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Men on the street

"Men on the street" Continued...

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

Sometimes he gets hecklers, people who scream rude names at him, who even threaten bodily harm. Sometimes he gets tearful, “pricked heart” people asking for prayers. Other times, he engages polite but disagreeing debaters. Often, the day passes quietly, with people absorbed in their own thoughts and lives. He tells Christians skeptical about street evangelism to spend a day watching it in action. So I did, and learned about two kinds of street evangelism.

ONE KIND WAS ON DISPLAY at El Camino College, a two-year public community college south of Los Angeles. Pastor-evangelist Steve Sanchez had been bringing willing congregants with him to the campus for six years—and this day he also brought his two homeschooled daughters, ages 11 and 13. 

They laid out a table spread with gospel tracts, Chik-fil-A coupons, and Beanie Babies in the heart of the campus, an intersection where thousands of students pass by each day. It’s also a spot shared with Muslim and LGBT clubs. “You’ll not find a better platform to preach the gospel,” Sanchez said. “We’ve had some vigorous yet respectful debates here.” He’s even had atheist students come up to “preach at us, while we preached at them.” 

Hope Chapel
Greg Schneider/Genesis
Hope Chapel

On this day, which Sanchez said is typical, a girl with giant gold hoop earrings, neon pink flats, and hot pink fingernails passed by. Sanchez called out to her and invited her to do a fun IQ test, a series of silly trick questions that tickled the girl into laughter. Then the questions started getting more serious. “Let me ask you a question,” Sanchez said, never losing his warm, easy-going smile: “If you were to die today, do you think you’ll go to heaven?”

The girl was indignant. “Yeah I’ll go to heaven. I pray! I go to church!” Sanchez persisted. “But do you think you’re a good person? Let’s go through the Ten Commandments together. … Thou shalt not covet. Have you? Thou shalt not bear false witnesses. Have you ever lied?” That went on until: “Have you ever called out on the Lord’s name in vain?”

“Oh my God,” the girl groaned. “That’s blasphemy,” Sanchez said. “So by your own admission, you’re a lying thief, a blasphemous adulterer … a sinner.” The girl cried, half laughing, “Ah, stop it!” But Sanchez had his desired effect. The girl’s expression got serious, and she no longer was blithely confident about her salvation. That was when he told her about Christ dying for her.

Later, thinking Sanchez came off as legalistic, I asked him why he questioned her about the Ten Commandments, and if he doubted her salvation for not practicing abstinence. “We are saved by grace,” Sanchez explained. “And that’s what we want to tell her. I’m not here to judge her. But a lot of people with churched backgrounds don’t have practical application of the Bible in their lives.” Only through the gripping, fearful realization that they are sinners will they truly grasp God’s grace and gift of Christ, he said. 

A fellow evangelist, Chris Casella, explained more: “Instead of being pious, we want to be real and genuine. The worst thing we can do is judge. We use God’s law to appeal to a person’s conscience, ignite it, because we inherently have knowledge of right and wrong. And then we use the Holy Spirit to speak to them to sow the seed.”

The other encounters I witnessed that day with Sanchez were similar. A lot of the people who paused to interact with Sanchez were professing Christians. The conversation started with laughter and jokes, then turned serious as they pondered their sins, and what it means to be a Christian and live the Christian life. One said, “There’s no such thing as hell. Everybody goes to heaven,” to which Sanchez reiterated counteracting Bible verses. 

It was evangelism not just to non-believers, but also to churched people who seemed to hear the gospel for the first time. Because the conversation always started out with silly games and easy smiles, it didn’t feel forced or confrontational. Sanchez said he started out years ago spouting biblical facts, but then learned to engage people in conversation.

REUBEN ISRAEL is another kind of street evangelist. He is more dedicated than the majority of people who call themselves Christians. He goes out at least two times a week to open-air preach, sometimes traveling across the country to picket at Gay Pride parades, Mardi Gras festivals, and Rolling Stones rock concerts. He self-funds all his travels and supplies. That’s a lot of money and time spent on what he believes is the true biblical way of evangelism: calling out sin.

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