The open-air preacher’s toolbox has many options. Unfortunately, many men only use the hammer. The blunt object of God’s law is their only tool. These preachers use it appropriately for the self-righteous, but they also wield it on the spiritually weary. They fail to pull out the cloth of Jesus’ love to wipe away the tears of the broken-hearted. As preachers, we must understand our audience. Many people need to stare at God’s law and see their guilt. While others feel the burden of their sin and need to be comforted with the compassion of a Savior who died as a curse on the cross.
This article is a call for open-air preachers to expand their toolbox. Do not only preach sermons about God’s wrath and the condemnation to come. Brother, please add to your repertoire sermons aimed at the broken-hearted. Here are two reasons from the Scriptures.
1. Jesus calls the broken-hearted to come to Him.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus gives a call to the weary. In the previous paragraph, he has pronounced a woe onto the cities for rejecting Him. Then, He thanks the Father for concealing this truth and only revealing it to His children. Then, Jesus shows His compassion.
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)
Jesus reveals four things about Himself which will comfort the heart of the down-trodden. First, He will give them rest. Jesus is the only one who can give spiritual rest. He is the rock in which to find rest. Those who are weary from works-based religion can find relief in Jesus. Those who are tired of their bondage to their addictions can be freed.
Second, Jesus is gentle. He is the perfect gentleman. Oh how many women have been betrayed and abused by a man. Yet Jesus is tender. He is the almighty God, but He controls His power by being gentle with the hurting.
Third, Jesus is lowly. He is humble. He is not prideful or arrogant. There is a beauty to Jesus’ demeanor which is comforting to the hurting.
Fourth, His yoke is light. He will not burden a person with the works of the law. He will not force them into the bondage of religious works and self-righteousness. Instead, He calls them to come to Him. Trust in Christ’s righteousness. The burden of your sinful past is wiped clean through His atonement on the cross. The broken-hearted can be a new creature in Christ by faith in Him.
Besides Jesus’ example, Charles Spurgeon exhorted men to preach on the love of Christ Jesus. He gives caution to balance it with the justice of God. We do not preach Christ’s love in isolation, but this should not stop us from preaching about His love.
"Preach earnestly the love of God in Christ Jesus, and magnify the abounding mercy of the Lord; but always preach it in connection with his justice. Do not extol the single attribute of love in the method too generally followed, but regard love in the high theological sense, in which, like a golden circle, it holds within itself all the divine attributes: for God were not love if he were not just, and did not hate every unholy thing. Never exalt one attribute at the expense of another. Let boundless mercy be seen in calm consistency with stern justice and unlimited sovereignty. The true character of God is fitted to awe, impress, and humble the sinner: be careful not to misrepresent your Lord. All these truths and others which complete the evangelical system are calculated to lead men to faith; therefore make them the staple of your teaching" (Lectures to my Students, pg. 361)
Do not make a false dichotomy in your mind. Preaching on Christ’s love does not mean you have forsaken God’s wrath. Instead, it magnifies the great love of our Savior to die under God’s wrath. It shows the seriousness of our sin and our need for a surety. We can preach the love of Christ to the broken-hearted and still call them to repent.
2. Jesus is the physician for souls.
In Matthew 9:9-12, Jesus compares Himself to a physician. Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees came to accuse Jesus. If He was a true prophet, then He would not fellowship with the unclean. Jesus responded by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (ESV)
A physician goes to the sick to treat them. He does not go to the healthy. In the same way, the soul physician goes to the ones who know that they are sinners. The self-righteous do not see their need for a Savior. He has an attitude of mercy for these sinners to minister to them.
If you are an open-air preacher, then you are a soul physician. You must consider the different souls who are walking by you on the street corner. Many people will be like the Pharisees. They are self-righteous and see no need for a Savior. This is why we preach the law to reveal their wickedness. At the same time, there is another group of people who know that they are sinners. They need the pure ointment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to heal their soul. They are broken and depressed. They have hit rock bottom and realize their hopelessness. We must preach to these people too.
Here are categories of broken people who walk by our preaching.
A man has received news that his wife is filing for divorce.
A wife is grieving the death of her husband.
A couple is estranged from their son and do not know where he is living.
A married couple has broken off communication with the wife’s parents.
A woman finds out that she is pregnant and is not married.
A runaway teenage girl feels the guilt for disobeying her parents.
A man has been fired. He does not know how he will support his family.
A woman did not receive a promotion in her company.
A middle aged man had a job related accident. He can no longer work.
A middle aged woman has started a new job and does not know if she can learn the required computer skills to keep it.
A doctor told a man that he has cancer. He only has 6 months to live.
An older man has to give up driving since he can no longer see.
A son has been involved in a car accident and is now paralyzed.
A couple has discovered their newborn is blind.
A man has become an alcoholic since his girlfriend broke up with him.
A teenager has turned to drugs to bury the pain of a fatherless home.
A woman is cutting herself since she hates her body.
A man has become a workaholic to forget the memories of being sexually molested as a boy.
A recently released convict knows that he is going to hell for his crimes.
The Catholic man is weary from doing good works and not having peace of salvation.
The Muslim is afraid that his good works will not outweigh his bad.
A young man feels like no one cares about him. He is considering suicide.
A college girl is broken after being drugged and raped.
Remember preachers that your audience is a mixed crowd. Many people need to feel the hammer of the law upon their soul. However, there are some who need a tender and gentle prescription of God’s love in Christ Jesus.
A holiday is an opportune time to open-air preach. The celebrations are usually accompanied with outdoor festivities. Halloween has trick or treaters going from door to door. Veterans Day has a parade. Thanksgiving has Black Friday with long lines outside of stores. These activities get souls out into the public marketplace. As an open-air preacher, God has given you an occasion to preach to them.
As Jesus used the well water to transition to a conversation about eternal life in John 4, we can use a holiday to share the Gospel. In this blog post, I am going to list Scripture references which would fit with each appropriate holiday.
1. Halloween/Reformation Day
Since I do not participate in Halloween celebrations, I prefer to use it as an educational opportunity on the reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. Historians commemorate it as the beginning of the reformation which created Protestantism. Luther came to defend the doctrine known as justification by faith alone. Galatians 2:15-16 is an excellent text to highlight this point.
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)
2. Veterans Day
Many communities have a parade on November 11th to honor American veterans. This day originally was called Armistice Day. At 11:00 am on 11/11/1918, World War I ended. In 1954, the government set aside the day to honor veterans from all wars. Since the day is a federal holiday, the public schools are usually closed which can boost parade attendance. Since the parade honors service, this theme can be used while preaching. One of the best verses which communicates this theme is Mark 10:45. Jesus is the ultimate servant.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (ESV)
Luke 7:1-10 gives an example of a soldier who has faith in Christ. The centurion comes to Jesus in order to have Him heal his servant. Starting in verse eight, the centurion expresses his faith in Jesus’ ability to heal.
“For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.” (ESV)
3. Thanksgiving Day
The historical roots of Thanksgiving are religious. In America, the Pilgrims set aside a day to thank God for His provision. Americans did not start celebrating the holiday on the same day until Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863. Before this time, the states celebrated on different days.
Since this is a day to thank God, open-air preachers can use this fact to ask penetrating questions. “Have you thanked God today? Or do you complain against Him? Do you use God’s goodness to repent of your sins? Or are you continuing to rebel? Are you using your mouth to praise God or to curse Him?” Here are two texts in which you can preach.
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4)
4. Christmas Day
Since the Scriptures are all about Christ, there are a multitude of Old Testament prophecies and New Testament texts which we can preach about our Savior’s birth. Let me focus on two. First, Isaiah 9:6-7 teaches us the attributes of the Messiah. He is God and King.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (ESV)
Second, the birth narrative from Luke 2:8-20 explains why Jesus’ birth is important. Verse 11 says, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Christ came to save people from their sin by dying on the cross in their place. Every person who repents and believes in Jesus will be forgiven.
Preaching is more than chemistry. A preacher does not simply take one part doctrine of God plus one part depravity of man plus one part doctrine of Christ with two parts pleading for repentance and faith to proclaim the truth. While these ingredients are necessary, preaching has artistic elements. God uses illustrations to implant the seed of truth into a sinner’s soul. It creates a mental image which the hearer carries. This makes an object, sound, or event connected with that Biblical teaching. Then, God can use the ringing of a bell in the future as a reminder to them of the truth that you proclaimed on the street corner.
Where should you look for illustrations? Follow Jesus’ example by looking to your surrounding environment. Take the matter that a person is seeing, smelling, and hearing and use it as an arrow to point them to the Gospel. In John 4, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus sat by the well recovering from his journey from Judea. He is thirsty and hot from sitting in the noon day sun. When the Samaritan woman comes, Jesus asks her for a drink. She responds with astonishment since a Jewish man was talking to her. This went against the cultural protocol. Jesus responds by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus changes the conversation from physical matters to spiritual. He uses water as an illustration for the living water that our souls desperately need from Jesus. The Samaritan woman does not understand. Jesus responds later by saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus uses the physical water to point the woman to the need for her soul to be spiritually satisfied. A person who drinks from this well will be thirsty again. However, if you drink from Jesus’ spiritual well, then you will never be thirsty again. Your soul will be satisfied in God. Through Jesus’ beautiful word picture, he has linked water, which is necessary for life, with Jesus’ living water which is necessary for spiritual life. Jesus used the water to plead with the Samaritan sinner to come to Him for eternal life.
In the same way, we can use our environment as a springboard to illustrate eternal truths from God’s Word. Here are four examples.
During my street preaching experience in Chicago, sirens are a persistent unwelcomed guest to the banquet. Our team would set up at a location which is a few blocks from a hospital. It was common to see an ambulance come blaring its sirens through the intersection. The high pitched sound will interrupt your thought and cause you to stop preaching. Instead of viewing it as a frustrating distraction, you can use it to illustrate God’s truth.
First, after the sound has past, respond by saying, “Just as the siren warns you to get out of the way so that you will not get hurt, we are here preaching to warn you of God’s wrath. If you will not head this alarm, then you will be run over by God’s punishment.”
Second, use it to point to the frailty of life. “The person in the ambulance did not wake up this morning planning to go to the hospital. In the same way, most people do not plan to die. You could be the next person riding in the ambulance. You could soon be only a breath away from meeting almighty God.”
2. Clock Tower Bell
At Truman State University, there is a clock tower in the quad where I preach. It has a bell which rings on the quarter hour once and several times on the hour. Since I am not preaching with amplification, I must wait for the bell to stop ringing before I continue. Here are two ways to use the ringing as an illustration.
First, “Just as the bell tells you that it is time for class, the Bible says that ‘behold, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:2) Now is the time to get right with God while you are still alive.”
Second, “Just as the bell tells you if you are late for an appointment, the Bible says ‘it is appointed man to die once, and after that comes judgment.’ (Heb. 7:27) You have an appointment with God on your calendar, and you will not be late. Are you ready to be judged by God?”
On the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the city has trash cans set up on the sidewalk. The municipality sells advertising space on the sides. One of the advertisements had Tom Skillings on it. He is the weather man on WGN. It had the caption, “Check out our website to see what you should wear tomorrow.” I used this advertisement to point people to eternity.
“How many of you check the weather the next day to see the forecast on WGN? You want to be prepared so that you will not get too hot by having a sweater or be too cold by wearing shorts. You are preparing yourself for the next day. How many of you are prepared for eternity? If you take the time to pick out your clothes, how much more should you take the time to prepare your soul for heaven or hell? Are you prepared to meet God?”
Every winter the ground will be covered in a blanket of snow. Use it as an object lesson on sin and the power of Christ to cleanse and redeem filthy sinners.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;” (Isaiah 1:18) “When the snow falls on the ground, it is pure. It does not have dust, dirt, or foreign matter in it. Over the course of a few days, the snow turns black. See the black snow before your feet on the curb. Who would want to eat that snow? Nobody! Has anyone here ever seen black, filthy snow turned back to being pure and white? Of course not! Nobody has seen that happen! Yet this is beauty of Christ’s sacrifice. All of us are dirty, putrid sinners. We are more disgusting than the black snow. Yet through Christ’s blood we can be cleansed in it of our sins. Then, he removes the dirt to make us white as snow through his righteousness! We can be pure and white as snow through Him!”
These are only a few examples. I encourage you to let your imagination run wild in order turn your preaching environment into an illustration of God’s truth. By taking a few minutes of creative thought, you can forever associate the Gospel with an object of God’s creation in an unbeliever’s mind. Then, God may use your illustration to preach to them the remainder of their days.
In the previous two blogs, I demonstrated how a sermon can be organized topically or based upon a passage of Scripture. Now I will show you the third arrangement. A sermon can be based upon one verse.
The Bible is plentiful with golden verses which summarize the Gospel message. These verses contain the four main parts of the message: God, man, Christ, and response. Think of this arrangement as preaching a topical message with only one verse. The only difference is that the verse contains the four aspects of Gospel proclamation. I will give three examples of verses that I normally use in the Open-Air.
1. Acts 4:12
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
A. Why do we need salvation?
i. God is holy.
ii. Man is a sinner who is under God’s wrath.
iii. Without faith and repentance in Christ, a person will go to hell.
B. Can we be saved outside of Jesus Christ?
i. No! Jesus Christ’s atonement on the cross is the only way to be saved.
ii. Allah, Vishnu, Humanism, and Mary the mother of Jesus will not save you.
iii. Are you trusting in Christ for salvation? He is the only way!
Point A explains the first phrase, “And there is salvation in no one else.” By defining salvation, the preacher must talk about God’s holiness and man’s rebellion. This is why we need to be saved. Then, you can move to the solution which is faith and repentance in Jesus Christ. In point B, the preacher emphasizes the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. He expounds on the rest of the verse, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” By talking about false religions, it gives the contrast to the truth. This is important considering our audience. In our post-modern culture, many people reject absolute truth claims. We must call sinners to the absolute truth that Jesus is the only name that can save us.
2. 1 Timothy 2:5
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”
A. How many gods are there?
i. God is one.
ii. Polytheistic religions are wrong. (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mormonism)
B. What is a mediator?
i. A mediator is a person who brings reconciliation between two parties.
C. Why do we need a mediator?
i. Man has sinned against God.
ii. Man is an enemy against God.
iii. Man punishment is Hell.
D. How is Christ the mediator?
i. He is the God-Man.
ii. He died on the cross as a substitute for sinners which appeased God’s Wrath.
iii. You must repent and believe in Jesus to be reconciled to God.
E. Can anyone else be a mediator?
i. No! There is only one.
ii. Mary the mother of Jesus, saints, Muhammad, Buddha, and dead parents cannot mediate for you.
In point A, the preacher will explain that God is one. This is based upon “For there is one God…” In point B, the preacher moves to the next section and defines a mediator. In point C, the preacher must explain why a mediator is necessary. At this point, the preacher can preach the doctrine of man’s sin and the consequences. In point D, Christ is exalted as the perfect mediator since He is God and man. Finally, point E gives the negative. Since Christ is the only mediator, you cannot turn to anyone else.
3. John 3:36
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
A. How can you have eternal life?
i. Man must trust in the crucified risen Son.
ii. Explain believe: mental ascent, agreement, and trust.
iii. Explain eternal life.
B. What happens if a person does not believe?
i. The person has disobeyed the Son’s command.
ii. The law breaker will not have eternal life.
iii. God’s wrath will remain on him. He will go to Hell.
iv. Believe and Jesus Christ to be saved. Are you believing in Him or rejecting Him?
John 3:36 explains the dark and white contrast between believing in Jesus and rejecting Him. In point A, the preacher explains the way of salvation. The glorious Gospel is proclaimed that trusting in Christ’s work on the cross will give you eternal life. In point B, the preacher lovingly warns of the consequences of disobedience. There is no neutral ground. A person cannot be like Switzerland and ride the fence. Christ commands to believe. By not believing, you have disobeyed. This text highlights the preacher’s responsibility to proclaim the doctrine of Hell. It is real and sinners go there. End the message by pleading with sinners to trust in Christ to be saved from God’s wrath.
What are the advantages of preaching one verse?
This is my preferred method to preaching for three reasons. First, it keeps the preacher on message. By expounding on a small portion of Scripture, the preacher will be more likely to stay away from rabbit trails or secondary issues. Second, the verse gives you the outline to preach. The preacher only needs to take one phrase at a time and explain it. This gives him direction and momentum to the sermon. Third, it will improve your delivery. Since you are concentrating on one verse, you will not have your eyes in your Bible or notes as much. Memorize the verse and preach with the Bible at your side. This will allow you to focus on eye contact and connecting with the hearers who come by. Then, you can preach with the passion and urgency that the text demands.
What is the disadvantage of preaching one verse?
The one mistake that a person can make is to take the verse out of context. Remember that God did not inspire the verse chapters and numbers. It is a sentence which can be only understood properly by understanding the flow of thought in the book. Be careful that you do not rip the verse out of context to make it say something that was not the original intent of the authors.
What is the best way to pick a verse?
As you read your Bibles daily, keep a notebook with you. Write down a verse that summarizes the Gospel and captures your heart. A preacher to whom the Holy Spirit has ministered will proclaim the Gospel differently than a preacher who has not had his heart warmed by the verse he is preaching. Brothers, preach the verses that pour gasoline on your evangelistic fires. Preach the verses that makes you want to jump from your knees during your devotion time to find someone to tell of Jesus’ love for sinners. Preach the verses that preach to you!
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.