During lockdown when all places of worship were closed, most churches embraced the digital revolution and had their Sunday services, mid-week Bible studies, daily devotions and prayer meetings online.
Given the social distancing and meeting restrictions, another valuable frontline aspect of Christian evangelism which suffered was the open air witness.
As a mainstream Presbyterian minister’s son married to a Baptist pastor’s daughter, open air evangelism was a major part of church life for myself and my wife.
Indeed, during the Seventies, I recall taking part in Sunday evening summer events with our Presbyterian youth fellowship when we would set up on a housing development green patch, preaching the Gospel and singing Christian praise.
Occasionally, too, we would travel as a youth fellowship to one of the north coast of Ireland ‘Ports’ - Portrush, Portstewart or Portballintrae - to distribute Gospel tracts and chat about Jesus Christ to passers-by.
Again in the late 1970s as a trainee reporter, I would spend my Easter holidays working with the Portrush-based Project Evangelism open air outreach organisation inter-acting with the various groups in society who would travel to that ‘Port’ for the annual Easter weekend.
But the evangelism was performed through face to face conversations, and chats over tea and buns - no yelling and shouting into high-powered PA systems.
But the post pandemic era has thrown up new challenges for the Christian Churches, namely how does it sensibly and constructively approach the concept of open air evangelism.
The summer strategy I outlined above related to an era in the 1970s long since gone. Ireland, as a geographical island, has become more secular and pluralist and many churches have faced a severe uphill task to persuade folk to return to the pews when Covid restrictions were lifted.
In some cases, churches and mission halls are also struggling financially because with the cost of living crisis biting hard, folk are having to make tough decisions on essential requirements such as food and heat.
Giving money to the church is slipping down the list of cash outlay for many people, including born again Christians. For many even in the middle class, giving their tithe - or a tenth of their income - to the Lord’s work is a difficult financial challenge.
The pandemic did see the re-emergence of the popular drive-in church worship where the services took place mainly in church carparks.
With the restrictions all but fully lifted for all places of worship, the Irish Bible Belt of north east Ulster is also witnessing a return of the traditional tent missions, a popular evangelical strategy used, for example, by the Faith Mission movement.
However, the pandemic has also spawned a relatively new phenomenon in relation to open air evangelism - the re-emergence of the street preachers. The tactics of some of these so-called street preachers has provoked controversy.
The real danger for the Christian Churches, of whatever denomination, is that the confrontational antics of a small section of these street preachers will have lasting long-term consequences for anyone involved in any type of open air Christian witness.
When I think of the way in which my late dad and my father-in-law used public address systems as part of their open air evangelism, they did not use the sheer volume of noise which a section of the modern-day so-called street preachers deploy.
But then is Ireland 2023 less tolerant of the Christian faith as when dad and my father-in-law were preaching?
Many modern-day street evangelists would argue that given the increasingly pluralist and secular society in which we now live, there is a real need to use shock tactics and ‘in your face’ Hell-fire preaching to force people to think about the destination of their souls.
This means using high-powered PA systems booming out their message, and especially the use of ‘no punches pulled’ judgemental criticism of the lifestyles of folk. A section of these street preachers live stream or put footage of their exploits on social media.
Such street preachers would probably argue the case that the various Christian denominations have been slow ‘out of the traps’ when it comes to resuming open air evangelism.
However, some of these so-called street preachers have been observed targeting specifically the LGBT community, the Orange Order, clinics which deal with abortions, miscarriages and blood disorders, and in some cases even trying to provoke the police and in one case, a man sitting in a car.
Watching some of this online footage of their activities, the perception is fuelled that a section of these so-called street preachers are trying to create a situation where they are arrested and have to appear before the courts as if they are a modern day St Stephen, viewed by many as one of the first Christian martyrs.
Many months ago, I visited a particular Christian Church which seemed to act as a magnet for a section of these so-called street preachers. I had the opportunity to chat to them as an investigative journalist ‘off the record’ as to their tactics and strategies.
The theme of our conversations was the title of this article - conversion or confrontation? Was the use of loud volume preaching intended to shock the person into salvation, or merely create a confrontation with sections of society?
I did notice a marked differences in the responses of those street preachers who had some professional training in evangelism and those who merely appeared to grab a microphone and Bible and begin what I can only describe as a loud ‘guldering session’.
Then again, having been brought up in the era of the conversational approach to open air evangelism, perhaps I have a natural bias against such ‘in your face’ strategies?
As far as I am concerned, having talked privately to a number of these so-called street preachers about their individual specific evangelism tactics, I have concluded that many of them are nothing more than publicity and attention seekers who if they don’t ‘wise up’ will provide an opportunity for those who oppose the Gospel message to lobby for tough laws which essentially prohibit the use of open air evangelism.
Will a situation arise that just as doctors ands nurses require a licence to practise medicine, Christian evangelists will equally require a licence from a local government body to preach the Gospel in certain locations, at certain times, used very specific language?
It is my honest opinion that while the churches and Christian organisations need to step up their game when it comes to open air evangelism, as Christians we do need to combat the menace posed by this ‘gulder brigade’ which has heavily infiltrated the open air evangelical movement.
The ultimate nightmare is that any born again Christian believer who wishes to share their testimony publicly or participate in open air evangelism will be falsely branded as a ‘hate preacher’ because of the confrontational antics of a few attention-seeking buck eejits.
Northern Ireland has a very effective lobby of genuine and professional open air evangelists who can communicate the message of being ‘born again’ exceptionally efficiently.
Equally, there is a minority of self-styled street preachers who are doing more harm to Christian evangelism with the provocative antics. Rather than silence the latter completely, they need to be given professional open air evangelical training.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.