The big interview: Chris Duffett
"This is all about being phenomenally cheeky for the gospel"
If you go down to Peterborough town centre on a Thursday afternoon, you're sure of a big surprise. For you are likely to come across a jovial character and his willing helpers standing in the middle of the square offering free hugs and donuts to anyone who wants them.
This is just one of the quirky ideas that come from Chris Duffett, a theologian, artist, street evangelist-extraordinaire, and the incoming president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. After hearing Chris speak on 'a gospel for the city' at the Alliance's Council meeting in September, I knew this was a man I had to meet. So this is what brings me here - to Peterborough on an autumn afternoon, where I am spending the day with this extraordinary man and watching on as some passers-by smile at his offer of a hug. Some look a little disturbed and perplexed at such an offer; some politely decline. But many - more than I had expected - gladly accept a hug. And Chris and his helpers do not hold back.
"I have hugged thousands of people over the past couple of years. For me, this is about a demonstration that God is closer than people think. People stare, they laugh, they smile; but some of them haven't had a hug for months. Some people miss a loved one," Chris tells me.
He is not just a hugger. As a city evangelist working in Peterborough two days a week, including Sundays, as well as a full-time employee of The Light Project based in Chester, he brings together his background in both art and theology to think outside the box and reach the nonchurched in new and innovative ways. Last Christmas, Chris dressed up as an angel and burst in to local pubs declaring: "I bring good news!" before handing out gifts to punters.
The thought of doing such ridiculous things is the stuff of nightmares for most Christians. We are often the not--so-evangelical. Many of us fear stepping out into the unknown in this way; and so we leave it to the 'evangelists'. But despite his fearless manner, Chris shares the thoughts that often lie beneath his smiley exterior.
"Many times my heart is racing," he says. "I know I'm going to look like an absolute idiot and I feel foolish often." But what gets him through is a genuine desire to reveal something of the gospel to those who might not otherwise come into contact with it.
"This is all about being phenomenally cheeky for the gospel. I really just want many more people to become Christians," he says. "I know that the gospel cannot help but bear fruit. It's like yeast, it just grows and grows."
But are these just gimmicks designed to entertain the masses? Chris doesn't think so - these innovative projects are merely tools to share the gospel. "I just want people to get it. I want to present the gospel in a way that people can understand."
He adds: "At the launch of our Saints on the Streets initiative, the team invited hundreds of people to walk the red carpet with the simple message that God thinks they are 'Very Important People', so much so that He gave Jesus for them.
Copies of Mark's Gospel were available for those who wanted more information and 40 people took a copy to find out more about the Christian faith. Many conversations were had about Jesus. One young man who was drawn to the fun of walking the red carpet stayed for nearly an hour to find out what it meant to be a Christian."
Walking around the town centre with Chris is a humbling experience; because at every turn he is exhibiting something of the love of God to the people of Peterborough. He offers to help a worker who is struggling with a tower of work folders. He stops to help some photography students with a project they are doing on the streets. He stops to buy a cup of tea for The Big Issue seller and doesn't forget that he takes four sugars in his brew. At the same time as buying the tea, he picks up some donuts which he delivers to the guys working at the tattoo parlour round the corner.
"The owner of the tattoo shop asked me to tattoo him. This was quite a shock, considering I didn't know what to do," Chris says. "Yet, he trusted me to do it as he wanted a symbol of hope on his already heavily pictured being. He asked me to tattoo a cross on him as he said I bring him hope."
Chris has had the privilege of seeing people come to know God. But he recognises the problem that many have in translating this into increased church attendance. He feels the Church needs to change its attitude towards new believers and our approach to how we 'do church'.
"This is the downfall of evangelistic strategies," he says. "We feel we can't invite people to church because in essence we are ashamed of our own worshipping communities. We have got it into our heads that people are going to get freaked out by it and that we need to ease them in. I think that creates a rod for our own back. We need to get new people into our church families sooner rather than later, otherwise what we do will never change. We need people to come in and ask the awkward questions so that we avoid being some kind of exclusive club."
As the president of the Baptist Union for 2012-13, from May Chris will spend time working with the 13 Associations on evangelism as part of 'The Big Hearted Tour'. The goal of the tour is to resource Christians to be big-hearted in their workplace, home, community and church.