On a Saturday afternoon, I am on the top deck of a bus in northwest London when a young woman comes up the stairs and starts preaching loudly.
The bus is full of people who are all minding their own business, hoping the bus will be able to crawl its way at least reasonably quickly through the bottleneck which is Wembley High Street, when she asks: “Is there anyone here who loves Jesus? Is there anyone here who reads the Bible?”
We all, metaphorically at least, pull our coat collars up around our faces. Whatever you do, avoid eye contact.
Even though no one responds, she starts to read from John’s gospel. “‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John,'” she says, then asks, “Does anyone here have a friend called John?”
Silence. Squirming. Cringing. And I don’t think it’s only because we can’t see the relevance of the question. She carries on anyway.
For the next 10 minutes, until the bus reaches my stop, I wrestle with a genuine spiritual, even a moral, dilemma.
Am I wrong to keep my head resolutely under the parapet? Should I not give support to a fellow Christian, however misguided she might be? Worst of all, am I guilty of disloyalty to Jesus?
I satisfy myself with the thought that there is no reason why I should be railroaded into a discussion that I haven’t initiated, which I have not been invited into in an appropriate manner, and which I feel can only do damage to the witness of the church.
That’s enough for my conscience, I think.
It’s a relief to get off the bus because this bus evangelist is still hard at it as I descend the stairs.
I walk home mulling over in my mind the big question of cultural sensitivity in presenting the gospel.
There’s no doubt that that young woman deserves 10 out of 10 for enthusiasm; but I would only grudgingly give her even 1 out of 10 for wisdom.
I thought that was the end of the matter, but then something quite remarkable happens.
While this kind of preaching is something that I was completely unfamiliar with, even after more than 20 years in this part of London, the next day my wife and I head for church, and it so happens that a close minister friend of mine is visiting and is invited to share his story with the congregation.
He is from Nigeria, and when asked how he became a Christian, he replies that it was through the ministry of bus evangelism back home.
Yes, this practice that I and the other passengers on the bus found so excruciating was how he was brought to faith in Jesus.
He also, in his early days as a Christian, was himself an enthusiastic bus evangelist.
His testimony forces me to do some serious thinking: Is this sequence of events mere coincidence? Or is God saying something to me?
At a Bible study the following week, I ask another friend, also from Nigeria, if this is a practice she is familiar with.
“Oh yes,” she cheerfully replies, “I do it all the time when I’m back home. It really splits the bus in two! Half the passengers shout that I should sit down. The other half say ‘Keep it coming, sister!'”
I am left pondering various things:
First, the dilemma I mentioned earlier remains.
Was I guilty of being ashamed of Jesus? Or was I right to calm my conscience in the way I did?
Second, the question of cultural sensitivity.
I decide that my initial dislike of what that young woman did was justified. Even considering the multi-religious and multi-racial nature of the London borough of Brent, it was clear that her intrusion into our privacy was unwelcome to all.
1 Peter 3:15 comes to mind—that bit about evangelizing “with gentleness and respect.”
Third, can such a sequence of events be dismissed as “mere coincidence”?
And fourth, the sense that it’s easy to get a bit pompous and high-and-mighty over such a thing, and that God was teaching me, if no one else, a serious lesson in humility.
No, I don’t think I can defend that young woman. But I have to confess that my attitude toward her was wrong. I was, like Michal in 2 Samuel 6, “despising her in my heart.”
I think of Bible characters who today might be dismissed as “cranks” and “weirdos,” such as Ezekiel and John the Baptist, and I recognize that perhaps we should thank God for people who are prepared to violate conventions and step out in ways that may shock.
Perhaps we need to rewrite the opening lines of that old hymn: “God moves in sometimes wacky ways / His wonders to perform.”
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in northwest London. He is also a freelance journalist who has written for several United Kingdom papers and various Christian publications. More of his writings can be found on his blog, Sedgonline.blogspot.co.uk. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and is used with permission.