I've been particularly struck by the stories of Whitefield, Wesley, and Spurgeon, and their practice of taking the gospel out to the fields and cities, in the open-air. Their boldness was certainly remarkable, but their confidence in the gospel and its ability to arrest the hearts of the people to whom they were speaking is truly humbling. This leaves me searching for how the missional church can implement this ancient practice in our postmodern context. It is easy to take these men and their ministries and to turn them into exemplars for how we should do our evangelistic outreach today. This is not a wrongly conceived notion, but there are some things one ought to consider before taking to the street with soapbox and sandwich board in hand.
First, the revivalists of the Great Evangelical Awakening and Great Awakenings were preaching into a particular context where open-air address was not uncommon. The citizenry of eighteenth century England and of the American colonies were used to being addressed in the open-air by town criers, traveling salesman, and itinerant performers. So the idea of a person vying for the attention of the public by means of public address was not at all unexpected. As difficult as it may be to imagine, consider a time when no television, Facebook, or Netflix existed; and where few books were available. Anything and everything quickly qualifies itself as entertainment in a place such as that — even if a person were disposed to rejecting the message preached, an itinerant evangelist and his attendant crowd is certainly still something to watch.
Second, these men were preaching in a context unlike our own. In the milieu of a debauched eighteenth century Europe, where both culture and the church were in serious spiritual decline (think of the culture as it was recently depicted in the film Les Misérables), the messages of Whitefield and Wesley were considered fanatical by both the Anglican and nonconformist churches.1 This forced them to take their preaching out of doors and to the fields.
Third, these evangelists were preaching into a culture which assumed Christianity. So the greater portion of those who gathered to hear Wesley and Whitefield preach, probably had some idea of what they were going on about. The majority of their hearers were born and baptized into the Anglican Church and most likely attended the weekly services at the parish churches where they lived, so most did possess some degree of theological awareness and some sort of theological vocabulary. They were largely only Christian in name, however. The compromised churches of the period had delivered to them a sub-biblical shell of Christianity that lacked the doctrinal potency and biblical fidelity necessary for salvation to occur in their hearts. Many were, therefore, placing their hope of salvation in their baptism and their membership in the church. This provided the revivalists with the opportunity to undermine their false assurance and deliver afresh, Christ and him crucified.
Fourth, their message was not merely aimed at winning the lost; nor was it intended to win back the culture — though both of these were certainly considerations for Whitefield and Wesley. Their primary concern was rather pointed at reviving and building up the church. This is evidenced especially in the ministry of Wesley, who began organizing revived believers and converted people into small cell groups — called societies — along his itinerant preaching routes. These groups, led by men who were trained by Wesley or his writings, provided pastoral care and training for people who were not receiving proper discipleship and care from their parish churches. Likewise, Spurgeon instructed his students to “...begin open-air preaching in newly developed areas, or in a place where it was known that there were a few believers living ready to form a church.”2 In both cases, Wesley in the eighteenth century and Spurgeon in the nineteenth, preaching in the open-air was a preliminary step in their church reviving and church planting strategies.
Public Preaching and the Missional Church
So how is one to think about preaching in the public square today? And how does it fit within the paradigmatic forms of discipling to faith at work within the missional church? In the first place, it must be established that if the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus, who make disciples of Jesus of all nations upon the earth, then there can be no objection formed against open-air preaching in principle. There may exist valid complaints about how, when, and where open-air preaching should take place, but there cannot be any biblical arguments made about its practice.
To answer the first question, namely, “How should one think about public evangelistic preaching directed at strangers, while remaining committed to discipling disciples to maturity?” it will be helpful to think of Mission as being the overarching evangelistic principle of the Church. And this Mission provides the auspices for three differing approaches to discipleship — these may be referred to as the Proactive, Reactive, and Active missions. Proactive mission is what one generally associates with missional living and missional church forms of discipleship — engaging neighbors, friends, and family in the everyday, and in community, with gospel intentionality. Reactive mission, on the other hand, is discipleship on the go. It is unplanned and unorganized, reactive discipleship. It is engaging strangers (people with whom one is unlikely to establish an ongoing relationship) in gospel conversations. At the coffee shop, at the grocery store, or wherever one happens to be, where strangers are present, that is where Reactive mission takes place. Reactive mission can take on the form of tracting or spontaneous public gospel proclamation. The third category, Active mission, involves premeditated strategic evangelistic planning. This can take place in a variety of different forms as well. It can happen on a college campus, by setting up and preaching in a free speech zone; it can happen by organizing a formal debate between a Christian apologist and a humanist professor; it can happen by inviting friends to Theology and Beer talks at a local pub; or, it can happen by enrolling in a psychology class at the local community college and presenting the Christian worldview when the dialogue moves in that direction. The sky, here, actually is the limit.
To answer the second question — “How does open-air preaching fit within the paradigmatic forms of discipling to faith and maturity at work within the missional church?” — one needs only to recognize that public preaching provides the possibility of establishing new discipling relationships. These relationships may be established with the unconverted who are interested in hearing more; they may be initiated with those who are converted on the spot under the preaching of the gospel; or, they may be established with disengaged disciples or wayward churchmen who are revived through the open gospel proclamation of public preaching. In each case the goal is exactly the same. Preaching is done to announce to God’s elect that salvation has come in Jesus Christ. Public preaching, then, should always be done, with the goal of gathering the elect of God into a gospel community, where they may be discipled to maturity in the context of the ongoing mission of the Church. This was the inceptive step in Spurgeon’s church planting methodology, and it was the strategy of the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. So we ought not think that public preaching is outside of the acceptable practices of the missional church.
Missional means living as sent. And if we are a sent people it means that we are missionaries who have been sovereignly chosen by God to serve a particular people at a particular moment in history (Acts 17:26—28). So public preaching, from a missional perspective will have a certain local and incarnational interest. Steve McCoy, when writing on the same topic says, "We [missional pastors] see ourselves as local. [I am not talking] about itinerant open-air Gospel bombers who hit-and-run and let the locals figure it out. I'm talking about pastors who are called to love their cities toward Jesus getting the Gospel in the open-air again. So the ultimate goal in evangelism, of whatever sort, is to make disciples. Disciples are made in relationships, though it may start without it (Acts 2). And that means we aim that our hearers in open-air preaching will eventually (Lord-willing) join our churches and connect in Gospel-centered community with us. Our open-air preaching will be winsome to those being saved, though it will be foolishness to those who are not (1 Cor 1:22-24)."3
Defining Open-Air Preaching
It will be helpful, at this point, to define what qualifies as open-air preaching (which will hereto forth be called public preaching, see appendix). It is noteworthy that there are no didactic texts where the Church is instructed on how evangelism is to be conducted; there are no standard operating procedures, nor directions on evangelistic method which are explicitly provided by the Savior or the Apostles.4 Therefore, the biblical precedent for preaching in public is limited to the descriptions of how preaching occurred in the ministries of the prophets, evangelists, and Apostles, in the historical narratives of the Prophets, Gospels, and Acts. While the prophets, Apostles, and evangelist — not least of whom was Jesus — practiced preaching in this particular form, one should not feel beholden to their methods which were employed and accepted as norms in their premodern contexts. As long as the message is sound, contemporary evangelistic preaching may take place anywhere, at any time, in small groups and in large, being loudly proclaimed or softly spoken, and in variety of different forms.5
This presents the reader with both good news and with bad news. The good news is, is that no one has to feel guilty if they don’t feel compelled to stand on a street corner, with bullhorn in hand, preaching the gospel to the lost in their city. The bad news is, is that everyone still has lost people in their city. And the gospel compels the Church to warn them of both the judgement and salvation that attends the coming of God’s kingdom. So public preaching can happen anywhere, at any anytime, under a variety of different circumstance. It may take place on the street, in a field, across a dinner table, at Starbucks, at a pub, in a city park, or in a college class room, over social media; with strangers or with people who are already know. There are no rules. There is simply an expectation that the gospel will so grip the hearts of the redeemed that they can do nothing but proclaim the excellencies of Jesus.
Some Considerations Before Preaching
Effective missionaries are those people who know how to read both their bibles and their cultures. They know their theology and they no how to apply it rightly in their given contexts. Cultural norms and taboos exist and good missionaries are aware of what these are. As was noted above, one must not too quickly assume that the methods which were effective 100 years ago, much less 2000 years ago, will be as effective today. It should be recognized and affirmed by all, that the great open-air preachers of the past, who are most often put forward as examples for our following, were operating under circumstances which are far different from those which exist today. At the same time, one mustn’t get carried away by these facts and assume that the practice is altogether unprofitable for the mission of making disciples in the twenty-first century. And if public preaching is not to be abandoned, then one must be willing to consider how, when, and where it should be practiced. Because the purity of the gospel can be easily tainted by an improper or wrongly conceived preaching approach, evangelists ought to be willing to give some time for wisely considering the how, when, and where the gospel is proclaimed.
Charles Spurgeon said, “No sort of defense is needed for preaching out-of-doors; but it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meetinghouse. A defense is required rather for services within buildings than for worship outside of them.” How now shall we respond?
It is equally erroneous to demand that public evangelistic proclamation must happen out of doors, on the street, or in a field. Jesus, Peter, and Paul each preached in synagogues and in homes; and, at least in the case of Paul, at a school. Therefore, contrary to the argument put forth, preaching is not dependent upon the level of one’s voice, the location of where the message is delivered, or the number of people being addressed.
1 Without Credit. Porterbrook Learning Foundational Year Part 3. “A Brief History of Church Planting in Britain: Part 2” (Porterbrook Network, Sheffeild, UK, 2013) 239. ↩
2 Porterbrook, 239. ↩
3 http://www.stevekmccoy.com/reformissionary/2011/03/missional-open-air-preaching.html ↩
4 In fact, in the case of Paul, there is not a single command given in the corpus of his epistles that the church should engage in evangelism at all. There is only the assumed expectation that evangelism will naturally happen in response to belief in the gospel. — Köstenberger and O'Brien. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 2001) 191—196. ↩
5 Some advocates of traditional forms open-air preaching will insist that public evangelistic preaching must take place on a particular biblical way. See the appendix for an examination of their objections. ↩
6 It is not our opinion that the gospel is necessarily compromised by importing foreign forms into the native twenty-first century context. However, one must not forget that a message cannot be easily separated from the method, medium, and conditions of a message’s delivery. If the method, medium, or the condition under which a message is delivered is consider to be rude, unwelcome, or intrusive, then the message has significant potential to be contaminated by the perceived rudeness, unwelcomeness, or intrusiveness of the method, medium, or condition. ↩
7 Κηρύσσω — “THAYER’S GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, n.p. ↩
8 Kérussó like many Greek words will communicate a variety of nuanced meanings depending upon its particular morphology (tense, mood, voice, etc.) and use in the context of a given body of text. The context of kérussó does, in many cases, suggest that the message being preached was delivered with loudness and to large crowds, however, there are also instances where the word simply means to publish or announce with authority — Mark 1:45; Luke 24:47; 1 Cor 1:23, 5:12; cf. Rev 5:2 - kérussó is qualified, here, by describing the volume of the angle’s voice. ↩
9 Suggestions to the contrary are etymologically fallacious. ↩
10 euaggelizó is the LXX gloss for the Hebrew word biser (בִּשֵּׂר), which means — to bring good news, to announce glad tidings; Vulg.evangelizo (etc.); used in the O. T. of any kind of good news: 1 Sam 31:9; 2 Sam 1:20; 1 Ch 10:9; of the joyful tidings of God's kindnesses, Ps 39:10 (); τό σωτήριον Θεοῦ, Ps 95:2 (); in particular, of the Messianic blessings: Isa 40:9; Isa 52:7; Isa 60:6; Isa 61:1, etc.” — “THAYER’S GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, n.p. / Rom 10:15 connects kérussó with euaggelizó. ↩
11 From whence our word dialogue is derived. ↩