Regarding Campus Preachers

It was 2013 when I was a sophomore in college. I was walking to an economics class (which was being taught by my favorite professor) and was running a little late, but whatever. So what, I’m bad at time management.

Along the path to class, I walked past one a campus preacher.

We had various groups come through from time to time handing out pamphlets that were probably designed in the 80’s to kids (who, they had to know, would probably later just turn and throw the slice of paper into the nearest garbage can.) But they came anyway. Normally, I’d pass them with a sort of pitying “oh bless their hearts” feeling left in my mind, the way you feel when you see some kids having a lemonade stand. You know it’s probably not going to go anywhere serious, but they feel like they’re being productive, and some people are getting some refreshment from it, so it’s best to just let them be.

But the campus preacher I passed wasn’t handing out flyers or anything. He was just standing there, yelling.

He wasn’t the same guy that usually stood and yelled though. His yelling was usually something along the lines of “Read some bible passage, talk about what it means, read some more bible, talk more about it”.

No, this yelling guy was talking about how this is a generation of sinners, and how we all need to repent and turn to God. Technically true (though every generation is a generation of sinners). But his tone was a little too aggressive for me. I thought about stopping to say something, but I knew I was running late to class so, frustrated, I kept moving.

But then not 50 feet from the door to the building I needed to be in, I found more preachers. There were roughly 6 or 7 of them, and there was a small swarm of students watching them and listening. We later found out that they were part of a group called Repent America.

Now I don’t fully remember what it was that I heard while walking past this scene, but I do remember that even though I did walk into the building, I had to stop, turn around, go back, and pay closer attention.

These preachers weren’t just saying that everyone is a sinner. They were saying that homosexuals are evil and are going to hell. They said that the women on the campus were whores, handing out their virginity for fun. And they said it violently.

I was furious.

I’m actually still furious. As I’ve been writing this piece, my adrenaline levels have risen, and I’m pretty sure my lower jaw has moved forward to a more defiant position, and I can feel my muscles wanting to attack something. And that’s just from the memory of it.

I stayed in the background for a while, listening to the things they were saying, listening to the retorts of the passing students. This area of campus was fairly quiet at this point, as classes had just started, so the only people around were there because they felt the need to stick around and speak up, or at least just pay attention to what was going on.

At one point, I felt the need to stand up and say something against what they were saying. I don’t remember what it was, as the whole afternoon was kind of a blur. After that, I didn’t shut up. I texted my friend and roommate Alex, who came right after class, and we circled through the growing crowd in an attempt to do some damage control. Many students were visibly distressed. A few journalism majors were taking notes and asking for various comments (for an article which we found later that week.) The campus police were called several times.

(Hey check it out, Alex (blonde haired girl) is briefly visible in the distant background of this video. I’m probably in there too, but I can’t see myself at all. For all I know, i’m yelling at someone. I do remember the guy in the maroon hoodie and blue backpack though. He called himself an atheist, but was also very interested in talking to me and Alex about religion. My guess is, he was closer to agnostic.) 

The Men of God fraternity was present, and their brothers were taking an active stand against the preachers. At one point, one of the brothers got into a very close screaming match with one of the preachers, and in his fury, had adopted a very threatening stance against the man. His brothers brought him inside to a nearby building, where they tried to console him and calm him down, but I know the fury that was going through his head. It was fury that those men are making Jesus look bad.

During one of my interactions with the preachers, where I tried to explain that this was no way to reach students and that their actions are doing more harm than good, I actually felt a little hope—his facial expression changed to one of concern. I thought that maybe he was seeing the hurt that his fellows were putting into the lives of the assembled students, and the way this may impact the students’ views of God.

But then his buddy walked up, and I was dismissed because I am a woman. It was demeaning; it was insulting. A male, nonchristian friend walked up in my defense, but was treated with contempt. They interrupted him, acting like nothing he said had any value, like he had no value.

Finally, the leader of the Men of God fraternity got up on a ledge and gave an impassioned apology to the assembled students, denouncing the abuses of the preachers and welcoming them to come to him or his brothers with questions about Jesus. He ended with a prayer and got down. He and his brothers stayed around a while, but eventually retreated to their lives.

This day was cold, and I was entirely unprepared to face this sort of outdoor activity. My shoes were no protection from the cold, and I had only a hat and a sweatshirt on. My feet started to feel the impact, and I later hobbled back to my dorm, where I immediately took a half hour shower in an attempt to revive my feet. (They’re fine, by the way.)

Alex soon came back to the room, and both of us were just spent.

I remember writing to God about how much that scene reminded me of the scene in the Passion of the Christ, where Satan is moving amongst the crowd of pharisees watching Jesus’ flogging. Alex noted that she felt like Evil was smiling on the scene.

We were glad to be away from the scenario, but sad that it hadn’t ended very well. It seemed like all that had transpired was the abuse of nonchristians at the hands of Christians.

And even now I am disappointed that I didn’t say more, that nobody said the things that would have changed the hearts and approach of the visiting preachers. But I suppose it’s also likely that nothing would have ever changed their hearts.

I take solace in the fact that even though that day may not have gone well, it’s greatly possible that someone did come to know God because of the impassioned response of Christians on campus against the abusive language of the visiting preachers. And I also take solace in the fact that even if there was no progress that day at all, the story ends well. God has decreed that the story ends well.

But the next year at the same time, the preachers were back. And the year after that.

I don’t know about last year, but this year my younger classmates mentioned it on facebook. I found the article for this year’s visitor, though he seems to be from a different group.

And quite frankly, it pisses me off. Fuck them for stirring up anger and dissent against the Church.

There are a number of parties involved, and I have something I’d like to say to them.

To the nonchristians, especially from the LGBT community, who have been insulted and belittled by these people claiming to speak for Christ:

To start, I am so sorry. I’m not just sorry for the words of these preachers, I’m sorry for the way the church has treated you.

It Is true that Christian morality says that homosexual behavior is a sin, and that it is also a sin to have extramarital sex. These are not the only sins, nor are they extra bad for some reason. But the gospel is bigger than that. Christianity is bigger than that.

I would be happy to explain the arguments regarding sexual sins and why Christians believe what they believe about it, and if you’re interested, PLEASE go to my contact page and write me something asking to know more, even an anonymous note asking me to do a piece on that would suffice.  (I’ll get around to it eventually, of course, but if you are curious and want answers, if you want to understand why, I want to make that a priority.)

But it is not wrong to be angry and hurt by the way that the church has responded to LGBT issues. It is not wrong to feel pushed away and turned off by it. Especially in examples such as the Westboro Baptist church and these travelling preachers, the church has failed to uphold the ministry of Christ. I’m not even sure if these people really understand the Christian worldview and the truth of what Christians believe.

Jesus was at his most gentle with prostitutes and the outcasts. He was at his least gentle with those who thought they were better than everyone else. And we Christians should be following his example. So, I am sorry.

To my fellow Christians:

I imagine you are reading this and are frustrated, hurt, and angry. You may feel like the Men of God brother who had to be removed from the situation to be able to calm down. You may feel like me and my friend, disturbed by the presence of evil and abuse. You may be ashamed. Honestly, if you are a Christian and you are reading this, I expect you to feel some sort of revulsion.

But don’t stop at revulsion and frustration. Tell God what you think of it. Tell him you’re pissed. Tell him what frustrates you. Listen for what he expects you to do too. Let it fuel within you a love for those who are different than you. Let it remind you to keep an eye out for the Campus Preachers in your life and stand up against their abuses. Learn about controversial Christian topics, and then be a voice for the truth. God’s intentions will happen regardless of those who use Christianity as a weapon or who spit in its face. But offer to work with God. He will use it to help you grow.

Some of you have no idea this is happening. I was actually talking about this to my friend Seth, who is also a pastor. He was raised by a pastor, went to Christian summer camp, went to a Christian college, and has Christian friends. I was surprised to find out that he has never heard of this sort of thing happening. His face was stunned when I told him about it, and he was visibly frustrated to learn of this sort of behavior. I mean, I’m sure he’s seen the news of the Westboro Baptist Church, as their behavior always seems to make the news, but I’m starting to think he, like I, saw their behavior as a rare political stunt instead of as a sign that there was a corrosive response on the part of the church emerging in response to the LGBT culture wave. But, as we are all learning when it comes to the topics of white supremacy and racism, the antisocial and destructive veins running through our culture are far less rare than we may have once thought. The Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK are two major and easy-to-spot outlets of violence and cruelty, but racism-fueled violence happens every day, and so does religion-fueled violence.

If you are unaware of these sorts of behaviors happening, I encourage you to try to branch out a little. Christianity in our western culture has a horrible reputation right now. And part of this is simply because this world is in rebellion against God. But there are a lot of people out there who are against the church because they are on the defensive, not because they actively hate the Gospel and its implications for their life. Experience this, and acknowledge it. Use it to better inform the way you understand and interact with nonchristians, especially those from the LGBT community.

To the Campus Preachers themselves:

Well for starters, I doubt any of you are actually reading this. Or, if you are, I’m guessing you’re here because I sent a link to this article to your website asking you to read it, and you are now doing so out of spite. But I’m writing this section anyway. I didn’t have the words to communicate what I wanted to communicate back in 2013 when I happened to see you that day. But I have those words now.

And look, I don’t want to be that bitch who comes in telling you what to do without any attention paid to your point of view. Ok? So, let’s talk about things from your point of view for a second.

I understand that you are out there to speak the Gospel, the truth. I get it. The intent is actually quite noble. I wish I had the balls to stand and preach to strangers. I tend to need the barrier of a computer screen and the ability to go back and edit my words to evangelize.

I also understand that homosexual behavior is wrong, that God has ordained men and women to engage in the gift of sex only within a covenantal marriage relationship, and only between one man and one woman. I don’t personally like that that’s what God ordained, but I submit to it because that’s part of Christianity. You understand that too.

I also understand that when you are out there talking, you’re trying to explain God to the students. You point out the sins of the surrounding people and then make your way to the sacrifice of Christ and the transformative nature of God. Your website also points out that you focus on homosexuality because our culture focuses on homosexuality. Though I disagree that our culture is focusing on homosexuality, I see your logic, and can grant that it’s important for Christians to understand the biblical principles as they apply to marriage, sex, and homosexuality. I wish we had more Christian education here.

The problem that we’re encountering here lies in the start of these sentences: “I understand”. I am able to understand your theology and even, to a certain extent, back it up.

But you need to understand that the students on these campuses are speaking a very different language than you.

Christians do not speak the same language of the people in this world. Being connected to God means being connected to a world and a reality that is much bigger than the world that many people discuss day to day. It also means there is a lot more certainty, and there is a better foundation.

The Christian world uses a ton of metaphors. It uses powerful language. It uses the word “Sinner” to describe everyone, and the word “hell” to imply the state of being away from God. Christians, especially well-trained ones, understand this.

We can’t expect nonchristians to speak our language any more than we could expect a French person to speak Japanese. When a nonchristian hears the word “sinner” they don’t hear “a person that God loves but who has disconnected from God and is in a state of rebellion” like we do. They hear “someone God hates.” And when a nonchristian hears the word “salvation” they don’t hear the gospel, as we do. They hear “clean up and live a very specific and good life, and then God will love you.” When they hear “you are on the path to hell”, they don’t hear “you need God and need to turn to him and him alone” they hear “I think you deserve to be in pain because you do this thing.”

They hear judgment.

They hear offense.

They hear insults.

And the insults they receive are not felt at the core of their way of living or at their worldview, as you intend them to be. They feel the insults hitting their very self, their very identity.

And you are absolute fucking pricks when you do this. You are taking the approach of assholes.

To explain why, reflect for a second how you wanted to stop reading, or at least to stop taking me seriously, as soon as you read that last sentence: being insulted makes people instantly shut down and stop listening.

Honestly, I’d expect even a Christian to shut down after having their identity insulted. Humans are prideful, self-absorbed creatures, even those of us who know God. While we are justified in this world because of Jesus, we are not yet perfect, we haven’t been sanctified yet. In the next world, sure, but not yet. I’d expect a Christian to bounce back, and a mature Christian to bounce back even more quickly still.

But nonchristians? They don’t have the security of an identity rooted in Christ. When an insult comes at them that hits their identity, their very sense of self, they have no foundation to fall back on. To be able to live with themselves in the face of insults and opposition, they must constantly be engaging in self-care, maintaining their pride.

You may say that this is a sinful way to live. And you’d be right. Any way to live without God is sinful. Inflating their ego with anything but the fresh air of the gospel is bad for them, and we are right to want different for them.

But they aren’t prepared to accept insults and attacks hurled at them by strangers. To expect this is to expect them to behave like Christ when they don’t even know him yet. You have no right to demand this level of spiritual maturity from those who haven’t even been born again.

When people shut down, they are not able to receive the Gospel. They don’t want to hear from you. You’ve just sucker punched their sense of self. You made them feel worthless. Why would they expect healing from you? Why would you have anything to say that would make them feel better? Why would they want to hear anything more from the person who makes them feel worthless and attacked?

Other people are more practiced at protecting their ego. It may be armored with a wall of apathy and cynicism, that sort of “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, there will always be haters and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks” which is prevalent in our culture. It may be armored with a reliance on a naturalistic worldview, which says that their identity is just a part of nature. They might think “those guys are idiots and just aren’t aware of the truth.” These people aren’t able to receive the gospel either, because they have already disregarded what you have to say. You are no longer a valuable source of information to them. In their mind, you are just another asshole on the street who likes to harass people.

Our speech towards others is meant to be “seasoned with salt” and “full of grace” (See Colossians 4:6) Salt, when used for seasoning, entices the eater to hunger for more, and allows the person’s body to retain water. I don’t think God used salt lightly. In other metaphors, he describes the gospel as living water. It may be cliché, but combine those metaphors. If salt helps a person retain water, and the gospel is described as living water, then we should use our speech to help others yearn for and retain the gospel, not want to spit it out.

When a LGBT person hears “Homosexuality is a sin” they are hearing that you, on behalf of God, think they as an individual are a defective, bad, evil, unredeemable person. This is not a message that is full of grace. This is not a message that entices the hearer to look for the gospel and soak it in.

You may be working in the hope that there’s a third type of person, who hears the words “God hates premarital sex” and thinks “wait should I stop sleeping with my fiancé then?” But unfortunately, that person isn’t hearing the gospel either—partially because you spend so much time fighting with LGBT advocates about what is and isn’t right that you never get to the central reason you’re out there in the first place, and partially because the Gospel is very difficult to preach when you begin by talking about all the wrong things that individual people do. You’ll notice, none of the apostles start their sermons with “you shouldn’t do X.” They always start with God, and what God is like, and what God is doing.

No, that third type of person is learning that God operates on a system of works-based righteousness. The entirety of the book of Galatians was written after Paul the apostle learned that messengers had come to the church telling the Galatians that they needed to clean up their act and act like good Jewish people. And Paul tore into that message the way a mother would rip into a dog attacking her baby. He was right to do so.

The gospel is not to be trifled with. The message that Jesus alone is what saves, not Jesus plus good behavior, is not to be messed with.

When you speak with words that homosexuality is a sin, when you run around condemning the actions of others, you are not doing what Jesus commands and are instead distorting his message. It poses a problem for local churches, who now have to combat the prejudice of nonchristians against “those intolerant churchgoers”. It makes the church look hateful. It makes Jesus look tyrannical and heartless.

It is unacceptable and irresponsible to presume to speak for our God, especially in public, and especially to nonchristians, without reverence and grace and humility.

So fucking quit it.