Monday, January 24, 2011

"Is This 'Hell-Fire' Preaching?"

In response to a segment on the January 24, 2011 episode of "On the Box," we received the following questions via email.

"I noticed that Marcus seemed to not have much of an audience while preaching. Granted a crowd would seem to make us look less weird, however, should that matter? If we basically share the way Marcus did, could that not be considered, Hell-fire and Brimstone preaching? Yes I sensed his concern and passion, however, is it an effective approach?" ~ John, Oregon

Great questions, John.

The video John is referencing is a video of Marcus Pittman. Marcus, an Ambassadors' Academy team leader. In the video, Marcus is in Battery Park (NY), standing atop a short concrete wall, preaching the Law and the Gospel to people hanging out in the area, or simply passing by.

John's first question is in regards to how an open-air preacher appears to his or her audience and whether or not that matters. The answer is, well, yes and no.

To a lost and dying world, I don't think open-air preachers look any more or less weird drawing a crowd than they do not drawing a crowd. Let's face it. To many people, open-air preaching seems odd. What was commonplace (open-air preaching) to people inside and outside the church, only a hundred years ago, is not seen by many as normative. Be that as it may, open-air preaching is biblical and has stood the test of time for more than 2,000 years. So, in that sense, we ought not worry about "looking weird" to those within eye or ear shot of open-air preaching.

That being said, the open-air preacher ought not, by their words or demeanor, seek to be offensive simply to get a reaction out of people. The gospel is offensive enough to lost people (1 Cor. 1:18) without inappropriate conduct on the part of the preacher adding to the offense. So, in that sense, we should be concerned about how we, as open-air preachers, come across to our audience. Granted, some people are so offended by the gospel message and hate Jesus Christ so much, one could be the nicest person on earth while open-air preaching and still offend some. But the open-air preacher should always be aware of his or her overall demeanor, tone of voice, and rhetoric; and how they sound, not only to themselves, but to others.

John's second question asked whether or not preaching without intentionally drawing a crowd, as Marcus did in the video, is considered "Hell-fire and brimstone" preaching. The answer to that question is no.

Marcus' presentation of the Law and the Gospel was measured and balanced. Yes, he was loud. Marcus has one of the biggest voices in the open-air preaching community. But he is raising his voice to be heard, not because he is angry. Sometimes I will tell my listeners that I am raising my voice because I cannot use amplification (if applicable) and because I care about them and I want them to hear what I have to say.

While some, again inside and outside the church, may consider Marcus' style of open-air preaching as "Hell-fire and brimstone" preaching, you don't hear Marcus calling people names. You don't see him angrily pointing at people. What you see is Marcus speaking the truth in love.

John's last question: is this kind of preaching effective? In a word...absolutely!

While Marcus does not have a crowd of people standing directly in front of him, people are listening. One heckler standing behind Marcus engaged him. One man off in the distance told Marcus to take off his glasses so he could see Marcus' eyes. And there was an untold number of people passing by and standing within earshot that heard what Marcus had to share.

I remember one night preaching on Brand Boulevard, in Glendale, CA. The crowds were very small. I had turned down the volume on my amplification after finishing an open-air. Shortly thereafter, as I began to preach again, a lady came out of a nearby restaurant. She walked directly to the box on which I stood and politely asked, "Could you please turn the volume back up. I'm having a hard time hearing you in the restaurant." So, you never know just how many people are listening to the preaching of the gospel, in the open-air.

The way Marcus was preaching the gospel, as well as open-air preaching in general, is a wonderful tool for others to initiate one-to-one conversations. I (and other open-air preachers can attest to this, too), have heard people several minutes after the preaching, and a good distance away from the preacher, talking about the preaching. So, if you are in the area when open-air preaching is taking place, listen to the conversations in the area and see if there is an opportunity to contact someone and ask, "What do you think about what that guy (or gal) has to say?"

So, in that sense, open-air preaching in the manner in which Marcus did it in the video is effective. But it is effective in another way.

Open-air preaching is effective--regardless of the size of the crowd, regardless of whether or not the preacher tries to draw a crowd, preaches to a static line of people, or just simply preaches to whoever may hear. Open-air preaching is effective because it is an act of worship on the part of the biblical open-air preacher. Open-air preaching is effective because it lifts up and exalts the name of Jesus Christ. Open-air preaching is effective because it is an act of obedience toward God, as well as an act of love for God and for people.