I can remember over the years attending sporting events with my father and passing by street preachers on the street corner as we exited the stadium. For the most part, I have come to view street preaching through a negative lens. The main reason for my negative position has been largely based upon the improper methods of groups such as Westboro Baptist and others like them. Several years ago, I actually crossed paths with WBC at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Indiana. I was very disturbed by their tactics as I passed by them on the way to lunch. I eventually stood beside them on the sidewalk and shared the gospel with them. That meeting culminated in an interview with Shirley Phelps-Roper which was published on this blog. Needless to say, I have not been very impressed with the models of street preaching that I have experienced through the years.
In a strange twist of God’s providence, I crossed paths with a street preacher named Bobby McCreery. He is a full-time street preacher evangelist who proclaims the gospel at the University of Georgia several days per week. He has a massive beard. He loves Jesus and is a humble servant of King Jesus. Hear his story:
About a year later, I was invited by Bill Adams to speak to a group of street preachers (open-air preachers) for the 2013 April gathering of Revival-USA last year. They asked me to teach on the subject of expository preaching. I was intimidated in going to the conference to speak simply because I have remained skeptical of street preachers through the years. As I began my lecture, I heavily encouraged them to use their spiritual gifts within their local church and to preach in open-air settings under the authority of their church as opposed to merely roaming around as rogue preachers. This year, they invited me back again and after I taught on expository preaching, I accompanied them to Piedmont Park in Atlanta to preach and share the gospel in the open-air setting in conjunction with the Dogwood Festival. I wanted to see these men in action. Truth be told, I wanted to examine them and see if they used proper tactics.
It was a blessing to watch these men preach the gospel to thousands of people as they entered and exited Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta over the course of several hours. I must say, they preached boldly the gospel of Christ with passion and love. They likewise demonstrated patience with skeptics and haters of the gospel. I was impressed by how they stood firmly upon the Word and refrained from being distracted by those who opposed their message. I have been invited to challenge these men on the subject of expository preaching and they have impacted me in regards to open-air proclamation of the gospel. In short, my position has shifted. I believe that open-air preaching (aka – street preaching) is profitable and it reaches people! Below I will share why I have changed my mind about open-air preaching as a means of proclaiming the gospel of King Jesus.
The Pattern of the Early Preachers
There is no denying the fact that the early preachers such as the apostles – including the apostle Paul – preached the gospel in an open-air manner. This pattern served as a catalyst for church planting in non-evangelized cities and nations. As the gospel moved from Jerusalem around the world by boat, it continued to be spread through the years by open-air proclamation. Jesus was an open-air preacher. Paul was an open-air preacher. Peter was an open-air preacher. Through the years, others have followed in their footsteps. George Whitefield was an open-air preacher who used his voice to thunder the gospel to thousands in fields on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Steven Lawson described George Whitefield as “a preaching phenomenon.” John Piper reminds us of one of the many unbelievable moments of Whitefield’s open-air preaching:
He recounts that in Philadelphia that same year on Wednesday, April 6, he preached on Society Hill twice in the morning to about 6,000, and in the evening to near 8,000. On Thursday, he spoke to “upwards of ten thousand,” and it was reported at one of these events the words, “‘He opened His mouth and taught them saying,’ were distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River.
God used the open-air preaching of George Whitefield in a way that changed hearts and history. David Hume, a Scottish skeptic in philosophy and deist, would travel 20 miles at 5am to hear Whitefield preach. Someone once asked, “I thought you didn’t believe what he preaches?” Hume responded, “I don’t, but he does.” He was a man who proclaimed boldly and loudly the gospel of Jesus Christ. James Lockington was present in London to hear a sermon by Whitefield. Lockington recorded the following paragraph verbatim. Whitefield said:
I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ “Why my Lord,” says Butterton, “the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.” Whitefield added, “I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”
*This picture appeared in a newspaper as a criticism or satire of George Whitefield’s preaching in Pennsylvania in 1763.
The unescapable point of Christian history is that God has chosen to use open-air preaching to save sinners and establish churches in remote regions of darkness.
I’m not an open-air preaching advocate or champion by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m still intimidated by open-air preaching if the truth were known. However, I want to answer some objections that I have held onto through the years. Perhaps you have these same concerns or criticisms of open-air proclamation.
1. People today don’t respect street preaching.
It has been often remarked that the times have changed and that people no longer respect the street preacher. We must be honest, people have always hated street preachers and we can’t expect that in our modern times those sentiments will change. If anything, the hatred and animosity will likely increase. Therefore, we can’t reject the model of street preaching simply because of the hatred of the lost world. We must expect people to hate the preaching of the gospel. Jesus warned in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
2. It’s not effective.
Who is the judge of effectiveness? Oftentimes through history, the church has embraced a faulty model of success. Just because a church has large numbers doesn’t mean it’s successful or biblical. Likewise, just because the majority of the people who pass the street preacher on the sidewalk reject his message, it doesn’t mean he is unsuccessful. The true judge of success is Jesus Christ. We must remember this in all areas of ministry. Furthermore, we must remember that our labor is never in vain in the gospel ministry (1 Corinthians 15:58). God’s Word never returns void and it always accomplishes a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is indictment. At other times, it’s a message to save sinners. We must trust God to do His work through the preaching of the gospel. As Paul reminds us, it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Many people are being saved in our present day through street preaching. Countless babies have been saved from murder through street preachers (see the Babies Are Murdered Here project). God is the judge of effectiveness and success.
3. People don’t go to sporting events to hear a preacher, they go to enjoy a game. It’s rude to intrude on an event as an uninvited preacher.
In the great majority of the times in the New Testament, we see Jesus, Peter, and Paul going into new cities and countries preaching without being invited as the keynote speaker. In fact, the majority of the time, when Paul went into a new location and entered a synagogue he was doing so without a letter of invitation on the local synagogue’s letterhead. He was basically preaching without invitation and boldly standing upon the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the argument that opposes street preaching based on the fact that they don’t have an invitation to stand in the park or at the stadium and preach is a weak point to say the least.
4. It gives the gospel a bad name.
I will be the first to say, the street preacher is often not standing in a dignified pulpit to address ready listeners in a calm and prepared atmosphere. He is often maligned. It’s not uncommon for the street preacher to receive loud rebuke and criticism. George Whitefield was often greeted by having dead cats thrown upon him as he entered the fields. Therefore, because of the railing accusations and opposition to the preaching, it can cast a shadow upon the cross as the man stands there to publicly proclaim the gospel. In short, it can be quite humiliating. However, didn’t that same thing happen as Jesus preached? What about Peter? When he stood in that famous Christian sermon at Pentecost, they accused the Christians of being drunk! In other words, they viewed them as talking out of their heads. What about Paul? They called his message a message of foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). The intellectuals of Rome and Corinth rejected the message of the cross. Is that a reason to quit preaching the gospel publicly? What about in our present day? Should we abandon it because people don’t “respect” it?
While my position has clearly changed, I do still have concerns about open-air preaching. Anytime we speak in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, it must be done with order and with a commitment to the local church.
1. Commitment to the local church
As we examine the pattern in the New Testament, Paul was not preaching in the streets as an alternative to the church. It was for the church that he labored in the streets. God’s plan is the church and we must keep that focus in all areas of our ministry – from street preaching and beyond. Therefore, I would not support a man who desires to preach on the street but is unwilling to use his gifts in the life of the local church. If a man has a calling to the street preaching evangelism, he should be using his gifts in his local church. Otherwise, it’s a rogue attempt to bypass the church to exercise spiritual gifts.
Beyond being useful to the local church, the street preacher must be under the authority of the local church. Who would desire an evangelist to speak in your church who wasn’t connected and under the authority of a local church and a pastoral staff? The same thing is true for those who preach as evangelists on the street. If an elder body doesn’t see a gift of preaching in a specific man and would not allow him to preach in the pulpit or teach a small group in the church, that man should not be commissioned to stand on the street corner and preach the gospel. Authority in the church and oversight is given for a specific reason. If a man is not submissive to his pastors, he should not be preaching the Word.
2. Making Disciples
One of the great challenges in street preaching evangelism is making lasting contacts with people and connecting them to a solid church. For instance, if a street preacher is preaching at a Super Bowl in a major city and hands out gospel tracts while preaching to thousands of people as they pass by on the street, he has limited availability to point them to a good church in their town. However, if the tract has a connection point online, it may allow for the street preacher to make contact with those who are impacted by his preaching. This will enable him to make disciples and influence people in a far greater way than merely preaching without any aim of additional connection with his audience.
Therefore, what I see is a need to be really organized with a plan to make connections on the street that may lead to connections online. This organization is helpful and with modern technology it’s much easier than in the days of George Whitefield.
I am convinced that it pleases God to save sinners through open-air proclamation. Not only is it a good thing for preachers to do it for the sake of evangelism but likewise for the sake of humility. It’s a humbling thing to proclaim the gospel to a group of people who reject God and His gospel message as utter foolishness. May God be pleased to use open-air preaching to reach multitudes with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be warned if you go and preach publicly – you will look foolish. You will look crazy. You will be called names. You will be looked upon as non-respectable members of society. Will you go? May God raise up another Whitefield to thunder the gospel publicly without shame!
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice