2 inches deep,” a city of commercialized sin and sinful commercialization. I respect sincere communities of Christians in this sinful, superficial city who are doing what they believe is God’s ultimate commission: to be Christ’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria … to the ends of the earth.”

STILL, I AND MANY OTHERS wonder if such confrontational street evangelism is effective. Many Christians prefer “relationship evangelism” now, where people use intimate personal relationships and “life witnessing” to demonstrate Christ to close friends and family. But that’s anathema to Tony Miano, a street preacher and retired Los Angeles police officer, who complains that many Christians end up putting these relationships above their friends’ eternal souls, and “merely make people more comfortable on their way to hell.” 

Miano can usually be found every Wednesday and Saturday at the North Hollywood metro station. He sets up his audio equipment, begins with a prayer, and introduces himself to the swarming public. He presents a summary of the gospel, specifying the Jesus he knows. He reads a passage from the Bible, preaches, then prays and talks to whoever comes up to him with questions or comments. 

He wasn’t always so eloquent and self-assured. The first time Miano open-air preached was eight years ago on a beach, 60 miles away from his home. He chose the location knowing it was far enough away that he wouldn’t meet anybody who would recognize him. He brought with him his wife, his then 10-year-old daughter, a bunch of gospel tracts, some dollar bills, and his Bible. 

“I was petrified,” he recalled, chuckling. “I spent an hour trying to muster up the courage to speak.” But his wife crashed a Sweet 16 birthday party and told the teenagers, “Some guy is giving away money.” Miano’s first reaction, as he saw the teens rushing to him, was dread: “Oh no. I actually have to do this.” Trying to hide his anxiety, he asked some trivia questions and gave away dollar bills. 

And then he spoke about the gospel for 10 minutes. “I didn’t say anything profound or eloquent,” Miano said: He simply talked about what he knew. When he was done, and the kids still stood there staring at him, he tried to shoo them away. “But these kids, they wanted to talk,” he recalled. “They had questions about what they heard, and some of them wanted a Bible. I drove home weeping tears of repentance. … I knew then I would spend the rest of my life sharing the gospel on the streets.” 

But how do you know it works? I asked him. How do you know if this form of evangelism is sustainably effective? Miano cannot give specific numbers of people he’s reached or brought to the church, because he doesn’t count them. He calls the counting of heads “one of the failures in American evangelicalism.” It gets to people’s heads; it becomes “Tony’s story” instead of Christ’s, and blurs the distinction between God-centered mission versus man-centered action. 

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