Kevin Colyer's thoughts and ponderings

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Reflection on Street Evangelism

Recently I invented the Introduction Game to help the young people I work with build confidence initiating conversations with new people. I wanted to help them improve their skills in sharing the gospel. To play it you approach one or more people and start a conversation during which you need to mention five things:

  1. The weather;
  2. Find out where they are from;
  3. Find out some interesting fact;
  4. Tell them your name;
  5. Tell them the rules of the Introduction Game.

We played it a few times during Autumn evenings in Reading. We met with remarkable success and had many long and enjoyable discussions. Some overflowed into spiritual conversations and prayer! We talked to a group of Indians, two Spanish women, a Bangladeshi man, two Italian women, two English men, a Danish man, a Scottish women (the chattiest by a long margin) and a drunken English couple who actually initiated conversation with us!

I have been reading the delightful Watching the English by Kate Fox, an anthropological approach to English culture. The more I have read the more I have reflected upon my experiences of evangelism right back to the earliest moments, when as a new Christian, at sixteen, I trembled with fear and struggled to even hand out a leaflet.

Fox explains many of the baffling cultural customs we English hold dear and using an anthropological approach, helpfully exposes them (such as Weather Talk, p 36 – a form of social grooming), the rules (Humour Rules, p 78 – the vital importance of quick wit and humour to bridge awkward or unknown situations) and taboos (Money-talk Taboo, p 559). She also explains Cultural Remissions, p 132, places, situations or times where the rules are laid aside and the English can be temporarily free from certain rules. Her central thesis is that Englishness has a core set of rules rooted in a fundamental Social Dis-ease, p 560. That is, that deep down the English find relating to others difficult, stressful; preferring privacy and intimacy with a chosen few family or close friends. The privacy of the home (Moat and Drawbridge Rule, p 185) and the strange extension of this into public as we walk and travel ( Rules of the Road, p 215) hiding behind phones, books, newspapers and a strict code of silence.

When contrasting these rules with my experience playing the Introduction Game one thing become obvious. I hardly talked to any English people! The easiest people to speak to, by a long margin, were from other cultures. The English people found our approach embarrassing, despite the humour of my approach, and all the Weather Talk. The exception was the drunken couple, who found their solution to the Social Dis-ease in alcohol (p 379).

Where does this leave evangelism then? I am primarily considering the proclamation sense of evangelism (the herald sense of the word) and the example of Jesus’ and the Apostles in the Gospels and Acts. They took their message directly out to people, not just to the people who came to hear them. Contemporary English culture and Middle Eastern culture around 30-50AD are fundamentally different. There few places in England where it is culturally appropriate to stand and preach to strangers, one such is Speakers’ Corner in the northeast corner of Hyde Park. A small zone of cultural inversion exists there. I feel certain there is a role for the public pronouncement of the message, however, I think English culture requires a radically different approach to the methods used in the New Testament.

I have always tried to use people sensitive evangelism (The best book I have found is Sowing, Reaping, Keeping by Laurence Singlehurst), yet I realise I need to reflect afresh and more deeply on English culture. Avoiding public proclamation altogether would be a dereliction of duty. Proclaiming the Gospel to the English has twin problems. It is challenging in nature as the message demands attention due to its importance and origin (at one end) and a radical life changes (at the other). Yet the Importance of not being Earnest rule, p 79
prohibits taking ourselves too seriously.

So what might work?

How could we make opportunity for Cultural Remission? We could create public spaces where people can come to talk about spiritual things. We should avoid intruding into the invisible private zones the English carry around them when travelling (i.e. not preaching on trains, or using PA equipment to yell a message at people). We should use humour extensively to mock the human situation, self-mockery and avoiding taking ourselves to seriously or forcing others to be serious.

I imagine a drawing a box on the floor with eye-catching tape demarcating a God-Zone where people can come to talk about spiritual things. Or holding two-way conversations – perhaps a chalk debating zone on the pavement. Or a Fishbowl conversations on a serious topic. The Internet Exception to privacy rules offers us fresh options perhaps (p 64).

We need to make the whole process of proclamation evangelism easier for those doing it. Most Christians find it culturally terrifying and feel conflicted between culture and commitment to Christ. And not just in public, but in private evangelism too.

Religion is hard for English people to talk about. Our social dis-ease is crippling almost all the time anyway. I see more clearly the need to understand my culture well and re-imagine the proclamation of Christ’s message creatively working with our cultural strengths, rather than clashing against them; imagining new spaces for fruitful Cultural Remission.

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