I grew up in a Christian environment where street evangelism was something close to a norm. My church would regularly stage events in the main square in Galway, where members of the congregation would hand out tracts (little leaflets giving you the nuts and bolts of the gospel) and share their testimony (the story of their conversion). I was too young actively to participate in these events, but I wasn't too young to feel embarrassed at having to tag along with my parents. I knew that what we were doing was odd, and that we would be making many regular people on the streets either uncomfortable or angry. There was always a certain amount of guilt attached to that embarrassment. After all, if I'm ashamed of Jesus, then Jesus will be ashamed of me. That was never said to me directly I hasten to add, but that's one of the mentalities that surrounded the whole endeavour.
My unwillingness to participate in this kind of evangelism never went away, though the gradual decline of the 80s-90s enthusiasm of evangelical Christians made the opportunities for street evangelism few and far between - at least in my small circle. More and more Christians, it turns out, are ashamed of Jesus.
Was the street evangelism wrong? Or was my embarrassment and unwillingness wrong? I am in no position to make a final judgment. What is clear to me is that the willingness of Christians to "share their faith" is not a categorical good. The reticence of Jesus to make known his true identity (the so-called 'Messianic Secret' of the Gospel of Mark) is perhaps - perhaps - as much a model of how to be faithful as are the extravagant stories recounted in the book of Acts. Furthermore, consider Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount: "On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you." All of this is by way of saying that unwillingness to boldly proclaim the name of Jesus in the streets of Galway is not necessarily a sign of disobedience. On the contrary, it may very well be the kind of quiet obedience that Christ commands (he said, in order to justify himself).
Why do I mention all of this? Because on my way to university this afternoon (a la my NUIG days) I saw an army truck and stall set up outside the campus library. From some distance I could see the recruitment slogan: "Be the best." All of a sudden I was the regular Joe on the streets of Galway, and the soldiers were the weird Christians handing out tracts and trying to convince me that there was something better out there for me. The whole thing felt odd, and I wondered if others felt the same way. Do those who are made uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of Christians also feel uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of soldiers?
There is much more that could be said about all of this. But what struck me is the rather simple truth that we are never not being evangelised. Speaking on the story of Elijah and Elisha, Walter Brueggemann asks his congregation the question: "Who threw the mantle over you?" What this question presupposes is contesting evangelists who preach contesting gospels, gospels to which we have committed our lives. Many of us in the West like to think that we do not wear anyone's mantle, only the mantle we made for ourselves. But that is just the mantle we have been given. The extent to which we think it is worth passing on is perhaps measured by our willingness to have and raise children. Those British soldiers are looking to throw a particular mantle over students, a mantle which brings with it some potentially horrific expectations and devastating consequences, but which is sold as the opportunity to "be the best." The Christian gospel is deeply opposed to the military evangel in ways far too numerous to be discussed here. The point is, seeing that truck and that recruitment stall made me realise that Christian evangelism - in some form or another - is more needed than ever. Or, better, the gospel is more needed than ever.
I was ashamed of going out into the streets of Galway as a very young Christian. I still am! But twenty years on from the mid-nineties evangelistic fervour I am, in my better moments, learning why Paul could proclaim that he was not ashamed of the gospel.