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.
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.
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.”
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.
I wasn’t able to see him in person, but talked with him at length on the phone and watched videos on YouTube. “Jesus Christ spoke more on hell than He did on love, grace, and mercy combined,” Israel told me on the phone. He insists that Jesus spoke more about repenting, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and eternal darkness than He preached about God’s love. “It’s so sad that people think that’s the gospel. That’s not. It’s pretty much a lopsided God. The issue is: God loves us, but how much do we love God?”
To show how much he loves God, Israel once stuck a butchered pig’s head on a stake at the International Arab Festival in Michigan. He name-calls sinners, because “calling people names is biblical.” Jesus himself, he listed, called a woman a dog, Herod a fox, the Pharisees devils and snakes. So that’s what he did at San Diego’s Pride Parade with a megaphone, and also at other religious festivals, armed with signs blaring: “Warning: Hell Awaits You.” Or “God Will Judge You” and “Jesus saves from hell.”
In retaliation, some wisecrackers stood before him with their own signs: “These people will go to hell for annoying you.” They also flashed plenty of middle fingers. When I asked many Los Angeles–area evangelists about Israel, they groaned: They consider him the reason Christian preachers get a bad rap.
Israel says, “It doesn’t matter what people think of me. I’m not going to preach a message that makes people feel good. That’s not inspiring. I pray more than other people now, because there’s a real good chance that when I leave the house, I may not come back home. That’s how real this is.” He welcomes persecutions, because the apostles were persecuted, and says, “Most Christians don’t understand what persecution is, compared to what real Christians go through.”
Miano has another way of defining the work of hell-fire preachers like Israel: “He’s there to inflame people, to get people to react in a violent way so he can say he’s been persecuted. It’s obvious in their preaching, that they hate the people they’re preaching to. That kind of preaching is blasphemous.”
MOST OF THE EVANGELISTS I talked with agree that street evangelism isn’t for everyone. Chris Casella, for example, said he doesn’t have the gift for cold-call evangelism, preferring intimate one-to-one conversations. The first time he joined Sanchez to evangelize, he relegated himself as a tract deliverer. But first, he had to fight his shame of Christ, Casella said: “I was afraid somebody at work will see me as a Jesus freak.”
The fear of that negative, or worse, mocking label to Christian evangelists is real. Miano was recently arrested and fined for “homophobic” open-air preaching in London. Sanchez has had people flare up and call him names. I’ve seen street preachers splattered with beer, laughed at, mocked openly. They are called anything from racist, homophobic bigots to looney freaks. And sometimes, of course, the fault lies with preachers who embody all the stereotypes of a condemning , bigoted, hell-fire hater.
I saw during my reporting that God made us unique for a reason. Casella wasn’t able to do what Sanchez can on stage, but he was astute in observing people’s thoughts and emotions, and he approached them privately. He may not be boldly cracking jokes, but he was passionate and sensitive in his mannerisms, which appeal to more introverted people like himself. I was reminded that Jesus, when gathering his 12 disciples, brought together people of many tempers, careers, and backgrounds.
Ineffective evangelism comes when Christians try to force somebody to accept the gospel with their personality, fervor, or rhetoric—because the gospel is a precious gift, recognized by those God has already graced. The most effective way to evangelize is debatable. The most ineffective way to evangelize is not to evangelize at all, whether by word or deed.