The cabinet of the Chicago Evangelism Team, a student group focused on presenting the gospel downtown, was dismissed last spring when staff in the Office of Christian Outreach became concerned about what they regarded as the group’s aggressive evangelism tactics, which included street preaching and warning passersby about sin and hell.
Junior Jeremy Chong led the group for two years before being ousted in April. Since then, he has partnered with the other seven members of the former CET cabinet to create an independent, student-run evangelistic group known as the Jim Elliot Fellowship.
These events have created a rift between the OCO and several student evangelists who in February won a major free-speech lawsuit against the City of Chicago, allowing them to distribute gospel tracts and preach in Millennium Park.
Chong, who contributes a freelance theology column to the Record, and other former members of the CET cabinet said that they regard the OCO’s actions as a move away from the verbal proclamation of the gospel in favor of more socially acceptable forms of Christian witness.
“If the gospel offends somebody, or if the gospel gets in someone’s way, we are very okay with that,” said former CET cabinet member Nathaniel Williams, a junior studying environmental science. Chong said his goal for CET had been to pack the Friday night train with Wheaton students ready to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
But according to interim OCO Director Jared Falkanger and several student leaders from the OCO, CET’s tactics were needlessly abrasive and questionable in their effectiveness. Falkanger, who has traveled downtown with CET a handful of times over the past five years, said he received numerous complaints from students who participated in CET’s Friday night evangelism events.
In particular, Falkanger took issue with the tone and substance of the group’s interactions with people heading home from work at the end of the week.
“Talking at people who are at a bus stop going home from their 12-hour shift as a nurse in scrubs and saying, ‘You’re damned and going to hell unless you believe in Jesus Christ’ — why is [that] more evangelistic than a conversation with someone for a half-hour not using those words?” said Falkanger. “I would argue that a conversation between two people about faith and Christianity, even without these terms, can be evangelistic.”
Other complaints against CET involved the intensity of the preaching. Junior Penn Moffat participated in CET in 2018, often using card tricks to engage people in evangelistic conversations. He told the Record he thought the leaders’ approach was too aggressive.
“While it came from a place of sincere love and care and passion — both of love and care for God and the people they were telling — [the street preaching] just seemed very harsh,” Moffat said. “I think it turned off a lot of people to the gospel. Instead of hearing the actual content of what someone is saying from just preaching, I think a lot of people on the street just heard ‘a Christian yelling at me.’”
Chong said his intentions were never to turn people away from the gospel, but that his intensity stemmed from a belief that salvation is too serious to be addressed bashfully. “A love that is detached from the truth is actually not love — it’s niceness,” Chong said. “And we should be kind, we should be gentle and compassionate, though I fail often [at that]. But the truth must be maintained.”
CET’s evangelism gained national attention when the group filed a free speech lawsuit against the city of Chicago after being kicked out of Millennium Park in Dec. 2018 for street preaching. The Chicago Tribune published an article in which Chong presented the gospel. Due to the lawsuit’s publicity, Matthew Swart, a sophomore at the time, was invited to speak about free speech at the Value Voters Summit in Washington DC.
He presented the gospel to over a thousand people, including numerous senators and President Donald Trump.
While the lawsuit was independent from CET and the college, the students said that they were surprised by how little encouragement or feedback they received. “The [OCO’s] response was really nothing,” Swart said.
Falkanger denied being aware of the situation in time to offer support, though he said that some of the OCO’s ministry partners from the city expressed concern that CET’s street preaching might negatively affect their own relationship-focussed evangelistic efforts.
Professor of evangelism Jerry Root said that while he has reservations about open-air preaching, he applauds Chong’s initiative and can appreciate the candidness of his approach. Root said, “I don’t think you should go up and pussy-foot around, and act like ‘Oh hi, how are you?’ when you’ve got an agenda. No, go up and say the agenda.”
Root, who has taught Chong in class, said that he understands how people could perceive him as offensive but that in his experience Chong was open to correction. “This guy wants to see people to Jesus and if what he’s doing is keeping people from doing that, he is willing to make adjustments,” Root said.
Williams said that one of the reasons CET formed a cabinet in January of this year was to facilitate greater accountability and better training for student evangelists and leaders alike. Because of these measures, group members said they were surprised when the OCO decided to overhaul the program entirely.
The OCO dismissed CET’s newly formed cabinet and reorganized its structure shortly after students were sent home in the spring due to COVID-19. Falkanger explained, “We created an application and interview process for a new person to step into leadership of CET and we invited participants of CET and others who might be interested to apply for the leadership role.”
According to Williams, members of the cabinet received applications for the CET ministry coordinator position but unanimously declined, suggesting that Chong remained best suited for the job. Chong said OCO administrators told him that his leadership “lacked the fruits of the spirit” and that he was never given a chance to defend himself.
Senior LaShae Prins, who was student director for Student Ministry Partners in the OCO last year, said the decision was made, in part, to bring CET into closer alignment with the ethos of the OCO. According to the Wheaton website, the office “equips students to learn from, serve alongside, and partner with communities and organizations around the world in the redemptive work of the gospel.” Most OCO programs emphasize partnering with outside organizations, such as Juvenile Justice Mission, which facilitates Bible studies for youths in detention facilities, or National School Project, an outreach to students in public schools.
Prins said she respected the passion of CET’s student leaders but felt their words and actions were misguided. “Students on [CET] leadership were not displaying the same love and mercy that the OCO tries to be a pillar of,” Prins said. “It seemed like evangelism was more about numbers and sharing the gospel with as many people as possible, rather than actually investing in people or actually wanting to see lives changed.”
“It’s not just one thing,” Falkanger said. “There was not a misstep in one specific way that was like, ‘This is the line in the sand and you crossed that.’ There was feedback that we had gotten from students who participated in CET who felt like they were not welcomed into that place or they were confused by what was going on.”
CET is now led by sophomore Warner Mehl, who serves in the new role of Evangelism Coordinator for the CSC cabinet. His goal is to “really try to bring people together and not think of [the OCO’s outreach initiatives] as separate ministries.” He said it is uncertain whether CET will be going back to Chicago, and CET doesn’t currently have a cabinet.
Falkanger said he hopes using less contentious evangelistic tactics will be more effective in gathering listeners. “What would it look like for Zoe’s Feet to go down to Grant Park to do a dance to gather a crowd and then to share the gospel and testimony out of that?” Falkanger said. He said that at one point in the 70s and 80s, Wheaton students presented the gospel after drawing crowds with a barbershop quartet.
Falkanger said he wants a robust, ongoing dialogue about what evangelism is, but that street preaching shouldn’t be the primary method.
“I think there is a place for open-air preaching, but I don’t see that within CET moving forward,” Mehl said. “I know that they are doing God’s work, and I support them in that sense, but I don’t see a type of direct partnership with [the Jim Elliot Fellowship] due to some differences of opinion on how to do evangelism on a practical level.”
The Jim Elliot Fellowship, named after a Wheaton missionary who was martyred while trying to take the gospel to an unreached people group in Ecuador, began meeting in September on Blanchard Lawn for socially distanced prayer and worship, but because the group is not yet an official student group on campus, they were forced to move their gatherings to Adams Park in Wheaton.
“Our prayer is for revival, repentance and reformation in the Church, and awakening and conversions in the world,” Chong said.