Recently I had the privilege of preaching the gospel open-air style across from the HP Pavilion in San Jose just before a Taylor Swift concert. I was joined by a couple brothers in Christ who I do outreach with regularly. I headed down with to the arena that day with a bit of trepidation. I had heard that another local street evangelism group was planning to be there as well, a group that could properly be categorized as “hellfire” preachers. This group seemed to fit well into the stereotype that jumps to most people’s minds when they think of street preachers: Anger, judgment, condemnation, an appearance of self-righteousness, etc.
I have struggled with my feelings on such preachers and their approach. On one side I appreciate their perseverance and their obedience to the gospel call. Far too few professing Christians are willing to even talk to a friend or pass out a gospel tract for fear of offending someone or having to deal with the pain of rejection, much less stand on a box and proclaim the gospel in public. But on the other side I think the majority of the time they do more harm than good. Preaching the gospel is likely to offend people under even the best of circumstances. But while Christians are called to preach the gospel regardless of the offense, it is not necessary or appropriate to increase that offense by our own bad behavior. I have seen the damage that can do, and, I am ashamed to say, have been the propagator of that type of damage more than once.
After we arrived and set up, my friend Stuart started his first round of stoplight preaching. For those not familiar with the concept of stoplight preaching, we set up a small ladder or box near a busy intersection in front of the arena, wait for people to gather at the red light waiting to cross, and then we share a gospel presentation with those waiting. It’s tricky, since you usually only have about two minutes to share the whole message and you want to make sure you hit all the relevant, biblical points. Sometimes I have found myself raising my voice to finish the message as the crowds are walking off. So Stuart got started and I walked across the street to listen to the man who was preaching there. There was only one member of the group on this day, which is unusual since there are usually several. I hadn’t met this man, so I simply stood and listened to his preaching.
As usual, my opinion was mixed. He was equipped with a megaphone and a large banner, though I don’t recall its exact words. He was walking up and down in front of those waiting to be let in for the concert. As expected his tone was caustic, and angry, with bellows of “BURN IN HELL!” at regular intervals. But there were biblical concepts touched on at least partially correctly. He talked about sin, and rebellion against God, facts that many people try very hard to ignore. He talked about repentance, and turning from sin, which is essential for true salvation. He talked about obedience to God’s law and being saved through Jesus, and salvation is indeed only possible through Jesus Christ. And he certainly talked about punishment in hell.
But something struck me that I hadn’t noticed before. I knew there was something frequently missing in this type of preaching, but I hadn’t seen it before.
It was the cross.
I heard a lot about sin, but nothing about the solution for sin. I heard a lot about what people should turn from, but not what they should turn to. Sure, Jesus was mentioned, but not the sacrifice he made, or what that meant. It sounded like “Jesus hates everything you are doing, so you need to follow him.” That’s a huge oversimplification, and to be fair, I have listened to several YouTube videos from this group since, and have heard them mention the cross, and repentance and faith, but they seem to do so almost as an afterthought.
While I am hardly the poster-boy for sound Biblical street preaching, since I’ve only been involved in this type of ministry for a couple years, I have had the privilege of training under and receiving advice from some amazing men of God, and their preaching has a pattern, or at least a framework: man’s sin, God’s justice, man’s inability to merit heaven through his works, God’s grace shown through Jesus death and resurrection, and salvation through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ alone. Different evangelist may approach things differently, have different styles, use different analogies, and the like. But those basics are the core of the gospel. If they are not preached, I don’t believe the gospel is being preached. And the cross needs to be at the center of that.
The cross is center-point of all of history, and this is particularly evident in Biblical history. Everything before it, in the Old Testament, looks forward to it, and everything in the Apostle’s writings looks back. It is the most amazing act of a God amazing enough to create our universe in all its complexity. It is at the same time the ultimate expression of God’s love and grace, and the ultimate expression of his intense hatred toward sin. “For God so loved the world” is more than an expression of why God sent Jesus Christ, but tells us how his love was expressed through him. God, in his love, did not just send us an example to follow, he sent us a sacrifice. God’s justice, his anger and wrath toward sin, had to be satisfied, and Jesus provided that satisfaction on the cross. He did not just make salvation possible, by giving us a fresh start (as is professed by many cults and apostate churches), but he made salvation actual, by paying our debt in full, so through repentance and trust we could be made the righteousness of Christ (see Romans 3).
I believe God has convicted me in this area recently, both in my public preaching and in my private life. I want to have the cross always at the forefront of my thoughts. I want to always be thinking about and praying to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he did for me, and how incredibly profound and special that is. The death and resurrection of Christ isn’t just something you need to understand to become a Christian so you can go on to other things. Jesus’ sacrifice for our justification is everything! Thanksgiving for that gift should propel our worship, deepen our prayer, give purpose and passion to our evangelism, and strengthen our desire for obedience.
So look to the cross. If you are a believer, consider the cross daily, and rejoice and God’s amazing love for us. When you share your faith (as all believers are called to do), preach the cross, who Christ is, and what he did. If you are a skeptic, or are depending on your own goodness to merit heaven, flee to the cross. Only in Jesus Christ, who paid the full penalty for our sin, is there hope of salvation and eternity in heaven. Repent of your sins and trust in him alone. And when you do, he will be faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Then you too will start to understand the true wonder of the cross, and you too will want to share it with everyone you meet.
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