I imagine that, at some point or other, most of us have been ‘chugged’. To be chugged is the passive verbal form of the noun ‘chugger’. Chugging is what chuggers do to us. And chugging is ‘charity mugging’, perhaps more accurately known as street fundraising. Though I understand why they do it, I really don’t like being chugged. You? It’s usually such an unpleasantly false social situation that often makes me feel very awkward. To be fair, I’ve never been abused for declining their offer to hear more about the cause they’re championing. But I wish they wouldn’t approach me like we’re old friends who just happen to bump into each other on the Balham High Road. We’re not. I’ve lived here for over a decade and they’ve just come here via public transport because the area finally has a fair few people with disposable income. When I’m making my way purposefully from the Church Office to Sainsburys, I’m a man on a mission. I’m going to buy lunch and I need to get back to my desk. I’ll stop for friends for a chat. And I’ll stop to cross the road for personal safety. But that’s about it. I don’t want to be accosted by some well-intentioned campaigner, no matter how well-meaning.
So how is street evangelism any different? At CCB, we’ve invited street evangelist Geoffrey Hilder to come and train a cohort of street evangelists. He’s a man with lots of experience and no little expertise in engaging strangers in gospel conversation. But aren’t we simply going to populate SW12 with a bunch of irritating chuggers (church muggers?) who waylay people going about their business?
I don’t think so. That’s certainly not our intention. And I don’t think it’s the effect either. Because whilst there are some superficial similarities in what we’re doing, it’s the dissimilarities that make all the difference. Think about it for a moment.
When chuggers chug they’re after my money. That’s not necessarily wrong. But they’re not there to give. They’re there to get. They’re raising money for a charity after all. And so I don’t really gain from the exchange. I’m no better off as a result of our interaction. I suppose I might feel the warm glow produced by an act of selfless philanthropy. But it doesn’t last because I don’t really believe in it in the way that I do the gospel. On the rare occasions I’ve filled in a form it’s because I’ve been put on the spot and felt coerced rather than persuaded.
When chuggers chug they’re trying to manipulate me. Is that too strong? Is it better if I say that I usually feel their approach is a little disingenuous? Invariably I’m approached by the young woman. The blokes don’t even try for eye contact. And I’m under no illusions here. It’s not that I’m irresistible to members of the opposite sex. No really! But presumably someone somewhere has worked out that middle-aged men are statistically more likely to stop and chat to an attractive, smiling young woman. Even if she is carrying a clipboard and wearing a duffel coat. The truth is, if I stop, I’m probably not stopping because the condition of the endanegered lesser spotted newt, for example, is a burning issue for me. And they’re not as interested in me as they appear.
When chuggers chug they’re in it for what they can get out of me. When that persuasive and smiley young woman approaches me, all she wants from me is in my wallet. And that’s fair enough. Presumably she really believes in whatever charity she’s raising money for. And why not? But the whole exchange isn’t really about me and my best interests. It’s about the thing she’s raising money for. And I get that.
So why is street evangelism different? Well, we’re giving people the opportunity to hear something incomparably wonderful. Something that they may not otherwise have access to. The overwhelming majority of people who live in our area do not go to church, they don’t go near a church and they have no intention of ever doing so unless perhaps it’s a friend’s wedding or funeral. Are we really going to leave them in that perilous state? We simply can’t assume that they’ll pick up the gospel from anywhere else. Not even the intelligent media can get it right. The gospel is something that God has entrusted to His church. And it’s for sharing. Of course, we normally try to do that through conversation’s with our friends. But our friends are a very small proportion of the people who live in Balham. And we’re a church that wants other to hear. So what we’re doing is driven by honest motives and characterised by integrity. We don’t stand to gain anything. We’re not in this for what we get out of it. This is love. We’re not trying to recruit members to our religious club. We’re giving people the opportunity to hear what God has done in Christ. We want them to know that they can be forgiven for the way they’ve treated the God for whom they were made. We want them to know that they can have a real relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth, who will love them both in this life and in the life to come. And there won’t be a standing order form in sight. But hopefully there will be many who hear the gospel from a gloriously unexpected conversation.