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Preaching to the unconverted
THE street preachers from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church can be seen in the town centre on most days.
They hand out small tracts with titles such as “When I See Thy Heavens”, “Christ is every answer” and “How the lost sheep was found”.
Some people politely accept a tract or listen to the preaching and some politely decline to do either, but there are more extreme reactions.
As far as the preachers are concerned, the very souls of the people they address are at stake, so those extreme reactions are part of the territory.
But who are they, these preachers, and what’s it like to do what they do?
“The best thing,” said Bob Dible, who at 77 has been a street preacher for 65 years, “is when somebody acknowledges that they love the Saviour. That’s a thrill.
“The worst thing is when somebody curses the name of Jesus and says they’re a heathen or an atheist. That goes through me. I think, ‘You poor soul – I’d be exactly the same if it was not for God’s infinite goodness.”
Mr Dible, a retired furniture shop owner who lives in Blunsdon, is married with four children, 18 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. He first preached as a 12-year-old in Salisbury on the theme of John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
His fellow Swindon street preachers include Jake Whiteside, 38, who lives in Lawns and is married with five children, and Tim Painter, 48, from Cheney Manor, who is married with three children and one grandchild.
All three men were born into the faith, although it welcomes newcomers, and all three have plenty of stories from the spiritual front line. Each carries a Bible.
Mr Whiteside, who has a business supplying wildlife survey equipment, said: “I think perhaps one of the best things and one of the worst happened in the same preaching, when I had somebody come to face up to me, very close and very anti. I was quite frightened, I suppose about how aggressive he was getting.”
The preacher decided to defuse the situation by walking off, only for a police officer to appear from behind a pillar and reassure him.
“That was amazing to me because it was clear to me that God was offering his protection.”
Mr Painter has also had his share of abusive comments, but plenty of heartening experiences, too. There was the former drug addict who cleaned up his life after hearing the preaching, for example, and there was the time a man high on drugs began to harangue him, only for a passer-by to step in. “He shouted, ‘These people are my friends, leave them alone!’ It shocked the man to his senses.”
There are currently 153 members of the faith in Swindon, and meetings are held at their church in Cheney Manor Road at 5pm every Sunday. If anybody decides to come along after hearing the preaching or taking a tract, the preachers are delighted, but their mission is not strictly focused on recruitment.
As Mr Whiteside put it: ”We’re evangelising not proselytising.” Or in other words, the aim is to convert people to Christianity, not necessarily a denomination.
But is there a role for faith in modern life in any case? After all, society is about to commemorate the birth of Christianity with what in many cases will be week or so of materialism and over-indulgence.
The street preachers counter that the more materialistic society becomes, the greater the need to turn away from that materialism.
Mr Dible said: “Once the soul is saved it has peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
The church’s website is plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org