FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 18, number 16, April 18, 2019
“For I am under obligation, Romans 1:14. I am under compulsion, for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.” -1 Corinthians 9:16
An Irrefutable Argument for Open Air Preaching
I know. I get it. Most of us have seen some really bad, bombastic, judgmental, legalistic, ranting and raving which was supposed to pass for open air preaching. Consequently, when I suggest to men that they join my brethren and me on the streets I typically get a “deer in the headlights” kind of look, and some pretty funny and lame excuses on why they just cannot make it this time.
On the other hand, maybe you have seen some really faithful open air preachers, men who preach the law of God to bring conviction, who then preach the glories of Christ’s death and resurrection, and who then Biblically call men and women who are listening to repent and believe the gospel. However their preaching is met with indifference on the one hand, or virulent displays of vile, violent hostility on the other.
And then maybe you ask the street preachers as you pass by, “Have you had anyone get saved today?” Usually the answer is “No.” And you cannot help but reply, “Isn’t there a better way? I mean, you guys seem to be sincere in your love for Jesus and the lost, but wow, the opposition is so over the top. Maybe you guys are actually doing more harm than good. Most of these people are pretty upset. Maybe there’s a kinder, gentler way to get the word out. After all, we live in a postmodern world. People just don’t believe the Bible anymore. They certainly don’t believe in heaven or hell. They think there are many ways to God. And when you guys mention sexual sin, especially homosexuality, the people absolutely go bonkers. They think you hate homosexuals. Have you guys maybe thought about passing out bottles of water at Town festivals or Gay Pride Parades with a label on them saying – God loves you. Have a great day – instead of preaching. People are just trying to enjoy themselves on a nice Saturday morning. Aren’t you guys kind of intruding on their nice, leisurely stroll on a carefree day?”
But here’s the million dollar question – is open air preaching Biblical? If not, then by all means it should be abandoned at once. If it is Biblical, then shouldn’t we see more, not less, of it on our streets, sports venues, parades, and college campuses, or wherever large crowds gather, even if people hate it, rail against it, and repudiate it?
First, God has ordained preaching as the means by which His elect are saved (Romans 1:14-16, 10:9-17, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 9:16, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, 1 Thess. 2:13, 2 Tim.4:1-8). Yes, of course personal evangelism is important and everyone ought to be sharing Jesus, as was clearly done in the early church (Acts 5:42, 8:1-4, 20:20). However God’s appointed means of saving His people is through preaching. After all, one man standing before one hundred or more people can get the gospel out to far more people at one time than ten evangelists can going door to door in a community (though I am certainly not against door to door evangelism, as many of you know).
Secondly, we know the Old Testament prophets preached in the open air. While building the ark, where else would Noah have preached but outdoors? And Jude tells us that Enoch, from the seventh generation after Adam, came with thousands of His holy ones to prophesy, to proclaim God’s judgment, and to convict the ungodly (Jude 14,15). There were no synagogues at the time. Enoch and his fellow preachers clearly preached outdoors. Even after the building of the Tabernacle, Moses preached outdoors. All the prophets almost exclusively preached outdoors. The revival in Nineveh through Jonah’s preaching was done outdoors (Jonah 3:4). Ezra’s sermon which God used to bring revival was preached in the open air (Nehemiah 8:1-6). And in the New Testament era, it is true that Jesus apparently preached His first sermon in a synagogue (Luke 4:14-21), but after that He mainly preached outdoors. Where was His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) preached? How about the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24,25)? Furthermore almost without exception the sermons mentioned in Acts were all preached outdoors. Obviously we need preaching behind a pulpit in a church building on the Lord’s Day. That’s a no brainer. But where in Scripture are we ever told to preach only on the Lord’s Day? The gospel is to go forth daily, everywhere people gather.
Okay, so now you see my point that open air preaching was done in Old and New Testament times, but what about in more modern history? In their book A Certain Sound: A Primer on Open Air Preaching, Ryan Denton and Scott Smith cite Michael Green who in his book Evangelism in the Early Church says there is ample evidence to prove that open air preaching continued from the time of the apostles through the second century A.D. To go further, a preacher named Aldan, in the seventh century went from town to town on horseback preaching in destitute regions. And of course George Whitefield, Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and William Tennent all preached to thousands in the open air in the Eighteenth Century. The great Reformed Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon devotes two chapters of his very instructive book Lectures to My Students on the viability and necessity of open air preaching.
Okay, you may give me this, but you are still not convinced. After all, you have seen some pretty nasty opposition to open air preaching. Some people get really upset when they see and hear it. Maybe, therefore, we should abandon the practice altogether. But my friends, this violent opposition has always been the case. People have always hated and responded with severity toward the preaching of the gospel. Jesus tells us that those who practice evil do not come to the light lest their deeds be exposed (John 3:20). Preaching opens people’s hearts to see what is on the inside. Often the scene is not pretty and people do not want to deal with their standing before God. They hate God and their opposition to preaching proves it.
And we know that Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who, like their fathers, stoned and killed the prophets (Matt.23:37). Jeremiah was beaten and thrown into a cistern (Jere.38). Jesus was crucified and His preaching certainly did not mitigate the hatred of the religious leaders of His day. Paul was beaten five times with thirty-nine lashes. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned and left for dead (2 Cor.11:24,25).
Everywhere Paul went he was despised and rejected. A riot broke out in Ephesus which lasted for two hours as the people were whipped into an emotional frenzy by opponents of Paul’s ministry (Acts 19:34). Cartoons mocking Whitefield were a regular occurrence in the Colonies and in England. He regularly had dead cats and human waste thrown at him while preaching. One of his friends, standing with him as he preached, was hit by a stone meant for Whitefield, and died the next day.
So people have always hated true, Biblical, open air preaching. Jesus told us that if the world hates us, then we should remember that the world hated Him before it hated us. If we were of the world, then the world would love us, but because we are not of the world, it hates us (John 15:18,19).
But still, is it effective? When Denton and Smith are asked the question, “How many have you led to Christ when you preach in the open air?” They respond, “Every person.” That is, every person who hears them lift up Jesus are led to Him. The preacher’s job is to show people Jesus. It is God’s business to convert them. To go further, preaching is always effective because the word of God never returns empty. It always accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:11). Biblical, open air preaching glorifies God because it exalts the only Savior of sinners, Jesus Christ the righteous.
Botton line-open air preaching which emphasizes the law of God as the means to convict people of their sin and judgment, which in turn shows the glory of Christ’s person, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and which finally offers the forgiveness of sins and new life through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit through repentance and faith is Biblical and therefore necessary. Do not despise it. Do not be ashamed of it.
Pray for open air preachers you know. Go with them and pray as they preach. Hand out gospel tracts. Support them financially. And if your church has an open air preacher or two, then thank God that He has blessed you with such faithful servants.
1. I strongly urge you to buy and read this book, even if you are not a street preacher. It tackles the questions many have about the why and how of open air preaching. You can purchase it at <http://www.heritagebooks.org>