By Marshall Benbow

Open Air Evangelism Can Still Draw a Crowd

As Mike and I walked towards Belk Tower on the campus of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte, the sound of Hells Bells by AC/DC drifted through the air. There was an International Studies fair planned at the tower, and we knew that a controversial open-air preacher was there as well, but where AC/DC fit into that was beyond me.

The answer became clear as we approached the tower, which has a small hill at its base. The preacher, Bible in hand and wearing a baseball cap that read REPENT, argued with a crowd of students, while above him on the hill, a student played heavy metal on his guitar, amp cranked to “11.”

It was a chaotic scene to say the least. The preacher hollered about homos, and the students hollered back and even videotaped his rants. Some students laughed, others seethed. Cell phones were out, snapping pictures and calling friends to come and see the show; and over it all, the student dressed in black whaled away, moving from Jimi Hendrix back into AC/DC, this time playing Highway to Hell.

Admittedly, it was entertaining in its circus-like nature. But it also broke my heart. Here were students that were eager to talk about Jesus, to engage religious ideas, but they were being taken to places of anger, cynicism, and untruth. They were being yelled at and condemned and the beauty of Christ was being distorted into a crude caricature. Occasionally, in moments of calm, the preacher would say something that was spot-on, and he even said it with respect. But mostly it was a saddening chaos.

I tried to talk with some of the students in the crowd, and most of them professed to be Christians (not a surprise here in the South). One guy that I talked with attended church sometimes, kind of on an as-needed basis, and seemed reluctant to consider that his need might be greater than he suspected. He was much more interested in laughing at the preacher than talking with me.

This was the fourth day of the preacher-show at the tower, and I think that for many there, the novelty was wearing off. It seemed to me that he was merely confirming their stereotypes of fundamentalist Christians anyway.

It is encouraging to see that there is still a place for open-air evangelism, for a bold proclamation of Jesus. In fact, I long for myself and others in InterVarsity to have more of the passion and courage of this preacher.

And at the same time, I long for his passion and courage to be infused with the grace and love of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus certainly ruffled feathers during His ministry on earth, not shying away from controversy, but the people He tended to anger were the members of the religious establishment, not the broken outsiders longing for hope.

As I watched those who were most vehemently arguing with this preacher, it became apparent that they were living by their own rules and that the gospel being preached to them was actually another set of rules. “Stop doing this, quit doing that, if you do this you are condemned.”

Jesus offers transformation from the inside out, offering a love that reforms and changes our actions, something that we can never do on our own. He is certainly not pleased with our sin, but He knows that on our own, we are powerless to change.

What if someone had stood on that hill and called out to people as they walked past, “You! Young woman – you are created fearfully and well by God! You have been made beautifully!”

“You, young man – you have been loved from the beginning of time. You have a good Father who adores you!”

“You, who struggle with sexual brokenness, there is healing and wholeness available for free!”

“Rejected, unloved, confused – there is peace and freedom and acceptance. It will cost you everything but will give you so much more than everything!”

“Hey, you who are burnt out on religion, burnt out on life – there is another way to connect with God, a way that is real and true!”

Would this draw a crowd? Would people stop to hear more? Could this be a message of transformation that might lead to repentance? Or would they walk away, averting their gaze from the crazy guy with a weird message?

It seems that Jesus can still draw a crowd, but doing it in a way that is refreshing and surprising, filled with hope – that is a skill we need to learn, providing an alternative to the caricature.


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