People don’t attend church? Meet Stephen Nylen and his devout band of brothers who declare the Gospel week-after-week on the streets of Grand Rapids, regardless of weather conditions
But for five men who've gathered on a recent Tuesday at the intersection of Burton Street and Eastern Avenue in Southeast Grand Rapids' Alger Heights neighborhood, the night will take on a decidedly different focus.
Four men have joined Stephen Nylen, an open-air preacher who founded Frontline Apologetics around 10 years ago, to declare Christ's salvation outside, where there are no walls, no order of service and no furnace to keep them warm.
Some of the men that work in evangelistic concert with Nylen — Daniel Cross, Joel VanOyen and Jason Silverthorne — will hold placards with Bible verses printed on them and, when possible, hand out four panel, doubled sided pamphlets with the headline, "Do You Know Jesus Christ" ablaze on it, to those willing to accept them.
Rev. Steven Poelman, visitation pastor at Dutton United Reformed Church in Caledonia, tag-teams street preaching duties with Nylen. Silverthorne's wife, Carissa, is usually alongside the men serving homemade burritos in a crock-pot to the men and the public, but this particular night she was feeling under the weather, and did not come out.
The B&E's melting pot
Nylen has been an outdoors fixture on public sidewalks, standing in front of abortion clinics, college campuses, in downtown Grand Rapids, concerts and festivals and what Nylen calls his primary location, Burton and Eastern, or as he likes to refer to it, the B&E. The vast majority of Tuesday nights find Nylen at the B&E, an area he calls a "melting pot" of people. But this recent Tuesday night, Feb. 15, called into question if Nylen would make it out due to chronic stomach pain he endures. Then, some over-the-counter painkillers he took earlier in the day abated the ache, enabling him to soldier on at night.
"Predominately, it houses image bearers who are often considered poor and outcast," Nylen says of his B&E. "This street corner serves as a primary crosswalk for this neighborhood, which makes it a prime spot to proclaim the Good News in a variety of ways."
Then abruptly, a screech of tires peels the air
Then abruptly, a screech of tires peels the air and an eastbound car on Burton Street careens into a curb.
A flat tire? The men grab a tire jack and go find out. It's an example of being prepared in season and out of season.
Turns out it wasn't a flat tire but a busted tie rod.
"We secured safety for her and the vehicle with extra traffic cones and were prepared to attempt moving the vehicle, but she called a tow truck," Nylen says afterword, whose a Michigan Army National Guard veteran and painter by trade.
But that's not where Nylen ended his interaction with the shaken driver.
"From there we were able to share the Gospel with her, as the scare made the soil fertile for Gospel seeds to be planted," says Nylen. "A beautiful but brief conversation ensued."
The men eventually gather in a circle to read Scripture — Nylen reads from Romans 7:21-25 — and pray for the Holy Spirit's direction and anointing before beginning their three-hour assignment of urging passersby to repent of their sins and embrace Christ's salvation.
Each man takes a turn praying out loud, with Nylen asks the Lord to "help us proclaim the Truth in love and mercy."
When they're done, Nylen urges the men, "Let's go serve our King."
The night's unplanned turn of events continues
Open-air preaching must allow unexpected turn of events that a church service would not make room for. Just before Nylen starts preaching, a car pulls into the parking lot where his band of brothers are nearby and a conversation between the driver — Paul Cooper — and Nylen ensues.
"He was deeply blessed by the Gospel ministry," says Nylen. "He wanted to encourage us."
Then, as Cooper drives off, the men holding the Scripture placards stand in a line to create a "tunnel of Scriptures."
"Thank you so much for all that you do for God's Kingdom and for your courage to speak the truth of the Gospels," Cooper later said in a text message to Nylen. "May God Bless you!"
Croff has been friends with Nylen since he was five years old. He joined Nylen's evangelistic calling two years ago, handing out tracks and having conversations with people willing to listen.
"We need to preach the Word to those who can hear, and open eyes," says Croff who lives in Wyoming.
Rev. Poelman was ordained a Reformed Church in America in 1996 and is a 1987 graduate of Moody Bible Institute. He credits Nylen for helping him to birth a new way of spreading the Gospel.
'Learning some new things'
"I never preached on the street until I met Stephen Nylen," says Poelman. "I'm learning some things from him."
Then, tapping his copy of the Bible, Poelman adds: "Everyone who wrote this Bible were all street preachers. They were not accepted by the government of their time and (the Lord) told them to go out and whether they listen (the public) listen to you or they don't listen to you, proclaim all the words that I told you."
Nylen is familiar with encounters with government. The Grand Rapids Police tried to say years earlier his electronic voice amplifier violated the City's noise ordinance when he preached outside of an abortion clinic and other places. Nylen countered in court that it was the content of his speech that was being challenged and not the volume. Nylen has never been arrested and his outside preaching continues.
VanOyen, trying to stay warm like the rest of the men, is heartened when it's time to venture out Tuesday nights and hand out gospel tracks, hold a placard and talk to people about Christ.
"It's always amazing how God uses this to bless us," VanOyen says.
Then it's time for Nylen to deliver a no-holds barred message.
"We should eagerly await our King's return because we do not belong here," Nylen intones.
Another unexpected episode happens
Then another unexpected episode happens. Car after car intermediately honk in support of Nylen throughout the night. Nylen appreciates the show of support and continues.
"We belong to a kingdom that cannot be shaken," Nylen proclaims. "We belong to a kingdom that cannot be stolen from us. No thief can take it, no killer can destroy it. The serpent's head has been crushed at the cross. And dear friends, Jesus Christ as head of His church, has crushed the serpent's head, and He says He will return at the time of the Father's choosing, to judge the living and the dead and he will bring comfort to His people. The Gospel is we can be saved from the righteous wrath of God, and that we can be free from sin and Satan."
Minutes later, it's Poelman's turn to stand on the pedestal. And like Nylen, it is not a feel-good, prosperity Gospel message, but one targeted to the hearts of all those willing to listen.
"Poelman declares: 'You adulterers, you adulteresses, do you not know that your friendship with the world is to be an enemy of God?'" Poelman intones. "'Whoever makes himself a friend of the world becomes the enemy of God almighty? He says do not love the things of the world.
"What world is He talking about? He's talking about the world of your heart. The world of your nature. The world of your mind. Because the world that God condemns is the lust of the heart, the lust of the eyes, the boastful, pride of life. All the things that mark the wickedness of the heart of man, our desires and our pride, our desires for sinful pleasure, the desire for wealth and property, any crooked and crafty way that we can gain the things that we want is the world. That is what the world is. Our evil lusts. That is why the lord says do not love the world, or the things of the world."
It's all akin to what the early-church apostles accomplished, and still needs to be accomplished.
"We see in (Apostle) Paul's internal call in Acts 17 to go and preach in the marketplaces and Athens intersections," says Nylen. "There are many great local corners and intersections I surveyed for Gospel ministry on the Southeast side, but the corner of Burton and Eastern is where the Lord has 'provoked my spirit within me' to stand and herald the Good News."
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