I can understand this objection/misconception in light of some of the "bad" open-air preaching taking place on streets around the world these days. There are some "preachers" on the streets who live for confrontation. They rarely get to the gospel during their preaching because they spend the bulk of their time inciting people with uncharitable rhetoric and, once they've raised the hackles of their listeners, they spend the rest of their time defending themselves instead of contending for the faith.
Those described above are often referred to as the "hellfire" preachers. An unbiblical "hellfire" preacher is not one who simply talks about sin, judgment, and Hell in a biblical and loving way. An unbiblical "hellfire" preacher is one who uses the threat of Hell and judgment to justify self-righteous, mean-spirited talk and condescension toward their audience. There is little or no grace in their tone of voice or rhetoric. And again, they rarely get to the cross of Christ and the beauty of His sacrifice in their preaching. Sadly, there are times when "hellfire" preachers do little more than call people names, under the auspices of confronting them about their sin, and command people to repent.
With the above in mind, I can understand why some might conclude that all open-air preaching "scares people off."
But let's not forget that there is a biblical model for what is commonly referred to as "hellfire" preaching. I can say without equivocation that I know several biblical "hellfire" preachers--one in particular. His name is Jesus Christ. Jesus said:
"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:22).To characterize all open-air preaching as being the same as what can be deemed unbliblical "hellfire" preaching would be a mistake. And to lump any mention of Hell in either open-air preaching or during one-to-one conversations into the category of unbiblical "hellfire" preaching, is to lump Jesus into the same category; for Jesus talked more about Hell than anyone else in Scripture.
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:29-30).
"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (Matthew 23:15).
"You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell" (Matthew 23:33)?
There is also a misconception held by those who raise this particular objection. It is the misconception that confronting people regarding sin and bringing them to the stark reality of the consequences of sin (namely eternity in hell) is somehow going to scare people away from coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Before a person will come to an understanding of their need for salvation, they must first come to terms with why they need to be saved (they've sinned against a holy, righteous and just God) and from Whom they need to be saved (that same holy, righteous, and just God). Talking about the Law of God, sin, judgment, and Hell--whether during open-air preaching or one-to-one conversations--won't scare a person away from Christ; certainly not the humble sinner who recognizes his or her need for the Savior. No, if the Holy Spirit is working on the person's heart, hearing about sin, judgment, and Hell will rightly prepare the sinner's heart to hear about the grace, mercy, kindness, and love of God.
Frankly, such a point of view, as expressed in Objection #2, is a sad minimization of the power and sovereignty of God. Salvation is of the Lord. There is nothing finite, sinful man can do to thwart the plans of God. This does not give Christians license to run amok, intent on offending people for the sake of being offensive. But the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). God can, does, and will use the proclamation of His gospel to draw sinners to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether or not that gospel is, at times, marred by the sinful behavior of the one proclaiming the gospel.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is more powerful to draw sinners to Christ than sinful man is in repelling sinners away from Christ.
When confronted by a Christian with this objection, I will gently ask, "How do you think I should proclaim the gospel?" The all-too-common response is a wide-eyed stare and silence. Such a response often comes from the sudden realization that while they criticize me for the manner in which I proclaim the gospel, they are doing nothing to proclaim the gospel. It's as if the person leveling the objection is trying to justify their failure to share the gospel by criticizing how I share the gospel.
At the moment, I can't remember who said the following; but I agree with the sentiment. To the Christian who objects to biblical evangelism while, at the same time, not personally evangelizing the lost: "I would rather do what I'm doing than what you're not doing."
But I won't close this installment with a swipe at my Christian brethren who find biblical evangelism too confrontational and scary. Instead, I would like to leave them with this exhortation. Please be more concerned about where the lost will spend eternity than what the lost will think about you if you lovingly confront them about their sin. And trust more in the sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel to save than in the perception of man's ability to scare others away from Christ.