This past Saturday evening I spent some time on Denver’s 16th Street mall. By nature I am a people watcher and in Denver there is no better place to go and observe humanity on a summer evening than downtown’s outdoor pedestrian mall. I wasn’t disappointed. There were families eating out, couples dressed in formal wear heading somewhere important, people lined up at the Cineplex, pan handlers, street musicians, break dancers, buskers, the guy on a 5-gallon pail warning everyone about sin and hell, and a group with “mission Denver” t-shirts singing praise songs. As my wife and I strolled up and down the mall, we would stop from time to time and observe the activity. A guy in a strait jacket had a huge crowd around him and just down the street the break dancers had an even bigger crowd. There is something about watching someone spin on their head that is memorizing.
What I also noticed is that no one even glanced at the preacher on the bucket. And it seemed that people went out of their way to avoid the praise singers. I wasn’t terribly surprised that people sidestepped the preacher; his style was plain annoying. But the praise singers sounded pretty good.
I am pretty sure that a least some of the people on the mall last Saturday would have defined themselves as Christians. Why didn’t anyone stop? What is it about public displays of faith that make even Christians feel uncomfortable?
I sort-of get why no one listened to the preacher. He had reduced Christianity to eternal punishment. When Christianity becomes nothing more than a stick with which to beat people, it ceases to be good news. A faith that is only about hell and how bad I am doesn’t line up with the message of Jesus.
The praise singers’ message wasn’t as in your face. They sat in a tight circle, maybe as a way to support each other from possible heckling, but it also made them unapproachable. Their music was chock-full of “churchy language;” interestingly enough many of our church songs don’t make much sense outside the context of church.
One of the favorite new words of church people is “missional.” If you don’t have an exact definition of this word, don’t feel bad. No one does. It is a word people of faith have coined to describe any effort designed to bring new people into the church. Other similar words or phrases would be invitational and seeker-friendly.
The impulse to be public with our faith is good. I am just not sure that preaching from a bucket or singing to no one in particular should be on the list of strategies. When Jesus talked about what people of faith needed to do he spoke of giving glasses of water, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. James talked about looking after people in their distress. John went so far as to say that you cannot claim to be a Christian without loving your fellow human being. The public implications for this are seismic.
Can you imagine people of faith saying I will not harm my fellow human being? What impact would this have on the military industrial complex? Or what would happen if people of faith started visiting prisoners? Would we start to gain a perspective on how the judicial system is tilted against people of color? What would happen if we took seriously the plight of people in distress and didn’t stop at the border?
If people of faith took seriously the call to be public, our world would change.