The street preacher is back at school today. He gathers a crowd at the center of things. He clutches his Bible and shakes his fist and declares that every sinner is bound for hell.
“Have you been fornicating?” he asks students on their way to class. “Fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God,” he explains in the words of some chapter and verse.
They stop and listen and smile as he talks, nobody raising a hand to confess. Some shake their heads and drift off to more predictable but equally demanding pursuits like chemistry, calculus and communication arts.
It is not my first encounter with the street preacher. He travels the country in a van with his wife and children. Ours is just one stop on his inspired, but irregular, regime of campus ministry.
“Are you a sinner?” he says to no one and everyone who, in turn, do not know what to say.
“How many of you have been drunk?” A few raise their hands and snicker with satisfaction.
Drunkards are sinners, he explains, and sinners are going to hell.
Only those who have put aside every weight of sin, who have stopped missing the mark, who have ceased falling short of the glory, only those who are pure and perfect can rest at ease with their salvation secured.
It is a hard doctrine he preaches. It strikes a blow at the casual, careless notion of much that passes for Christianity.
The style and substance of his vision stand in sharp contrast, not only to my careful reading of the Bible, but also to the well-ordered worship of the chapel where, a few days hence, we will gather to hear a sermon and distribute the Supper in properly polished aluminum trays.
In response to his gospel invitation, a security officer eases up. It is not, however, her repentance that takes center stage in this afternoon drama of redemption but rather his removal to the edge of campus.
School policy, no doubt, directed her to escort him back to the public thoroughfare from whence he came, to rid our grounds of this irritating evangelist whose message is too dogmatic, too dangerous, too depressing for our campus culture.
The students follow, curious and incredulous. They cluster on the curb, punctuating his preaching with doubts and demands, setting up a lively debate about sin and salvation, heaven and earth; they hold their own. Some even quote the Bible, meeting his stern word of judgment with their youthful mixture of logic and laughter.
Perhaps he has a convert or two; it is hard to tell.
I open the window at the back of the chapel and listen a while. I take a picture and smile, remembering the classroom conversations his last visit provoked.
Provocation on a campus is not a bad thing—probing emotions, pricking illusions, exploring prejudices and at times pushing us over the edge of presumption. Some say this is the essence of education, the core of the college experience. I tend to agree.
Slowly, the street show winds down. The preacher retreats and the students disperse, some to attend a more respectable kind of provocation as a credentialed philosopher from Florida opens his lecture with the question: “Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?”
Once again the students listen. Once again they allow a strange idea to edge its way into their minds. Once again they are challenged to think, to question, to doubt or to believe in ways that reshape the soul for life and for eternity.
What every campus needs is a little provocation.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.