Union Square is a historic and lively outdoor space in Manhattan, known for its plethora of restaurants, live entertainment, farmers market, college students and — most infamously — skateboarders. It is a crossroads for all people; a place where the rich and poor, young and old, goth and suits meet for entertainment and leisure. Entrepreneurs, extreme sport enthusiasts and people watchers are not the only ones taking advantage of this unique space; street evangelists are too.
They are part of the two percent of Christians who actively engage in evangelism, sharing their faith with others, according to statistics released by the evangelistic organization, Campus Crusade For Christ. These street preachers are spreading the love and message of Jesus Christ right in the middle of New York City, and adding religion to the mix at this outdoor Manhattan hotspot.
This sparks some questions. How do they have the guts to do what they do in such a city? Are they simply Jesus freaks who should be categorized with the other “crazies” that roam Manhattan? And, is anybody really listening?
I took several different approaches as I watched these street preachers on my biweekly visits to Union Square. As a Christian, I admired their willingness to spread the message and inquired about their motivation. As a minister, I admired their preaching boldness, analyzed their audiences’ responses, and learned some indirect yet valuable lessons about spreading the gospel. And at times, while I respected their mission, I had issues with the message they chose to share (particularly in regards to judgment, hell, and dogmatism) and questioned whether the best and most relevant methods were being used to reach their audience.
Ministering With A Prayer
Youth With a Mission is an urban outreach ministry started in 1960 with the mission of “sending and caring for individuals committed to world evangelization,” says Metro New York director Nick Savoca.
YWAM member Joost Nennie does what he calls “prayer stations” in Union Square. At these booths, there is no direct street preaching. Representatives of the organization simply offer to pray with individuals.
On this weekday afternoon, I see Joost and his fellow workers set up near the farmer’s market. They have red shirts to identify them, and work in groups of two. There is evangelical material at the prayer booth on topics such as how to start a relationship with Christ, and devotional support. There is no pushiness from the group. They are simply there, talking to people and available for prayer. This is what makes them intriguing to me. Instead of seeking to shove the gospel down people’s throats, they stand as a presence, offering to be available.
How did a young guy like Joost get connected to this type of street evangelism? While some people had a desire at a young age to come to New York to become a star, Joost had a different call. “I was 9 years old living in Holland when God spoke to me about going to New York City when I would turn 18,” he says. “So when I turned 18, I looked at mission-minded organizations and found out about Youth With A Mission.”
Through these prayer stations, Joost and others can meet people in the marketplace. “It is harder to do this type of ministry in the suburbs. People in NYC are upfront, and that is what this ministry is about as well”, says Joost. He acknowledges that some people will not go to a church, so the prayer station puts him where the people are.
How are the booths received by others? Joost cannot put it into numbers. Even the same location on different days can bring different responses. But what he does have are memories. “I have seen a drug addict who was fighting with another man over ten dollars turn his life around after one of our workers ministered to him. He crashed his crack pipe on the ground. We saw him a year later in the same spot; he testified of his life change which was obvious even in the way he looked and spoke.”
But there have been low times as well. “I remember setting up in London, England, in 2005 after the subway bombings,” Joost recalls. “I don’t think we got to talk and pray with more then a handful of people during that outreach.”
Joost has done all types of street ministries but says prayer stations are his favorite. “It’s obvious and not threatening to people,” he says.
And I agree. Out of all the types of street evangelism I have seen in the city, this is one of the most inviting. And while “not threatening” may sound like a passive type of ministry, I believe workers like Joost are simply being sensitive and strategic with their approach to people who may already perceive them in a certain light.
Joost appears very young yet attuned to his calling. When asked why he does what he does he says, “God is real… we believe in a God that wants to have relationship with us and we desperately need him, so we share that with people and allow the Holy Spirit to minister to them.”
And though Joost has good intentions, the fact remains that street ministries are not always well received. “The gospel, besides it being life-giving, is death to others because it confronts people,” Joost admits. “Therefore negative feedback is expected.” But Joost confronts an important fact as well. “There are many people that have had bad experiences with street ministry because they feel judged by Christians or by the Church in general, and I think a part of that is very understandable because Christians can be.”
Even after years of missionary work, Joost notes that he still gets nervous every time he goes out. “A part of me doesn’t want to get rejected, but when you see God use you because of his purposes, you can’t believe you were scared to begin with.”
Joost’s method of evangelizing is one that I fully embrace. Even as a layperson — doing street evangelism and missionary work as a teen — I never believed in pushing the gospel down people’s throats. And now, as an ordained minister, I still feel the same. I think the gospel should be presented as a “useful” and not a “punitive” option.
These prayer booths remind me of the need to reach people needs as opposed to getting on a soapbox full of convicting and guilty rhetoric. If we do this, then the people will be drawn to our love and open up to the God that we preach about. These prayer stations are welcoming, and that is what people, particularly in these hard times, need to see: a welcoming, loving God.
Joost and his group at the prayer booth inspire me in my private life and in my ministry to be more inviting and less closed in my faith; more prayerful and less preachy; more available and less reserved.
Ministering With A Sign
Fourty-three-year-old Shawn carries a sign across his body in the Union Square subway. From one side it reads “Turn to Jesus, Turn from Your Sins” and from the other, “Jesus Saves from Hell”. His message and means are quite different from Joost and the prayer station. At the Times Square subway station, Shawn’s numerous evangelistic signs are laid out on the ground and on tables, but today in Union Square, he carries a modest two, on his body. When asked why he evangelizes on the streets he responds, “When you become born again, you got to work for Jesus and tell them that God is not willing that anyone should perish… I got a job to do.”
Shawn is delivering his message not only on his body but through a tract entitled, “What Must I Do To Go To Hell”. Though his method may look like he is just distributing material, he says that it is still powerful. “The message gets in them,” he says.
Shawn is very dedicated to this type of work and it shows in his schedule. He distributes tracts and wears signs in the subways from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. So how did Shawn end up a Manhattan street preacher? “I had a kidney problem for 14 years and even four kidney rejections and after that I have been on fire for the Lord… I was in a need of a new kidney for 14 years… I got it. Now, I got a second chance to live for Jesus.” As he tells me this, he shows me the marks on his left arm from years of being on a dialysis machine.
It’s easy to mistake his zeal and “fire and brimstone” message as crazy. When asked if he was worried about how people would perceive him, he quickly stated no: “I was worried about them going to hell.” So what do Shawn’s friends think about his ministry? “They think I’m gonna snap out of it… it’s been three years… they see I’m not snapping out of it, they know its true,” he says.
Doing what Shawn does on a consistent basis is not easy. He has encountered several obstacles since being a street evangelist. He has had people spit on him — to which, he says, he responded with an “I Love You” — and although it is legal for him to do what he does in the subways, he says the police sometimes bother him.