Friday, May 11, 2012

The Way of Jesus (Part 1)

OK, this post may get me in trouble with some of my friends.  So, why write it?  The content has been brewing within me for a while now and I need to get it out.  Even if no one reads this, maybe there will be a therapeutic element in writing it.  Before I go further, let me make something clear.  I am not opposed to street evangelism or open air preaching.  I have been involved in both for the last 7 years.  I will include some photos along the way for the sake of proof.

As a pastor, I have a heart for people, the Church, but most importantly for the glory of God.  It is with that heart that I write this post.  I cannot help but notice the fact that modern open air preaching and street evangelism have created some division and problems within many local churches.  Now, for us street evangelists, we reconcile this with the conclusion that the modern church has become too man-centered and has compromised the Gospel.  I will not deny this is taking place.  However, I do not believe it tells the entire story.  Let me explain.

I have personally done what other open air preachers have done - use Jesus as our defense for doing what we do.  After all, was Jesus not an open air preacher?  You cannot read the Sermon on the Mount without concluding that He was.  But my question is this - does that mean I am doing the same thing He did?  Not really.  When we open air preach today, we find a place where a crowd will be gathered, then get on a box and preach to them whether they want to hear it or not.  Did Jesus ever do that?  Well, maybe you can make a case that He did something similar when He cleansed the Temple.  However, almost in every case, when Jesus preaches in the open air, He is addressing a group of people who came to Him to hear what He was teaching.  They were a willing crowd.

Perhaps you are wondering if I am calling for an end to open air preaching.  No, I am not.  Nor am I suggesting that we stop preaching to unsuspecting crowds.  After all, the prophets did just that, as did the Apostle Paul, as did many throughout church history.  It is a Biblical practice.  But let's not forget one key factor - the calling of God.

The prophets were uniquely called by God to their task.  In fact, let me ask you this - do you want your pastor to have been called by God into pastoral ministry?  Would you have a problem with a pastor who just thought ministry would be a neat way to make a living?  If you want a pastor to be called by God, why should open air preaching be different?

If you open air preach, why do you?  Was it to overcome some personal timidity issues?  Is it to show that you are a good Christian?  Is it because a friend challenged you to do it?  Is it to fit in with some online evangelism community?  Or, have you been specifically called by God to do so?

Many times with the prophets, there was only a negative response from the crowds.  We see much of the same even in the New Testament.  In fact, we usually console ourselves that we are just trying to be true and faithful witnesses and we are not out for results.  Indeed, if getting results is our goal, we can fall into a trap of manipulating the message to get a better response.  That should never be the case.  However, you cannot read through Acts without seeing that, while they were not focused on results, results still followed.  The power of the Holy Spirit was working through God's people, and people were being saved.  Where are such fruits today?  Granted, we know stories like that of A.W. Tozer who was saved after hearing a street preacher, but never stopping or letting the street preacher know what happened.

Granted, much of the negative response is the lostness of humanity.  But I think there is another factor.  We have people, not called by God and not filled with the power of the Spirit on the streets.  Let me ask it this way - do you expect your pastor to have a prayer life?  Would you be uneasy with the thought of your pastor getting behind the pulpit without having spent time with God in prayer?  I have asked before - what if spending one hour in prayer was a minimum requirement for an open air preacher to hit the streets?  How many would still be out preaching this weekend?  We do not want prayerless pulpits, but we seem content with prayerless boxes (street pulpits).

In our prayerless state, is it any wonder why we lack the heart of Jesus?  Jesus was "moved with compassion" for the crowds.  He wept over the lostness of the people of Israel.  Sure, we say we open air preach because we love people, but saying it doesn't make it true.  We go to an outreach, laugh and talk with our Christian friends, yell at a few people about their sins, battle a heckler, get down and high five each other before going home for a good night's sleep.  How often do we refer to people as "sinners" rather than people?  You say, "But they are sinners!"  Yes, but they are still human beings.  Are we truly moved with compassion for them?  Do we weep for them?  Do their faces keep us awake at night?  Do we grieve for that heckler we battled for a half hour?

Think of it this way, we battle a heckler who asks about how God can allow suffering.  Do we ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, they are asking because they have suffered?  We assume they are just trying to argue.  Maybe they are.  But do we ever pause to consider that maybe they have actually become hardened by suffering they have faced and that they actually would like a sincere answer.  Do we debate them or talk with them?  Do we ignore their question and turn it back to their sins?  Is their sin the biggest issue?  Yes.  But that person may not care about their need for God at the moment.  What they care about is their 4-year old child who tragically died 3 months ago.  Do we so much as take the time to ask the person their name?  Then bother to remember it?

It is interesting as we look at the crowds who flocked to Jesus.  It is interesting that they didn't always have the purest of motives.  They didn't run to Jesus with a realization of their need for forgiveness.  Often, they simply came because of some great need (often for healing) and they heard Jesus may be able to help them.

So, am I suggesting we drop the Gospel and focus on people's felt needs?  No.  And we must never compromise the Gospel.  In the coming weeks, I will explore further what I am suggesting.  But let me start with this point.  What is the point of our preaching in the open air?  Don't answer too fast.  If someone listened to you for 10 minutes and walked away, what would they remember?  I fear that, in many cases, what they would remember is some Christian yelling at people about their sins, or arguing with someone about sin.

I believe it was Wesley who said we should preach 90% Law and 10% grace, so that people understand their need for grace.  I am not talking about that.  I am talking about the one theme of everything we say.  I am sure many listeners would walk away knowing that we were calling out sins.  What I question is how many would walk away having heard the greatness of Jesus?

So, before I explore any of these issues a little further, let me pause here.  Rather than becoming defensive, please consider these things.  Again, I am not attacking open air preaching or street evangelism.  Rather, with an awareness of the need for such ministry, I am seeking to call our attention to some issues that have arisen which are hindering the work, and are causing division within local churches.

If you are an open air preacher, do you know that you have been called by God to get on the box?  Now, don't get me wrong - every Christian is to be active in sharing the Gospel.  But I do not believe that every Christian should be an open air preacher.  Have you been called to that task, or is it just something you do?

If you are an open air preacher, are you a prayerless one?  Are you going out with a technique and a learned tool, or are you going out in the power of the Holy Spirit?  If you do not want a prayerless pulpit, why are you content with a prayerless box?

If you are an open air preacher, do you have the heart of Jesus for the people you are trying to reach?  You say you love them, but do they know that?  Do you talk to them like you love them?  Yes, speak the truth, but are you speaking the truth in love?

If you are an open air preacher, have you perfected the art of using the Law to show someone their sins?  Have you even more so perfected the art of proclaiming Jesus?  Do you make much of Him?  Is He the thread woven through every open air message you give?  Do you lift Him up that he might draw men to Himself?  Would your listeners say you are preaching against sin or that you are preaching about Jesus?  Their answer will reflect which issue you gave the greater attention to while preaching.

So, more on this to come.

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