Conversations on a couch, overcoming stranger danger.
When I was at school in the 1970's and 80's there was a "Stranger Danger" message given to children. The UK Government would send the police into schools with a strong message of "keep away from people you don't know." The modern equivalent is teaching our children about online safety in case of false identities. This means that we are all schooled to be wary of individuals claiming to be our friend. It makes us suspicious first and open second. This is a challenge for sharing the good news.
Over the years I have been involved in a lot of street evangelism. In Scotland it was normally met with suspicion. People would see me and cross the road. They viewed me like some kind of street trader or commission driven charity collection. They were suspicious first.
I explored a number of options to overcome this stigma. One of my favourites was putting a couch on the street with a freshly brewed coffee pot and biscuits on a table beside me. I had a sign that said "want to talk?" I would sit and wait, smiling and saying hello as people passed. At first people still treated me with suspicion. It is an odd thing to do. At that point I worked in the centre of Edinburgh and worked out that in the space of an hour at lunchtime around one thousand people would pass my couch. Slowly but surely as people saw the fun side of it, they stopped and asked "why are you doing this?" Over a period of about two years I spoke to many people. I had several repeat "customers." I trained others to sit with me and find out how to listen to those who stopped. It was amazing. I heard stories from a diverse group of people from a Russian psychologist to homeless people. I learned that people want to talk, in fact they often have no-one who listens to them. The barrier is suspicion of strangers and their agendas. That's why we need to learn to open doors for conversations, to be seen as a trusted guide.
There is a parable in John 10 where Jesus speaks of a vital role, the gatekeeper. In John 10:3 it says:
"The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out."
This word gatekeeper (NT greek - thyrōros) is also translated as watchmen or porter. It is someone who has authority to open or close the door. A good example of this word is in John 18:16:
"Peter had to stay outside the gate. Then the disciple who knew the high priest spoke to the woman watching at the gate, and she let Peter in." New Living Translation
The woman watching the gate had authority to let Peter in. Paul uses a similar illustration in 1 Corinthians 16:9 "a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me."
There is a person who is a gatekeeper, a watchman/woman, someone who makes it possible for others to enter the sheepfold. I believe that evangelists are often called to be gatekeepers, to open doors for the gospel.
However we need to create opportunities and build trust. When I sat on the street outside Central Church in Edinburgh, I positioned myself next to the ground floor entrance. It was a door most people walked past and ignored. However as a I sat every week on the couch I would invite people into the building they had not noticed before. I opened up conversations, gained people's trust, and saw a number of people meet with Jesus. I combined street evangelism with friendship evangelism and it worked. I became a gatekeeper, literally the janitor to the church building because I had the keys to the door.
Where are we functioning as gatekeepers? Where are we making connections and building trust? How do people know they can talk to us, and overcome their suspicion? I suggest we try a variety of options. One of my friends Chris Duffett is the master of this. He started a ministry called The Light Project (https://www.lightproject.org.uk) which now has a college training evangelists and pioneers, and has many innovative ideas for how to become a gatekeeper, many of them can be found at www.chrisduffett.com
Check it out.
Perhaps you have some stories or ideas that you can share, please do.