“You must be full of demons!”
It was something like that, anyway. “I’m not going to listen to you. You must be full of demons. I’m going to listen to Jesus Christ. I’m not going to listen to you.”
Jane and I spent a couple of days in Las Vegas this past weekend; and on Friday evening after the show (Le Rêve, an excellent show I’d recommend to anyone) we were coming down an escalator from one of the pedestrian skyways that dot the Strip, and at the bottom was an evangelism squad. The leader was preaching through a bullhorn; the others, bullhorns hanging on lanyards around their necks, were standing around him in rigid formation holding signs with Bible verses. Jane leaned in and said to me, “I wonder if that ever works.” “Sometimes, I guess.”
As we got off the escalator, I couldn’t help thinking about St. Paul Street Evangelization, and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who evangelize by getting out there on the street, being available, and listening to people instead of haranguing them. And as I walked past a squad-member in the last row, I tapped him on the shoulder, leaned over, and quietly said, “You don’t evangelize by talking; you evangelize by listening.” And then I walked on.
Admittedly, it was something of a smart-ass thing to do, and looking back I think I was motivated as much by pride as I was by any desire to be helpful. And of course, what I said wasn’t quite right: to evangelize, you certainly do need to talk, and as for haranguing the crowds the early Dominicans would sometimes take a stepladder into the town square, ascend on high and begin to preach. But you also need to know your audience: you need to be able to relate to them as individuals, and to listen to them to find out who they are and where they are in life. You can’t do that from behind a bullhorn.
Regarding the bullhorn: their message, what I heard of it, was tolerably mild. They were calling for repentance in no uncertain terms, but they weren’t getting personal: they weren’t telling everyone within earshot what loathsome sinners they were and how much God hated them, as I’ve sometimes seen done. They were keeping it cool, and they weren’t getting into anyone’s face.
But the young man’s words stuck with me, and since then I’ve been pondering just what would prompt someone to accuse a passing smart-ass of being “full of demons”. Here’s my conjecture; it might be exactly right, or it might be entirely wrong.
What I saw was a squad of warriors going into enemy territory to combat the devil by broadcasting the Word of God and the message of repentance. I admire that attitude; we could use more militance in the Church Militant. But I also think that their expectation of spiritual combat was making them ineffective. The young man I spoke with, at least, had a lively sense of being in spiritual danger, and an expectation that the enemy might be anywhere, and in anyone. It’s hard to evangelize people when you’re half-convinced going in that anyone who disagrees with you might be possessed.
Now, I am no expert on evangelism; the four people who have come into the Faith through my efforts all sit at the breakfast table with me before they go off to school in the morning. But it seems to me that effective face-to-face evangelism of people you’ve never met requires both remarkable strength and remarkable weakness. You have to be strong enough to go out and face ridicule. You have to be confident enough in your faith that the disbelief, insults, and taunts of passers-by don’t dispirit you. But on the other hand, you have to be weak. You have to be weak before God, recognizing that for all your efforts you’re a sinner yourself. You have to recognize that you’re in no position to stand in judgement on those you speak with. You have to be weak enough to be willing to leave the outcome in God’s hands. You have to let the people who speak to you be strong and make up their own minds. In short, you have to be humble. You have be loving to your fellow men and women, created in Christ’s image. You have to take courage, and stand fast—but against the Devil, not against those to whom you are sent. You need to speak the truth, and only the truth—but you have to consider your listener’s needs, and so first you need to listen to find out what they are.
You must to be longing to see Christ in your fellow men and women, not the Devil.
Oh, and you mustn’t drop little bombs of wisdom without staying to help clean up the mess.