"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Are "Street Pastors" the right people for this?

I watched an episode of BBC 2’s Chaplains:Angels of Mersey which concentrated on a the growing phenomenon of Street Pastors an interdenominational Christian organisation that patrols urban centres late at night ministering to the late night drinkers and young clubbers who can be found staggering around in various states of incapacity and inebriation. I have been vaguely aware of this group as they operate in my home town and on the face of it they are providing a valuable and welcome service to vulnerable young adults, along with lessening the effects of anti-social behaviour. Indeed they often have close associations with the police, who welcome their presence and claim that crime is often reduced as a result of their work. The organisation itself claims that its mission is “engaging with people on the streets to care, listen and dialogue” and is not intended to be seen as an opportunity the preach or proselytise. From their website (my emphasis):
"A presence of Street Pastors will earn credibility in the community, so that people know that the Church is there for them in a practical way. The role is not about preaching heaven and hell, but one of listening, caring and helping - working in an unconditional way"
The BBC programme itself was basically a fly on the wall style documentary that made no overt judgment about the people involved on the ground (Liverpool City Centre in this case), but let the actions and comments of the pastors speak for themselves. Now, I maybe more hypersensitive to the mixed motives of Christian “good works” than many people, but it certainly seemed to me that the people filmed had more than a little self delusion about their reasons for being out on the streets. There was definitely a strong evangelical streak in the makeup of some of them and even if they are genuinely concerned with the welfare of the people they engage with, it was clear that promoting Christianity was very high on their agenda. There have already been concerns raised about individual pastors attitudes to GLBT people they meet and I think this is a genuine worry. Commenter, Angela Geeson from the link above relates:
I spoke to a ‘nice’ lady street pastor in training the other day about her view on homosexuality and to my horror she said that her church ‘did not do gay’….. and that homosexuality was ‘wrong’…. and that she was considering helping to teach / preach in high schools… “That one hole is for babies and the other hole is for the toilet………….”
This kind of attitude could be dangerous if communicated to a very drunk and confused gay teenager. Inevitably the “clientele” for the Street Pastors will come from the less mature and most troubled sections of society, and therefore the most vulnerable to manipulation and indoctrination, even if not directly proselytised to at the time.
The thing is, if there is a real need for this kind of activity on the streets, (the police seem at least grateful for it,) and if it is going to continue to expand, some secular checks and balances might be a good idea, if only for the safety of the pastors themselves. It’s one thing to hand out free flip-flops and a bottle of water to a sozzled girl struggling on high heels; it is another to expose yourself to the potentially violent and abusive elements that are also around at that time of night. These pastors are being trained, but the religious zeal is strong in some of them and it’s not impossible that some less than subtle bible thumping could get them into trouble. Many of them genuinely believe that the power of prayer is protecting them from harm, which is exactly the sort of delusion that could see them in serious danger and oblivious of risk.
I don’t object in principle to these groups and I am aware that the criticism could be levelled at secular humanists that no equivalent volunteer group exists from them. But it has to be said that humanists do not have the incentive to advertise for Jesus that the Street Pastors obviously have and which is a stated primary motive for their existence.
It may be time to take this initiative out of purely religious hands and establish a service some other way under the auspices of local councils or police authorities. This shouldn’t stop good people volunteering for genuinely humanitarian reasons and may encourage non-Christians to take part (the Street Pastors only recruit from church members, which reinforces the suspicion that their motives are mixed) providing some balance to a project with desirable effects but suspect intentions.


  1. The clear policy of Street Pastors is to be non-judgemental, and never to raise the question of faith. If of course one is asked for one's views one is entitled to respond.

  2. Yes I know it's the policy, my concern is as the movement grows it becomes harder to police. Asking some evangelicals not to proselytise is like asking dogs not to bark. It's in the DNA.

  3. Your concerns are well grounded. After Street Pastoring for several years I raised concerns with my line manager about the amount of homophobia present and how something needs to be done about it. My complaints were met with a flat refusal to do anything and a lecture about how people like me are the real threat to Christianity. I then tried to address the issue with the Ascension Trust(the people in charge nationally) and ended up having a very awkward phone conversation where they agreed homophobia shouldn't be happening but that individual pastors have a right to a conscience.
    I have been shunned and excluded by SP since then for having the audacity to speak up.

    1. please get in contact with me zeitgeistdom@yahoo.co.uk

  4. Thanks for your insight Simon. Obviously I'm not surprised but it must be frustrating for someone who joins a pastoral program to be shouted down by less tolerant people. I have to say, Hitchen's mantra that " religion poisons everything" also applies to religious works as well.

  5. I would love too be able to offer the same service as Street Pastors but as I have no religious affiliation, in fact would say I was Agnostic, I have no entry to what I feel can be an amazing and important service to the community. Sadly it seems more important to preach to our young than to just generally support and guide them in the best way we can regardless of any religious or non religious critieria.

  6. I went out as an observer with a team of Street Pastors yesterday. Showing care and kindness to anyone in need was the stated aim, with faith sharing a 'no' unless this was something a member of the public specifically asked about. the SP's were there because they love their town and as a personal way of walking out 'loving your neighbour' aspect of the Christian faith. Was impressed by the warmth and affection clubbers and others who were out and about greeted the pastors with. Was impressed by SP's non judgmental attitudes all through evening, practical wisdom, looking out for the vulnerable and each other as a team, relationships with door staff, taxi stewards, homeless. It is a beautiful thing of love in action - without strings attached. How many would stand / sit with a vomiting woman wiping off the vomit while holding the bottle of water for her to drink from? I saw it several times over last night. Together with a gentle compete of 'who can collect the most glass bottles tonight?' Normal people with hearts for people and their community ... who are also people of faith...

  7. Hi Steve,
    I have been a Street Pastor for about ten years; we try and do lots of little things to make our community a kinder and more caring place to live. Sometimes when we give girls flip flops; they want to give us money, but we decline. We say it means more to us, that they pass on a kindness by helping someone else.

    We come into contact with drunken anger and fights. I can remember the first time, there was about a dozen people fifty yards down the road; and they just started punching each other. We have this dilemma, on the one hand there are all the policies, procedures and risk assessments, on the other hand we trust in God and pray as we go.

    As we approached them, I saw one man punched to the ground, another was being kicked on the floor, and a man swung round and punched a woman in the face.
    We walked in the middle of all this anger, people were in front of me and behind, there was so much I should have been worried about. Yet I experienced a profound sense of peace that was truly beyond my understanding. I can only say that after a while things calmed down. We stopped with them for about twenty minutes and when it was time to go, we had lots of handshakes and hugs. I was in my sixties at the time, and I was with two ladies in their seventies.

    I truthfully do not know how many times I have walked in the middle of fights, but prayer can overcome fear. We are out again this Friday, we just trust in the Lord and go. I know that prayer will not always prevent me from getting hurt, but I trust in our Lord to give me a peace that is beyond my understanding.

    A couple of drunken atheist were preaching to us in an abusive and aggressive way. Bystanders came over to us and wanted to sort them out, but we said it was ok. It seemed at the time that we had to protect the guys who were being aggressive towards us. It seems that religious people do not have a monopoly on preaching.

    Just about every time we go out, people thank us for being there for them, people have said that we have helped them to change their lives for the better. In order to see change, we have to be the change we want to see, we have to do something.