It is not enough just to preach the truth. I mean, our responsibility as churches is not met by merely saying true things. We must also give careful attention to how we go about saying them.
The apostle Paul summed this up in his exhortation to the Ephesian church to ‘speak[ing] the truth in love’ (4:15). Let us never forget that in bringing the good news of Jesus Christ we are doing evangelism for the Saviour, so we need to do it like the Saviour.
Our commission is to preach the gospel. It seems that many churches today would rather do anything other than just plainly and publicly proclaim this glorious message. Many want to dress the message up to make it more palatable to ‘modern man’.
Perhaps this suggests that really they have become rather ashamed of the gospel. But the Lord Jesus and the apostles went and spoke the truth in love to whoever would listen.
Perhaps that is our problem too – we’re afraid no one will listen. Well, our experience as a mission is that although many refuse to do so, there are many who do listen. Sometimes we have the blessing of seeing large crowds gather to hear the preacher. When hecklers come along and shout their questions, this often causes the crowd to swell further.
I read of a church recently who had asked permission from their local council to use a park for the day. The aim was supposedly for evangelism, but actually the council had stipulated that ‘proselytising’ was not allowed.
That hits the nail on the head as to why it is usually best to avoid asking permission. Most town centre pedestrianised areas are part of the public highway, where no permission is needed to preach, hand out tracts and witness to people. We really can evangelise directly, simply and cheaply, if we have the will to do so.
For years our mission has avoided ‘asking permission’ to preach out of doors. This has prevented our being put under the authority of a council who, although they may say yes to our being there today, may well change their minds tomorrow.
The point is, if we know that the law is already on our side (as it is), then we can go with confidence without needing to ask.
Such was the Lord’s compassion for the lost that he went wherever men and women were, to call them to himself. That is the great challenge today: to go where people are, rather than simply wait for them to come to us.
When the Lord did go, he lovingly urged people to repent and believe. He didn’t yell and bawl and neither did the apostles who followed him (Matthew 12:19). They presented reasoned arguments in their preaching, and conveyed them in a reasonable way. Even when we are preaching on themes like judgement and hell we ought to do so with hearts that go out to those we are speaking to.
Charles Spurgeon in his book The soul winner draws attention to Paul’s example: ‘To know the terror of the Lord is the means of teaching us to “persuade”, and not speak harshly. Some have used the terrors of the Lord to terrify; but Paul used them to persuade. Let us copy him’.
Increasingly, we are finding that our message is being challenged on account of our views on homosexuality. Since we are called to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, the best approach is not to focus on any one particular sin.
We may mention sexual sin from time to time as part of a list of other sins, but it seems best to avoid focusing on an issue that we know will at best raise hackles and at worst provoke deep antagonism and stop people listening to the saving gospel itself.
It is not an easy thing to stand among those with no love for the Lord and tell them of their need of him. It is certainly not easy when police officers, CPSOs (Community Police Support Officers) or town centre managers approach us and say we have to stop what we are doing. Overwhelmingly the law is still our friend and we need to communicate that fact to those who would hinder us.
Over the past three years, the Open-Air Mission (OAM) has been challenged in at least 14 different places around the country. These incidents have often required follow-up phone calls or letters to appropriate local authorities.
Sometimes the complaint has been over the message we preach, but often it has centred on the display boards we use. We find these useful in our witness as they provide a focal point and show headings and Bible verses, which are ideal for passing crowds.
In every one of those cases the authorities had to back down when they realised we were acting in a lawful way and were not going to just ‘disappear’ as a result of their complaints. Perhaps for too long we Christians have backed down at the first whiff of trouble, instead of making a stand for the Lord when we had a legitimate right to engage in public witness (cf. Acts 16:36-39).
What was also a tremendous help was the suggestion of the Christian Institute to ask a solicitor to write a letter to the Open-Air Mission, setting out not only our rights but also our responsibilities before the law.
All of our evangelists carry a copy of this and it has proved invaluable, not least because it has shown council officials that we have take this issue seriously. You can download a copy from the Institute’s (www.christian.org.uk) or OAM’s (www.oamission.com) websites.
On two of the above occasions the councils became quite aggressive in tone and we enlisted further help from the Christian Institute, who kindly wrote firm letters on our behalf. In both cases the councils involved agreed to allow our evangelism to go on unhindered.
It is easy when challenged by someone to react ‘in the flesh’. The Lord Jesus never did this and neither should we, as his representatives.
Public officials may become antagonistic towards us and we may feel justified in responding in kind. However, the danger is that this will enflame the situation. Not only that; it will be a bad witness.
Yes, we are to exercise our rights, and at times have to do so firmly. But that never excuses bad manners or bad tempers. Proverbs 15:1 says, ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’. On numerous occasions we have seen the effectiveness of these words in action.
It can have a disarming effect to speak in a friendly way. It can also be helpful to tell someone your first name and ask for theirs; and try to conclude any discussion with a warm handshake.
One thing we must be prepared for when we ‘stand out’ for the Lord is that false accusations may be made against us. Late last year one of our evangelists was approached by the police and told that someone had complained about him preaching in an aggressive way, and further suggested that he had made homophobic comments.
Actually, he hadn’t even done any preaching that day. He had only chatted personally with a few individuals. Thankfully, the police officer realised that ‘someone obviously has it in for you’ and decided to take no further action.
We know that the gospel is an offence. We need the Lord’s help to make sure we don’t add to that offence by anything we say or do. Instead, may we always be those who speak the truth in love!
Editor’s note: see Comment column on page 3