This past week, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of open-air preachers at The Herald Society conference in Florida. This is my third time speaking to a group of open-air preachers and I’ve learned a great deal about them and their ministries over the last four years. I’ve gone out in downtown Atlanta and worked with them to share the gospel and distribute gospel tracts. Why is open-air preaching rejected today? Why is it overlooked? Why are open-air preachers not embraced and used within the local church?
We’re Embarrassed by Open-Air Preachers
The images of Westboro Baptist Church preaching hate-filled graceless sermons at funerals of soldiers and other public events cause us to reject open-air preaching. Many pastors and the churches they serve are embarrassed by open-air preachers. The thought of having an open-air preacher as a member of their church and the possibility of being thought of as another Westboro Baptist Church brings fear to many people.
I’ve stood on the streets of Indianapolis Indiana and shared the gospel with Westboro Baptist Church. I know what they’re all about. Just as all Baptist churches are not like Westboro Baptist, not all open-air preachers are like those who go out from Westboro Baptist and preach in the open-air. We can’t lump all churches and people into one barrel based on titles or labels.
In our attempt to be urbane and sophisticated in the local church, we must not forget that the cross of Jesus Christ and the message of the cross will always be a scandal to the world around us. The local Starbucks on the corner near our church campus will never welcome our gospel message. We will always be seen as scandalous and barbaric. The gospel will never be cool and acceptable. We must never forget this as we stand in our nice pulpits on a comfortable Sunday morning.
Open-Air Preaching Isn’t Fruitful
The church today often looks for the steroid ministry that provides fast growth. A quick glance at open-air preaching often reveals most people walking by, people ignoring the message, and often a group of people mocking the message and the messenger. For the pragmatic focused pastor, this doesn’t seem fruitful. How could a church possibly grow and benefit from a man or a group of people standing on the street corner preaching the gospel?
Have you reached out to open-air preachers and asked them about how fruitful their ministries are? How do they point people to a local church upon sharing the gospel? What if they’re out of town, how do they connect people with a local church? What if they’re not seeing hundreds of conversions each year, should they step down from their stool and stop preaching?
Open-Air Preaching Is Outdated
In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the street corner marketing movement. Businesses are hiring people to stand on the street corner and hold their signs advertising their business. Sometimes these people get creative with sign swinging and dance moves. We also see people on the street corners during the political season advertising for political candidates, and all of this is viewed as acceptable to our culture. However, when it comes to a street preacher standing on the same street corner and preaching the gospel, that’s suddenly outdated, old fashioned, and unacceptable.
When reading through church history, we see many men who labored in open-air preaching. Perhaps the most famous open-air preacher, in modern history, is George Whitefield. Whitefield shook the world with the gospel. When the doors of churches closed to him and his preaching, he took to the open-air and God filled the fields to hear the man preach. As we read about Whitefield, we see his success. When we look at our modern day church culture and glance at an open-air preacher on the street with no massive crowd gathered, we immediately think it’s not successful, unfruitful and outdated. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I fear that in some of our less enlightened country churches there are conservative individuals who almost believe that to preach anywhere except in the chapel would be a shocking innovation, a sure token of heretical tendencies, and a mark of zeal without knowledge.” 
We Don’t Use Open-Air Preachers
Today’s evangelical church, for the most part, refuses to embrace open-air preachers and their gifts. Many pastors have heard poor preaching by open-air preachers, and rather than taking them under their wing and seeking to help them develop their gifts, they simply overlook them. Why not allow open-air preachers to develop their preaching skills within the church and then be sent out by the church to do open-air preaching and evangelism? Why not embrace the open-air preacher and as he desires the office of elder, allow him to come into the church as an elder who oversees the evangelism ministry of the local church and works diligently to make disciples in the town or city of your local church? Do you have an abortion clinic nearby? Rather than protesting Planned Parenthood on Facebook, why not send a group of people to preach the gospel in the open-air at the abortion clinic?
George Whitefield was a preaching phenomenon. He was used greatly by the Lord and countless people were led to Christ by this gifted preacher who refused to be a velvet mouthed preacher. However, if we’re honest, Whitefield was largely disconnected from the authority of the local church. Unlike Paul who was sent out by Antioch, Whitefield went out and never really returned and wasn’t held accountable to a local church. Sure, we can blame the deadness of the evangelical church and the impotence of the local church’s pulpit as to why Whitefield was shut off from the churches and the very reason why he went out into the fields. However, we should not rush too quickly to Whitefield’s aid. We must not excuse Whitefield from the responsibility of being accountable to the local church.
We must not push open-air preachers out onto the streets and close our doors to these brothers. We must not shut them off from the local church. We must look for ways to use them and allow God to edify our local church as God raises up open-air preachers in our local churches. We must never support rogue open-air preachers who refuse to be under the authority of the local church, but we must likewise support and love those open-air preachers who love the local church and desire to serve and remain under submission.
- Charles Spurgeon, Open-Air Preaching (Chapel Library), 33.