When I mention the words “street preaching,” what sort of images come to mind? Is it a wild-eyed man dressed in a t-shirt filled with screen-printed flames clutching a turn or burn sign? Maybe you think of an angry person screaming verses of scripture from the top of their lungs at passers-by. Perhaps you envision a dear saint handing out tracts and winsomely preaching the gospel with truth and love in a crowded city marketplace. Regardless of the plethora of images street preaching may conjure up, history has shown and eternity will testify to its eternal relevance.
Street preaching or open-air evangelism are terms used interchangeably and simply mean to go and take the gospel to the places lost people gather. It is a biblical response to Jesus’ imperative for us to go out into the highways and hedges and compel people to come in (Luke 14:23).
I’m under no illusion that everyone is called to open-air evangelism, but we are all called to be witnesses of Jesus and his gospel. With that thought in mind, let’s dispel some confusion regarding street preaching.
I want to make a distinction between proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition versus Spirit-led street preaching rooted in goodwill. In the first instance, there is the sort of street preacher who is looking for prestige. There is an unhealthy quest for visibility bordering on celebrity status. They will use human means and craftiness to stun people. They will even go so far as to instigate fights and then claim that they are being persecuted in Jesus’ name. Oftentimes this appears to be done for personal gain measured in YouTube clicks, Facebook likes, or website hits. They may be bold, but they aren’t necessarily loving.
In the second instance, there are street evangelists who preach the gospel with such simplicity and clarity that the message isn’t obscured by theatrics or persona, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4). The one thing that separates a true evangelist who is called of God from one who is working in the flesh and mired in the ugliness of self-promotion is the word motive. If the motive is wrong, then you will seek to increase self. If the motive is love for lost souls, you will seek to decrease self and give God all of the glory (Philippians 1:15-17).
The other notion I want to dispel is that street preaching is not relevant or in step with the local church. I think that evidence will prove both of these notions to be categorically false. I understand why some people come to these conclusions. They have seen worldly methods used to reach the lost, and it has colored their view of street preaching. On the other hand, there are some in the church who seem to demean street preaching. I’ve heard fellow ministers use terms such as “street-screamers” or “street-screechers” from the pulpit to mischaracterize street evangelists. Isn’t it sad, prideful, and frankly unbiblical to diminish a mandate from Jesus with one broad brushstroke and not differentiate between right and wrong motives?
This isn’t an indictment of the local church or pastors. I believe in the absolute necessity of the local church. For every hireling that diminishes the necessity for evangelism, I believe there are many more true shepherds who love and support the ministry of biblically centered street preachers. They see co-laborers in the faith (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Street preaching is relevant because evangelism is an absolute necessity. Let’s not forget that the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles were all street preachers. Some of the last words Jesus spoke to his followers were to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). The means and methods may vary slightly, but the common denominator is always the same. The message being preached is always centered on the bad news and good news. The bad news is man’s utter depravity, sinfulness, and expectation of coming judgment from a holy God. The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners who come to repentance and put their faith in him.
I’ve had the blessing to preach in churches, Bible studies, Christian gatherings, and here is what I’ve noticed. Most of the people who come to these events are professing Christians. Although our fellowships may have an occasional visitor on any given Sunday, oftentimes they will be a transplant from another church. Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard of an unsaved person randomly walking into a church to hear the gospel? The answer is rarely, except maybe Easter or Christmas, and that is usually just a matter of obligation or tradition. I would love it if every evangelical church had dozens of visitors flock to hear the good news each Sunday, but that isn’t reality.
So how do we reach lost people who will, in all probability, never walk into a church to hear the gospel? We bring the gospel to them! In his excellent book, The School of Biblical Evangelism, evangelist Ray Comfort puts it like this, “If we are serious about reaching this world, let’s follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles and preach where sinners gather. In thirty minutes, a good open-air preacher can reach more sinners than the average church does in twelve months!” Dear friends, let me remind you that the much-beloved A.W. Tozer came to faith in Jesus after hearing a street preacher. You never know the seeds you will plant through obeying the great commission.
If you are thinking of street preaching, let me recommend several resources: The aforementioned book by Ray Comfort and his ministry, Living Waters. Torch of Christ ministries led by Phillip Blair also has examples of Christ-centered street preaching on YouTube. I will place links to these resources below.
Here’s what some great Christians said about evangelism and open-air preaching:
“The great benefit of open-air preaching is that we get so many newcomers to hear the gospel who otherwise would never hear it.” -Charles Spurgeon
“The great commission isn’t an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.” -Hudson Taylor
“It is the greatest pleasure of living to win souls to Christ.” -Dwight L. Moody
“Jesus commands us to go; it should be the exception if we stay.
It’s no wonder we’re movin’ so slow when His church refuses to obey, feelin’ so called to stay.” -Keith Green
“The One who calls you to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature is the One who by your consent, goes into all the world and preaches the Gospel to every creature through you!” -Major Ian Thomas
Dear Christian friend, Street preaching is of eternal relevance because God has already commanded you to be a witness to all the world. As our days grow more perilous and Jesus’ coming draws near, let me encourage you to boldly share the gospel on the streets. If your motive is the glory of God and love for lost souls, the Lord will certainly work in and through you (Romans 10:14-15).
All for Him,
The School of Biblical Evangelism by Ray Comfort of Living Waters: http://store.livingwaters.com/books/equipping.html
Torch of Christ Ministries on YouTube with Phillip Blair: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKYcfq8_yAieQRZ81M_A7hw