If you open-air evangelize, you no doubt begin in a way that feels most comfortable to you. You may start by announcing that you are going to speak from the Word of God. You may hold a Bible, or carry a cross, or surround yourself with signs containing Bible verses. There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to the public proclamation of the gospel, and you should do whatever you think works best for you. However, after open-air evangelizing for about forty years, I have learned some valuable lessons that I want to share, and these thoughts may help you become even more effective in reaching the lost.
The Days of Spurgeon Are Gone
We are not living in the days of John Wesley and Whitefield or even Spurgeon, when there was a measure of respect for the Bible and for men of God. We are living in a time when the Scriptures are mocked as being anti-science, and where Christians are often vilified by the secular media as narrow-minded bigots. Those in the media have no lack of material with which to malign us. Modern evangelism has filled the church with many false converts, and they are often the ones who make it onto the news. They carry signs with condemning Bible verses, or they protest at soldiers’ funerals with signs proclaiming God hates certain groups of people. This has created a stereotype of Christians in the minds of the secular world, so when they see us holding signs or carrying Bibles when we begin to speak, we have a mountain of prejudice to climb before we even present the message.
The picture in this article was taken in October 2012 at UC Berkeley—the bastion of godless liberalism. Despite its dubious reputation, university authorities kindly gave us a four-hour permit to share the gospel with amplification. They even allowed us to film. Study the picture for a moment and notice the orderly, attentive crowd. To create this order, we simply drew a circular chalk line and respectfully asked the crowd to remain behind the line, which they did. This puts distance between the crowd and the speaker, so that hecklers don’t come too close and the speaking degenerates into a yelling match. But it does more than just keep a sense of order.
Attracting a Crowd
A crowd draws a crowd, and if a large group of people is standing four or five deep, listening to someone speak, it has the effect of giving instant credibility to the speaker—pulling in even more listeners. The picture shows only part of the Berkeley crowd; additional attentive listeners were standing on balconies and sitting on steps.
But there’s another reason the crowd grew to so many listeners. When the apostle Paul preached the gospel in Athens, for some reason he quoted Greek poets (Acts 17:28). In addressing this, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary states:
For we are also his offspring—the first half of the fifth line, word for word, of an astronomical poem of Aratus, a Greek countryman of the apostle, and his predecessor by about three centuries. But, as he hints, the same sentiment is to be found in other Greek poets.
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible added:
As Paul was a native of the same country it is highly probable he was acquainted with his writings. Aratus passed much of his time at the court of Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia. His principal work was the “Phoenomena,” which is here quoted, and was so highly esteemed in Greece that many learned men wrote commentaries on it…It is one instance among thousands where an acquaintance with profane learning may be of use to a minister of the gospel. (emphasis added)
When Paul quoted secular poets, he was showing his hearers that he was familiar with Greek literature. Clearly, he did this as a bridge for them to hear the gospel—he had their attention because he was speaking their language.
Speak Their Language
So, if we want to capture the ears of a crowd, we should speak their language. We should take a moment to quote Greek poets. By that I mean, we should say something that will resonate with them. You may be familiar with the wildly funny Brian Regan. Millions love his humor because he has tapped into something that works in standup comedy: he speaks of things we can all identify with. Who of us hasn’t entered a plane and felt condescension from snooty First Class passengers, who are already busy making money on their laptops, or stood behind a lone passenger as he tried to push his household furniture into the overhead compartment—with no concern that he was holding up a line of two hundred stressed passengers, who just want to get to their seats?
Resonance is our lifeblood whenever we address other human beings. We want to connect with our hearers, whether we’re speaking to one or one hundred, and not just sound like an off-key trumpet blast. Greek poets helped Paul get in tune with the Athenians.
Bridge Building is Key
You may have your own open-air “Greek poets” bridge. I have mine. For the last twenty or so years I have used simple trivia questions as a way to connect with passing strangers, who I want to have stop and listen to the gospel. By asking interesting questions and giving away money for correct (and even incorrect) answers, I’m able to quietly build some favor and credibility with my listeners before I share the message.
“If we are to be faithful, we must share sin, righteousness, and judgment.”
Our problem is that the prescription we advocate has an unpleasant taste in the mouth of sinners. The message, when presented biblically, is bitter medicine indeed. If we are to be faithful, we must share sin, righteousness, and judgment. The guilt of sin, the necessity of repentance, the fearful subject of sure death, the pain of a stirred conscience, and talk of the reality of Hell are hard for the world to swallow. So it’s vital that they believe we have a friendly, caring demeanor.
With the help of God, I want to resonate with my hearers. Even before I turn to the subject at hand, I want them to know that I’m reasonable and that I’m motivated by love and kindness. When trivia questions are asked, answers are offered, and money is given away to winners—and to people who don’t deserve it because they get a wrong answer—those few moments are very important and precious. It’s a small thing that provides a huge advantage when the message is shared, because it gives me their ears, and without that I may as well not speak.