Never Fear Hecklers
The best thing that can happen to an open-air meeting is to have a good heckler. Jesus gave us some of the greatest gems of Scripture because someone either made a statement or asked a question in an open-air setting. A good heckler can increase a crowd of 20 people to 200 in a matter of minutes. The air becomes electric. Suddenly, you have 200 people listening intently to how you will answer a heckler. All you have to do is remember the attributes of 2 Timothy 2:23–26: be patient, gentle, humble, etc. Don’t worry if you can’t answer a question. Just say, “I can’t answer that, but I’ll try to get the answer for you if you really want to know.” With Bible “difficulties,” I regularly fall back on the powerful statement of Mark Twain: “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don’t understand, but for me I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
“The best thing that can happen to an open-air meeting is to have a good heckler.”
A “good” heckler is one who will provoke your thoughts. He will stand up, speak up, then shut up so that you can speak. Occasionally, you will get hecklers who have the first two qualifications, but they just won’t be quiet. If they will not let you get a word in, move your location. Most of the crowd will follow. Better to have 10 listeners who can hear than 200 who can’t. If the heckler follows, move again…then the crowd will usually turn on him.
One ploy that often works with a heckler who is out solely to hinder the gospel is to wait until he is quiet and say to the crowd (making sure the heckler is listening also), “I want to show you how people are like sheep. When I move, watch this man follow me because he can’t get a crowd by himself.” His pride usually keeps him from following.
If you have a “mumbling heckler” who won’t speak up, ignore him and talk over the top of him. This will usually get him angry enough to speak up and draw hearers. There is a fine line between him getting angry enough to draw a crowd, and hitting you; you will find it in time.
If you are fortunate enough to get a heckler, don’t panic. Show him genuine respect, not only because he can double your crowd, but because the Bible says to honor all men (1 Peter 2:17), so you don’t want to offend him unnecessarily. Ask the heckler his name, so that if you want to ask him a question and he is talking to someone, you don’t have to say, “Hey, you!”
Often, people will walk through the crowd so they can get close to you and will whisper something like, “I think you are a #@*!$!” Answer loud enough for the crowd to hear, “God bless you.” Do it with a smile so that it looks as though the person has just whispered a word of encouragement to you. This will stop him from doing it again. The Bible says to bless those who curse you and do good to those who hate you (Matthew 5:44).
“The most angry hecklers are usually what we call ‘backsliders.’ These are actually false converts who never slid forward in the first place.”
Remember that you are not fighting against flesh and blood. Hecklers will stoop very low and be cutting and cruel in their remarks. If you have some physical disability, they will play on it. Try to smile back at them. Look past the words. If you are reviled for the name of Jesus, “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.” Read Matthew 5:10–12 until it is written on the corridors of your mind.
The most angry hecklers are usually what we call “backsliders.” These are actually false converts who never slid forward in the first place. They “asked Jesus into their heart” but never truly repented. Ask him, “Did you know the Lord?” (see Hebrews 8:11). If he answers “Yes,” then he is admitting that he is willfully denying Him, and if he answers “No,” then he was never a Christian in the first place— “This is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
When you’re evangelizing open-air, don’t let angry reactions from the crowd concern you. A dentist knows where to work on a patient when he touches a raw nerve. When you touch a raw nerve in the heart of the sinner, it means that you are in business. Anger is a thousand times better than apathy. Anger is a sign of conviction. If I have an argument with my wife and suddenly realize that I am in the wrong, I can come to her in a repentant attitude and apologize, or I can save face by lashing out in anger.
Read Acts 19 and see how Paul was a dentist with an eye for decay. He probed raw nerves wherever he went. At one point, he had to be carried shoulder height by soldiers because of the “violence of the mob” (Acts 21:35). Now there’s a successful preacher! He didn’t seek the praise of men. John Wesley told his evangelist trainees that when they preached, people should either get angry or get converted. No doubt, he wasn’t speaking about the “Jesus loves you” gospel, but about sin, Law, righteousness, judgment, and Hell.
Watch for “Red Herrings” or “Rabbit Trails”
The Bible warns us to avoid foolish questions because they start arguments (2 Timothy 2:23). Most of us have fallen into the trap of jumping at every objection to the gospel. However, these questions can often be arguments in disguise to sidetrack you from the “weightier matters of the Law.” While apologetics (arguments for God’s existence, creation vs. evolution, etc.) are legitimate in evangelism, they should merely be “bait,” with the Law of God being the “hook” that brings the conviction of sin. Those who witness solely in the realm of apologetical argument may just get an intellectual decision rather than a repentant conversion. The sinner may come to a point of acknowledging that the Bible is the Word of God, and Jesus is Lord—but even the devil knows that.
“Those who witness solely in the realm of apologetical argument may just get an intellectual decision rather than a repentant conversion.”
Always pull the sinner back to his responsibility before God on Judgment Day, as Jesus did in Luke 13:1–5. Whenever you are in an open-air situation, be wary of so-called Christians who are intent on distracting workers from witnessing. They argue about prophecy, of how much water one should baptize with, or in whose name they should be baptized. It is grievous to see five or six Christians standing around arguing with some sectarian nitpicker, while sinners are sinking into Hell.
“Watch It, Blind Man!”
There is one passage in Scripture to which I point for all those who want to evangelize in the open air. It is 2 Timothy 2:24–26. Memorize it. Scripture tells us that sinners are blind. They cannot see. What would you think if I were to stomp up to a blind man who had just stumbled, and say, “Watch where you’re going, blind man!”? Such an attitude is completely unreasonable. The man cannot see.
The same applies to the lost—spiritual sight is beyond their ability. Look at the words used in Scripture: “whose minds the god of this age has blinded” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them” (1 Corinthians 2:14), “having their understanding darkened. . . because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18), “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7, emphasis added).
With these thoughts in mind, read 2 Timothy 2:24–26 again and look at the adjectives used by Paul to describe the attitude we are to have with sinners: “must not quarrel…be gentle…patient…in humility.” Just as it is unreasonable to be impatient with a blind man, so it is with the sinner.