Friday, 1 October 2010

Glimpses of the Age of the Soapbox

"The past is a foreign country," said L.P. Hartley, "they do things differently there."

In recent weeks I have had the at times frustrating but also rewarding privilege of proof-reading and editing my grandfather's memoirs. The experience has been enlightening, to say the least. In it, my grandfather details his childhood growing up during the war (at 13 he was overseeing a factory because there were no experienced men left to fill the job), his years as an itinerant preacher in Queensland and his subsequent years as pastor of various Baptist churches.

What has struck me most (and there have been several things that have struck me) is the difference between the culture of the 50s, when my grandfather was an itinerant driving from town to town in a "gospel wagon", and the culture now. Simply put, there is no way the kind of evangelism my grandfather practiced would work now. Not just the content of the message but the methodology.

A slight tangent. There is a fellow whom I regularly see who preaches from a soapbox (actually a small platform) outside the Queen Victoria Building opposite Sydney Town Hall a few evenings a week. He is, I think, Baptist, or certainly from that tradition of preaching, and almost never does anybody stop to listen to him. Mostly, people are embarrassed that he is there. Some, no doubt, are offended by things he says (he invariably sets up shop during the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and preaches hellfire in shrill tones to the passersby), others are simply put off by the fact that he is there at all, waxing eloquent to bustling crowds of the indifferent. I admit I usually have the latter reaction, even when I happen to agree with what he's preaching about, and I feel like taking him aside and telling him, "Mate, you're not helping the cause here. You're just making people more alienated from Jesus than they were before."

Yet, returning to my grandfather's memoir, in the 50's my grandfather was doing a very similar thing. He would park his wagon in the main street of a country town or a Brisbane suburb, stand up in the back and begin preaching. And a crowd would gather. People would come and listen. Some would heckle, of course, but others wouldn't. Occasionally, there might even be converts. He tells of one time when he was assisting a Baptist church in Park Ridge, south of Brisbane, over the course of a few months. As part of the work, they initiated a Sunday school and would drive through the town to pick up children and take them to the church. As the weeks went on, the number of children who wanted to come rose steadily until they had to sell their vehicle for a larger one to accommodate them. This would not happen now, I think.

I don't think these reminiscences are symptoms of a rose-coloured view of the past or, indeed, are isolated examples. For example, I think of what Frank Sheed used to do, first in Sydney and later in London- very much the same style of thing.

What does this mean? Were people more spiritual in the 1950's? Are they less spiritual now? Or is there some other reason? One could, I suppose, argue that people who had lived through the war would naturally be more open to God and anyone claiming to speak for Him. On the other hand, can anyone deny that today's generation is more hungry for meaning than any within living memory? Alternatively, it could be merely evidence of different things appealing to different generational cultures. Perhaps both theories are true to one degree or another.

There are of course practical considerations to take from that observation. If soapbox preaching was accessible to one generation but not to another, there surely must be some mode of evangelism which would appeal to the latter as soapbox preaching did to the former.

In any case, it is enlightening to get a glimpse of this foreign land where getting up on your soapbox did not automatically make you a pariah and an oddity.


Matthias said...

I think people are still searching but with the Churches now on the outer culturally,an alterntaive spiritually exists.
This is probably why Hillsong thrives and Emergent churches also do well. At our Thirsday night service,the pastor talked about how Jesus commissioned the 12 to go out as "Lambs amongst Wolves" and three things stoo dout for me;

1/ We are not to parade ourselves as intellectualy giants but as God' servants
2/ We are to be act in our workplaces as people of God's peace ,who people seek out because they know we are like that
3/ when dismissed rudely, the phrase " wipe their dust off your feet" means for us to get over the snubs and get on with other areas,andleave this lot to God and to not seek vengance.
One of the things he referred to is the fact that THE CHURCH - persecuted many people-and he was not referring to the Catholic church as such but in general-remember the persecution of the Donatists by Constantine in the name of the Church

GAB said...

It's an apt passage, that, and you make some good points. Certainly in the present post-Christian culture, evangelism has to be done very differently from the past. I still maintain that monasticism has the potential to really come into its own as a force for evangelism in the decades to come. People in our time are more likely to impute (sometimes correctly) hypocrisy and ulterior motives to anybody who tries to convince them of something, and are more conscious, as you say, of the sins of Christians and churches, whether in the past or more recently. An evangelism of presence, more being than doing(though doing also has its place), will, I suspect, show increasing effectiveness in the future.

For my own part, I know that in my workplace, though I don't often talk about my faith outright, my colleagues know about it. Sometimes I get the niggling feeling that I should talk about it more, and I continue to wonder if this is a good or bad niggle, but on the other hand, if any of my colleagues have a question about religious things, I am invariably the first person they ask. Perhaps that is enough. I'm not sure. It's something I continue to think about.

Matthias said...

Your comments about monasticism,also reminded me that my Pastor spoke about how the Celtic Christian monasteries were places where people came to pray and worship and then re-engage with the world. If you go to my church's web site - you will see a Celtic Cross almost in the middle of the montage of photos. I know that those who began this church take inspiration from Celtic Christianity and my Pastor has visited Iona.