What I've Learned in One Year of Open-Air Preaching

1975 words | 6-8 Min

If you're not aware, I'm church planting in Southern Indiana. When we started this work we came in with a strong commitment to evangelism and outreach, which is reflected in our church's purpose statement: "We exist to glorify God by proclaiming Christ that every individual in our reach might hear, believe, and follow Him." This reflects several passages of Scripture, including the Great Commission, Col 1:28-29, and Rom 10:14 "how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" 

We had a variety of ways we were pursuing outreach when we first got started back in 2019, but when the whole world got shut down by you-know-what, we had to begin to think differently about how we did outreach. It seemed unwise for us to go knocking on doors, and most people were visibly afraid to have face-to-face conversations. 

We had a dilemma: people needed the hope of the Gospel all the more in a time of public fear, but people were more closed off to personal interaction than they had ever been in my lifetime. 

So I started doing open-air preaching.

I honestly never thought I would be one to engage in open-air preaching. I had tremendous respect for guys like Ray Comfort, Todd Friel, Sye Ten Bruggencate, and others, but did not view my own personality as one that lent itself to the practice. But when my other avenues of outreach were shut down, I still had a burden to get the Gospel to people any way I could, and open-air preaching seemed like a viable option.

As I explored the possibility, I did some reading about the history of open-air preaching and I learned the rich history that the practice has had in the life of the Church. God has used open-air preachers since Day One of the Church to spread the Good News, and all throughout church history there were always public heralds who were willing to stand on a street corner and preach.

Some have done this poorly, (and, we must sadly admit, there is a certain reputation that is associated with street preachers as a result), but God has used street preachers nevertheless. Some criticize the practice as being old-fashioned and ineffective for modern society, but as I examined history I did not find that the practice was ever pursued because of its perceived effectiveness, but because people need the Gospel. Some of the most well-respected open-air preachers in history were also criticized as modern street preachers are, and yet God has consistently worked through the lives of faithful preachers to bring many to Himself. Praise the Lord!

So I jumped in. I found some individuals who were already doing it, I watched them, learned from them, and starting doing it myself. There are two places where I have preached: 1) at the local abortion clinic, pleading with parents not to kill their children, and 2) at a local park where hundreds gather for various events.

Now that it's been around a year since I've started this practice, I was reflecting on some of the things I have learned and I wanted to share these with you:

1. It's still hard to open my mouth. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the armor of God, and he concluded the section by talking about an oft-overlooked aspect of that armor: Prayer. As he urged the Ephesians to pray, he also asked for prayer for himself. He writes: "[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak." (Eph 6:18-20)

I feel that need for prayer every time I go to do open-air preaching. OAP is not something that comes naturally to me, and it is not something I necessarily get excited about in my flesh. There is an unholy timidity that presents itself and I often would much rather stay at home with my books. Even though I've been going out to do OAP week after week for around a year, every time I stand up it takes effort to open my mouth and actually begin preaching. There are a few things going on here: 
  1. Fear of man. In my flesh, I am worried about what people will think about me. I want people to like me and don't want to do anything that might jeopardize that.
  2. Fear of confrontation. This is related to the last point, but I'm not a naturally confrontational person so I often get nervous when speaking in an environment where I am almost guaranteed a confrontation.
  3. Spiritual Warfare. Not only is there the war of my own flesh against the Spirit of God, but there are external forces at play as well. I'm there with the Gospel. The Evil One will do whatever he can to prevent me from speaking.
Each of these factors needs to be addressed from a biblical perspective. Where sinful, fleshly fear is in play, I need to kill that. I need to seek God's strength to overcome and be who and what He has called me to be. I need to pray for boldness and ask others to pray for me as well. Would you pray for me, that I would open my mouth and speak boldly as I ought to speak?

2. Prayer makes a difference. I mentioned the need for prayer at the end of the last point. It really is such a crucial aspect of this (and every other) ministry. Early on when I was first getting started I found myself praying a lot because I was stepping into a new ministry with little experience or safety net. Later on, as I began to get more comfortable I found myself praying and preparing less. I would "wing it" more. What I found was that I stumbled over myself more, I was less sharp in conversations, and I felt more inadequate for the task. And rightfully so! What arrogance to think that I could simply get up one day and go engage in the public square about spiritual matters without spending time in heart preparation in advance! I should not be preaching if I have not prepared myself before God beforehand.

But on the days that I did prepare my heart for the task in prayer, I found that it made such a significant difference in my confidence, delivery, and interactions. The timidity was far reduced, and God's Word was proclaimed with greater authority, passion, and clarity. Prayer makes a difference because it prepares my heart for the task at hand.

3. I must fight pride to the death. There is irony in this one. I mentioned above that, in my flesh, I have unholy fear that I have to battle every time I go out. Since I've acknowledged that, how could I ever become proud? Well, when I do battle with that fear and overcome it, the danger is then arrogance: I did it! I overcame my fear and apprehension! I'm preaching the Gospel! What a great person I am for being willing to subject myself to ridicule for the name of Christ! How wonderful I must be that I have conquered my own fears for the sake of the Gospel!

Yikes.

I really appreciated Ray Comfort's words when Jeremy Howard and I had the opportunity to interview him on the Do Theology podcast: In response to a man who confessed he had a problem with pride, a wise mentor of his replied, "Why?" Ray went on to say "That about sums it up. "Why?" What do you have that you didn't receive? Have you looked in the mirror lately?" 

Ray's point was simple: If you're willing to be honest, you have nothing to write home about. Pride is a common but ridiculous response to anything we do.

And so I must fight it. I need to look in the mirror and remember the sinful fear I had just moments ago, I need to remember how feeble and frail my flesh is, I need to remember that everything I have and am is only because of the grace of Jesus Christ and without him I am nothing. Pride has no place in the life of the open-air preacher.

4. I must preach the GospelI mentioned that I preach at two locations: the abortion mill and a local park. At the clinic, there is a specific sin issue on display and a life literally on the line, so much of my time is spent pleading with mothers and fathers to have mercy on their children. Much of my language is centered around that and rightfully so.

But I cannot stop there. I cannot allow that issue to prevent me from preaching the Gospel. I need to remember that the sin of abortion is present only because of rebellion against God, and the only eternal solution to that rebellion is the Gospel. Many Roman Catholics show up to the mill, but they don't preach the Gospel. They only plead for the lives of the children and mutter their incantations to Mary. They are occasionally successful in convincing a couple to keep their baby, and praise God when that happens! But they don't have the words of eternal life. Those parents are still at risk of spending an eternity in Hell. So, yes, I will work to save the lives of the children, but I must also preach the Gospel that God might save the parents!

Furthermore, it is common to be engaged by a passerby who wants to argue about this point or that and it is easy to get caught up in details that very well may be important, but they aren't directly related to the Gospel. I need to steer every conversation back to the issue of the Gospel. Those other conversations may be important and helpful, but they pale in comparison to the need to trust the Savior.

5. I must preach the Gospel. There are some weeks that I am not able to get out for one reason or another. When those weeks happen I feel restless. There are souls on their way to hell and the message must get out! God calls me to love these people and what better way to love them than to bring the good news to them? While I don't feel guilty in the sense that I have failed God (If I don't go out, there is usually a good and valid reason), there is a desire inside of me that goes unfulfilled. I hope it's not conceited to imagine that I feel similarly to Paul when he writes "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16), or Jeremiah "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." I feel duty-bound as a minister of the Gospel of Christ to preach the Gospel, and not just on Sunday mornings, but to do as Paul commanded Timothy: "do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." (2 Tim 4:5).

There was a day when I would have said "I could never imagine myself doing open-air preaching" and now, from where I sit today, it is difficult to imagine a time when I won't be doing open-air preaching.

I close with the words of Romans 10 I quoted above: 

"how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

Soli Deo Gloria
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