Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Review and Critique: “Go Stand Speak” and the Contemporary Street Preaching Movement

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on February 14, 2014 at 1:03 pm

By Jeffrey T. Riddle

“Street preaching” appears to be growing in popularity, especially among many young evangelical and revivalistic-influenced Calvinists.  One mark of its rising popularity is evidenced by the release of a recent video, Go Stand Speak: The Forgotten Power of the Public Proclamation of the Gospel.[1]  In this essay I will be offering a review of the video but also taking the occasion of this review as a jumping off point to explore and critique the contemporary “street preaching” movement.

The “Go Stand Speak” video defends and encourages the practice of “out of doors, public proclamation” or “in-your-face” street preaching.  It is produced by Eric Holmberg of the Apologetics Group, a media ministry which has released, among other things, the popular video Amazing Grace:  The History and Theology of Calvinism and Pat Necerato of “Go Stand Speak,” a parachurch evangelistic ministry.

There is no question that Jesus and the apostles often conducted public ministry in the “open air.”  One thinks of Jesus teaching his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7) or of Peter preaching at Pentecost (Acts 2).  There is also no question that Christian ministers have conducted open air ministries at various points in the history of the church.  One thinks of Whitefield and Wesley, for example.  The question is whether or not the type of street preaching advocated by those within this movement is wholly consistent with the Biblical and historical practice of “open air” ministry.  We must ask, in particular, whether it is fitting to encourage men to engage in public preaching in any context who have not been ordained as ministers and office bearers approved and sent out by the local church.

Overview of Video Content

The two hour video is divided into five segments:  (1) Part One:  Introduction.  This section introduces the topic and advocates street preaching that is “public, out of doors, in-your-face.”  (2) Part Two: Thus Saith the Lord.  This segment attempts to provide a Biblical rationale for this ministry.  (3)  Part Three:   The Power of the Preached Word.  This section has a hodge-podge of material on the Biblical and historical practice of street preaching as an “incarnational” ministry.  (4)  Part Four:  The Man, The Method, and the Message.  As the title of this section indicates, this segment discusses the spiritual qualifications of the street preacher, the method he should pursue in this ministry, and the content of his preaching (the gospel).  (5)  Part Five:  Objections to Street Preaching.  This segment anticipates objections raised against this practice.  It advocates street preaching as the practice of Jesus, the apostles, and historic Christianity.  Perhaps the theme is best summed up in a quote from itinerant minister Paul Washer:  “We must go to them, because they’re not going to come to us.”

The video is primarily a collage of excerpts from interviews on the subject of street preaching from various contemporary practitioner and advocates of the practice.  Beyond Holmberg and Necerato, the video prominently features Paul Washer (HeartCry), Ray Comfort (Way of the Master), Jeff Rose (JeremiahCry), Sean Morris (YMBB Ministries),[2] and about a dozen others.  Of interest to Reformed Baptist viewers, the video features a few brief excerpts from Al Martin and John Reuther.

In addition to the main presentation, the video also includes three additional “special features”:  (1)  “Encouragement to God”:  various extra clips and interviews; (2) Footage of Eric Holmberg doing open air preaching outside the 2010 Kentucky Derby; and (3)  “Dr. Peter Hammond on the History of Open Air Preachers (Farel and Livingstone).”

General Observations on Video Style and Content

In general I found the video to be overly long.  It might have conveyed the same message in briefer scope and perhaps, thereby, more interestingly.  Along these lines, some of the material, including the interview excerpts, were repetitive (the same persons making the same or similar points more than once).  Finally, the film at times lacks focus.  It dabbles in church history, analysis of contemporary culture, practical “how to” steps for street preaching, etc., often jumping from one topic to another without clear transitions, order, or conclusion.

In addition, for a video that represents many individuals and ministries that might claim to be Calvinistic/Reformed or, for that matter, even conservative evangelical, there were some distracting content elements.  This includes the use of numerous images (video and still pictures) depicting Jesus, without sensitivity to those who might have second commandment concerns about this practice.  It also includes the use of approving quotations and allusions to Roman Catholic “saints” (e.g., “St.” Boniface and “St.” Francis) and to non-evangelical writers, like Flannery O’Connor,[3] C.S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.   In a discussion of the yearning for human freedom partnered with a clip from one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, for example, Holmberg’s voiceover oddly states, “the message of true liberty and the defeat of Sauron and the return to Middle Earth offered by Jesus and his new creation kingdom may be one of our most effective tools in piercing hearts and calling the lost” [see the 1:00:20 mark].

Biblical Concerns

Beyond matters of style there are more significant concerns that might be raised with this video.  We begin with Biblical concerns, which will demand the majority of our attention.  We will then move on to doctrinal, historical, and practical concerns.  The first question is whether or not the type of ministry advocated in this video rests on a solid Biblical foundation.  Does the Bible mandate the necessity of the type of “in-your-face” street preaching advocated in the video?  Below are ten of the Biblical texts and patterns in the Bible that are cited in the video to support the practices they advocate:

(a)  The book of Proverbs speaks of “Lady Wisdom” standing and crying out in the streets (Proverbs 1:20; chapters 8—9).

(b)  In Isaiah 6, God is telling us to go even as he told the prophet Isaiah.

(c)   Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah were street preachers.

(d)  Jesus was a street preacher.

(e)  Jesus said we should proclaim the gospel from the rooftops, and this justifies “street preaching” (Matthew 10:27; Luke 12:3).

(f)   John the Baptist did street preaching and Jesus said that the least in the kingdom is greater than John (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28). Therefore, the least Christian should be able to do the kind of ministry that John the Baptist did.

(g)  Street preaching and other forms of evangelism are an act of obedience to Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor (see Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).

(h)  In John 7, Jesus preached publically in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles.  He did this without any invitation and it was not usual for anyone to preach in the temple.

(i)   The apostles were street preachers.

(j)    Paul and the apostles advocated this form of ministry in their letters (citing passages like Romans 10:14; 1 Corinthians 1:21).

At first glance, this might seem to be a compelling list of Biblical prooftexts for “street preaching.”  We will look more closely, however, and respond to each of these points:

(a)   The personification of wisdom in Proverbs is undoubtedly a powerful metaphor.  Many have even seen in it the “pre-incarnate Christ.”  Does this image, however, have anything to do with “street preaching”?  Advocates seem to seize on the pictures in Proverbs 1:20 (“Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:”) and Proverbs 8:1-3 of Lady Wisdom crying out while standing in the “high places,” on the “paths,” “at the gates,” and “at the doors.”  Lady Wisdom, however, is presented as a parable and metaphor in Proverbs.  In context, the setting is parental instruction of a son in the ways of wisdom (1:8). It has nothing to do with street preaching and everything to do with encouraging a son to heed the wise counsel of his parents.  To make this image a basis for street preaching is to engage in eisegetical misinterpretation.   Such a simplistic method might, for example, erroneously lead one to make a proof text for women as street preachers, since personified wisdom in the passage is a woman.

(b)  Isaiah 6 provides a narrative of the prophetic call of Isaiah.  It is a passage that lends itself to understanding the call to ministry and church office.  It says nothing about the means that Isaiah was to use in fulfilling his ministry and nothing about street preaching.  Isaiah was, in fact, a court prophet who exercised his ministry not by standing on the street corner preaching to disinterested passers-by but by standing before the kings and courtiers of Judah (e.g., most typical would be the setting described in 2 Kings 19:5-6:  “So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah.  And Isaiah said unto them….”; cf. Isa 7:3 ff.; 37:5 ff.).

(c)   Jeremiah’s ministry was as that of a prophet to the nation of Judah and much of it seems to have taken place in the temple environs (in or near “the LORD’s house”) and palace in Jerusalem (cf. Jer 7:1-2, 17:19; 19:14; 22:1; 26:2; 36:6).  Thus, it appears to be stretching it quite a bit to say that Jeremiah’s ministry was equivalent to that of modern street preachers.  Jonah, on the other hand, was indeed given a special commission from God himself to go and preach in the city of Nineveh.  The question here, however, is the level of continuity and discontinuity between the extra-ordinary Old Testament office of prophet, given by direct divine revelation, and the ordinary ministry given to church officers today.  We do not find instructions in the New Testament to replicate the extra-ordinary service of the prophets in the ordinary ministry of the church in the present age.

(d)   That Jesus was a street preacher is taken as axiomatic by those in this movement.  The speakers on the video do not even bother to cite specific passages to back up the claim.  Is there ground, however, to challenge the assertion that Jesus provides the model for contemporary “street preaching”?  I believe there is.

When those in the “street preaching” movement say that Jesus was a street preacher they are saying that Jesus went out into public places without invitation or following and indiscriminately called on disinterested persons passing by to listen to his preaching and to become his disciples.  To paraphrase the “Go Stand Speak” speakers, he did not wait for anyone to come to him, he went out to them.  Is this, however, an accurate picture of the public ministry of Jesus in the Gospels?  We will examine the presentation of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to evaluate this claim.[4]  Notice the following:

First, Luke emphasizes that Jesus began his public ministry not by indiscriminately preaching in the streets or at non-religious public gatherings (musical concerts, athletic events, pagan temples, dramatic performances in the amphitheater, horse races in the hippodrome, market days in the agora, etc.) but in the Jewish synagogues of Galilee.  The first note of Jesus’ public ministry after his baptism and temptation is found in Luke 4:15:  “And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.”  As is often the case with Biblical narrative, this first description proves programmatic for that which follows.  The center of Jesus’ early public ministry is the Jewish synagogue and not the pagan temple or marketplace (cf. Luke 4:16-21, 31-33, 42-44; 6:6).

Second, Luke also emphasizes Jesus’ exercise of his public ministry in private homes and in other locations where his primary focus is on instruction of his gathered disciples, though persons in need often come or are brought to these gatherings seeking interaction with Jesus.  Luke 4:38-39 provides the first example of this as Jesus goes from the synagogue into Simon’s home where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.  In Luke 5:17-26 the Evangelist records how a paralytic man was lowered on his bed through the roof of a house where Jesus was teaching.  The man was placed “into the midst before Jesus” (5:19).  In Luke 5:29 Jesus goes in to the house of his newly called disciple Levi where he shares a meal with other invited tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus eats in the home of Simon the Pharisee, when a sinful woman anoints his feet (7:36-50).  He enters the home of Mary and Martha and teaches (10:38-42).  He breaks bread on the Sabbath day and teaches in the home of one of the chief Pharisees (14:1, 7, 12).

Along these lines, it is interesting to note that when Jesus sends out the twelve and the seventy, he does not instruct them to enter the marketplaces but homes (see 9:4-6; 10:5-7; note that the seventy were only sent into the “streets” of the cities where the gospel was rejected in order to shake the dust from their feet, 10:10-11; 14:1).  After the synagogue, it seems that the private homes of disciples and others where both disciples and invited non-believers gathered was the most common venue for the exercise of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of those he sent out.

Third, though Luke does present Jesus conducting an “open air” ministry, particularly as he travels, it is not the kind of street preaching advocated by this movement.  Jesus is sought out by the multitudes in public places where he ministered to them.  Contrary to the view of contemporary “street preaching” advocates, the model of Jesus’ ministry in public places in Luke is not so much of him going out to raise a crowd, but of the crowds coming to him and seeking him.  Again, the first direct mentions of this phenomenon are likely to be taken as paradigmatic.  So, in Luke 4:42 it says, “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desert place: and the people [the Greek is the plural ochloi, crowds or multitudes] sought him, and came unto him, and stayed him, that he should not depart from them.”  On the heels of this in Luke 5:1 it says, “And it came to pass, that, as the people [ochlos, crowd or multitude] pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret.”  Such examples continue throughout Luke (see 6:17; 7:11; 8:4, 19, 40; 9:18; 12:1; 14:25; 15:1; 17:11, 20; 18:18).   The general picture we get of Jesus in the Gospels is not that he went out into public places to preach and teach indiscriminately to otherwise disinterested passers-by.  On the contrary, the picture we get is that people were drawn to Jesus or that they brought others to him.  In other words, we might say, contrary to conventional “street-preacher” wisdom, Jesus did not go to them, but they came to him.

We see this especially in the central “Journey Narrative” of the Third Gospel (Luke 9:51—19:40).  Here Luke also records various encounters that Jesus had with persons along the way to Jerusalem (cf. 9:57; 10:25; 11:27, 53-54; 12:13; 13:1, 23; 14:15; 15:1; 17:11-13; 18:18, 38; 19:1-2).  Once in Jerusalem, Jesus taught the people and preached in the temple (cf. 20:1; 21:37-38).  Though the temple was a public place, it was also clearly a designated place of worship and religious activity.  In Jesus’ temple teaching, his purpose is not to address otherwise disinterested crowds but to interact with the various religious leaders, like the chief priests, scribes, and elders (20:1-2; 19-22), and the Sadducees (20:27) who have come to the temple for religious and spiritual purposes.

(e) Does Jesus’ reference to proclamation from the rooftops in Matthew 10:27 and Luke 12:3 justify street preaching?  This passage is cited several times in the “Go Stand Speak” video.  A look at the context of this saying by Jesus, however, raises serious doubts as to whether it might be rightly applied at all to street preaching.

In Matthew 10, Jesus is instructing the twelve disciples.  In v. 25 he says that if his opponents have accused him of being in league with Beelzebub, they will make similar charges against his followers.  He continues to tell them that things which are hidden will one day be uncovered (v. 26) and what has been heard “in the ear” (i.e., privately) will be preached upon the housetops (i.e., publically).  The point seems to be that the nefarious deeds and motives of Jesus’ opponents will one day be exposed publicly (“upon the housetops”).

This is perhaps even clearer in Luke 12 where Jesus begins, “Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (v. 1).  It is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that will one day be made publicly known.  It will be “proclaimed upon the housetops” (v. 3).

(f) What about appeal to Jesus’ statement that the least in the kingdom would be greater than John the Baptist (Matt 11:11; Luke 7:28) and the argument that since John was a public preacher then the least Christian should be a public preacher?  This argument is faulty on several grounds.  Most importantly, one can in no way surmise from this teaching that Jesus expected all followers to become public preachers.  If this were the case then all Christians, including women, unqualified men, and children who are believers would be compelled to be public preachers and this would flatly contradict New Testament teaching (cf. James 3:1).  Jesus’ point, instead, is that the surpassing greatness of the least in the kingdom even in comparison to John comes by virtue of the fact that they have expressly believed in Jesus as Lord.  John died before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and so, like the prophets of the Old Testament, he did not fully understand all that the mission of Jesus entailed (cf. Luke 7:19).  Believers are privileged in that mysteries which were hidden from past generations have been revealed to them (see Eph 3:5).

(g)  Is “street preaching” an obedient response to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor?  The exegetical context of the Great Commandment teaching by Jesus does not appear to have evangelistic activity as its primary focus and application.  The Great Commandment is Jesus’ summation of the two tables of the Ten Commandments (cf. Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37).  To love God is to fulfill the first table of the moral law.  To love one’s neighbor as oneself is a fulfillment of the second table of the moral law.   The latter is the summation of how Jesus’ disciples are to interact with their fellow human beings (whether Christians or non-Christians).  Certainly the most good we can do to our fellow man is to point him to Christ.  We must, however, use scriptural means to achieve that end.  Appeal to the Great Commandment is not then an obvious justification for any proposed particular method of evangelism (e.g., “in-your-face” street preaching).

(h) Was Jesus’ preaching in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 an example of “preaching without invitation”?  This appears to be another rather flimsy justification for street preaching.  Jesus stands in the temple as the great Prophet, Priest, and King.  It is altogether appropriate for him to speak in the temple.  The chapter has no focus at all on Jesus’ speech being “without invitation.”  This is an imposition upon the text to justify “street preaching.”

(i)  The claim is made not only that Jesus was a street preacher, but so too were the apostles.  Can this claim be backed up, however, by Scripture? The obvious place to look is the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts 1 we are told that the early church in Jerusalem numbered 120 persons at the time just after Jesus’ ascension, and they gathered in an “upper room” (vv. 13-15).  At Pentecost they were “in one place” (2:1) when the Holy Spirit was poured out.  This place was most likely somewhere in the temple environs, since those drawn to them were diaspora Jews who had come to Jerusalem to worship at Pentecost.  These first instances set a pattern, according to Acts, for the typical places where the early Christians gathered and where preaching and teaching took place:  (1) in the temple (or, later in the synagogue); and (2) in private homes or meeting places.  This is well illustrated in Acts 2:46 (emphasis added):  “And they continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”  Notice that there is no mention here of the early disciples going out to the street corners to preach to disinterested passers-by.

This pattern continues to be emphasized by Luke in his description of the early days of the Christian movement in Jerusalem.  Peter and John go to the temple at the hour of prayer (3:1).  After the healing of the lame man, people rush to them at Solomon’s porch (3:11).  The disciples “were with one accord in Solomon’s porch” (5:12).

Indeed, after the death of Stephen and the scattering of believers beyond Jerusalem (8:1), there is mention of those who were scattered abroad going “every where preaching the word” (8:4).  The “every where” (8:4) most likely refers to the geographical dispersion (i.e., in every surrounding locality or region; in fulfillment of Acts 1:8) rather than to all manner of venues (e.g., the agora, public streets, etc.).  It is specially noted that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them” (8:5).  We are not told, however, where he did this preaching.  Context indicates that this preaching was most likely done in synagogues or gatherings in private homes where hospitality was offered.  After Saul (Paul) is converted, for example, we are told that he “straightway preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (9:20). Furthermore, Peter travels to the home of the God-fearer Cornelius who “called together his kinsmen and near friends” to hear the preaching of the apostle (10:24 ff.).  These examples again illustrate the two primary venues for Christian preaching in Acts: the synagogue and private homes.  In no place is there an explicit description of one of these early Christian preachers going out to stand on a street corner to preach to otherwise disinterested passers-by.

The pattern of preaching in synagogues (or private homes) is especially emphasized in Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry during his missionary journeys in Acts (cf. Paul’s ministry in Salamis, 13:5; in Pisidian Antioch, 13:14, 43-44; in Iconium, 14:1; at a place of designated prayer in Philippi, 16:12-13; in Thessalonika, 17:1-2; in Berea, 17:10; in Athens, 17:17; in Corinth, 18:4; in the home of Justus, 18:7; in Ephesus, 18:19; 19:8; in the school [schole] of Tyrannus, 19:9; in Troas in the “upper chamber” of a private home, 20:7-8).   Notice that contrary to the perceptions of those in the street preaching movement, Paul’s ministry does not begin with indiscriminate “in-your-face” street preaching to disinterested passers-by but in explicitly religious gatherings on the sabbath in the synagogue with Jews and God-fearers or in private gatherings of disciples.

Special consideration must be given to Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry in Athens in Acts 17, and especially to Acts 17:17:  “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.”  This verse might appear to provide the only example in Acts of Paul offering public proclamation in the agora or marketplace.  Notice, however, that Paul’s ministry begins in the synagogue and that it only afterward overflows into the agora.  The setting then is more like that presented at Pisidian Antioch with hearers, particularly God-fearers, following Paul to hear more of what he had begun to say in the synagogue (cf. 13:43).  The picture then would not be of Paul going into the agora to preach to disinterested passers-by but of his meeting in the agora with those who followed him there from the synagogue.  He does not come to draw an audience, but he comes with an audience already in tow.  Paul is indeed confronted in this setting by scoffing Epicurean and Stoic philosophers “because he preached (euangelizo) unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” (v. 18).  He is then brought into the Areopagus where he stands and speaks to onlookers (vv. 19, 22).  Before one seizes upon this as an example of the type of street preaching being advocated today, however, one should note that Paul does not go to the Areopagus to draw a crowd.  Rather, he is brought there or invited there by those who wish to hear him speak.

After his arrest in the temple in the Jerusalem, Luke records Paul engaging in a number of public apologetic defenses of the Christian faith, whether on the stairs leading to the Roman barracks (21:37-40 ff.); before the Jewish Sanhedrin (ch. 23); before Felix (ch. 24); before Festus (25:1-12); or before Agrippa and Bernice (25:13—26:32).  The book of Acts ends with Paul imprisoned under house arrest in Rome for two years but free to preach and teach to those who came to him (28:30-31).  These examples of public ministry, however, are hardly parallel to the type of street preaching advocated today.  The best contemporary parallel to these events would be for a Christian to steadfastly maintain his testimony if arrested for his faith.

(j)  Finally, the claim is made that “street preaching” was advocated by the apostle Paul and the other apostles in their epistles.  Passages on the centrality of preaching like Romans 10:14 and 1 Corinthians 1:21 are cited in support of this claim, but these say nothing explicitly about street preaching.  Given the fervency with which many advocate this practice as an essential part of Christian ministry, we would expect to find Paul and the apostles explicitly urging the recipients of their letters to go out into the public streets and marketplaces to do “in-your-face” street preaching.  When we actually read the epistles, however, we find that there are no such direct commands. Quite the contrary, we find Paul urging the Thessalonians to “study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (1 Thess 4:11).  Public preaching is not a task generally given to all believers but one specifically entrusted to church officers (cf. 1 Cor 9:1-18; 2 Tim 4:1-5; James 3:1), though each believer is to stand ready to defend the faith when challenged (1 Peter3:15).

Special attention should be given to Paul’s description of evangelism in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 as providing an apostolic model for doing evangelism:

23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

Granted, the specific purpose of this passage is to advocate for prophesy given in intelligible utterance versus speaking in tongues in unintelligible utterance and not to define the proper venues for evangelism.  However, we should not overlook what the passage teaches us about how evangelism was done in the early church.  It assumes the following:  (1) the whole church gathered in one place (i.e., this is not the lone preacher going to stand on the street corner); (2) the unlearned and unbelievers were invited into these gathered meetings (i.e., contrary to conventional street preacher wisdom, these people came to the church’s gatherings, rather than the church going out to them); and (3) these unbelievers came under conviction of their sin and were converted to become worshippers of God as they heard the gospel intelligibly proclaimed in an explicitly Christian assembly.  From this we might surmise that the normative way for the church to do evangelism is (1) to gather publically to worship, especially on the Lord’s Day; (2) to invite unbelievers into our assembly; and (3) to preach intelligibly in hopes that the unconverted in our midst might come under conviction and be saved.

Summary of Biblical evidence:

So, how might we summarize the Biblical evidence for the type of ministry advocated by the contemporary street preaching movement? We cannot find clear warrant for this method in the Old Testament examples of Lady Wisdom or of the prophets.  Turning to the New Testament we find that the ministry of Jesus was most often in the synagogue or in private homes.  He also conducted “open air” ministry, but he did not go to the crowds.  Instead, they came to him.  The apostles largely followed the example of Jesus.  Public preaching was done by church officers in gatherings of believers to which non-believers would be invited or which non-believers would intentionally seek out. We find no explicit example in the New Testament of anyone who is not a church officer publically preaching or teaching in any venue.  We find little to no evidence of Christian preachers going out to public places (streets, etc.) to preach to disinterested passers-by.

Along these lines, we ought also to consider Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:  “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matthew 7:6).  Here Jesus teaches that holy things should not be offered indiscriminately to those who will simply trample them underfoot.  Does not this command serve as an injunction against much of what is typically described today as street preaching?

Doctrinal Concerns

The survey of Biblical practice sketched above should be enough to provide pause before making the naïve affirmation that the type of street preaching advocated by some today fits perfectly the Biblical pattern.  It also raises some other significant doctrinal concerns.  Here are a few:

First, it has implications for the doctrine of the Biblical means of grace.  It suggests that the simple method of preaching that occurs in the gathered congregation—which appears to be the Biblical pattern— is not an effective enough means to be used for evangelism.  Rather than simply inviting, calling, and bringing unbelievers into the gathered church worship services where they might sit at the feet of Christ and listen to him as his minister preaches (cf. Eph 4:20-21), it says we must alter our means by going out to unbelievers. Rather than enhancing the esteem of preaching, one wonders if this does not in fact demonstrate a lack of confidence in preaching, much the same as that reflected in contemporary emphasis upon “personal evangelism” or “counseling” in lieu of ordinary preaching in the church’s Lord’s Day worship among the assembled saints.

Second, this movement risks making the focus of preaching, which is an element of worship, and, thereby, worship itself, to be upon men and not upon God.  Strange to say, but could it be that street preaching has more in common with “seeker-sensitive” advocates than it realizes?  It essentially says, “People will not come to church to hear preaching, so we must take preaching to them.  We must change our worship venue and manner in order to accommodate the felt needs of unbelievers.”  The focus of Biblical worship, however, is not on the worshippers and certainly not upon unbelievers, but upon the Lord.  The primary purpose of worship (including the element of preaching) is not evangelism per se but the glorification of God.  The standard for evaluating preaching (in whatever venue) is not whether it is pleasing to men, or even if it is reaching men, but whether it is pleasing to God.

Third, this movement risks placing undue emphasis on the physical place where preaching is undertaken rather than upon the more important matter of the essence of preaching.  Biblical preaching can conceivably take place on a street or in a public marketplace, just as it can take place in a home, in a lecture hall, or a meeting house which a church rents or owns.  The place of preaching is less important than the what of preaching.  Along with the what of preaching (its basic content) come also the key questions of the proper context of preaching (in the gathered assembly) and the who of preaching (by a God-called and ordained minister).  These are part of preaching’s essence.  Those who so passionately advocate street preaching run the risk of making an idol merely of the venue of preaching, neglecting the more significant questions of essence.

Fourth, this movement raises concerns related to ecclesiology.  Some advocates of street preaching seem to urge any and all Christians to take to the streets to engage in public preaching.  The Bible, however, teaches that preaching is not a universal obligation of all Christians. Not all Christians are to be public preachers and teachers.  Aptitude to teach is a special capacity given to the church’s teaching elders (cf. 1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9).  It is their special calling and responsibility to preach and teach publically.  Part four (“The Man, the Message, the Method”) of the “Go Stand Speak” video gives a list of the qualifications for the street preacher, largely borrowed from Spurgeon, including things like having a good voice, being adaptable, and having a large heart.  What it omits is the requirement that the preacher be called by God to be an elder or set part to this task by a local church. Unbridled advocacy of street preaching runs the risk of laying guilt upon men not called to preach and worse yet sending out those who have not been called and who, thus, are not qualified.  This makes the faith vulnerable to compromise and to the adaptation and infiltration of false teaching and practice.

Historical Concerns

Though the primary concern should be with Biblical precedent and doctrinal concerns, we might also ask if the type of street preaching being advocated today is as deeply rooted in the wider historical Christian tradition as its advocates maintain.  In the “Go Stand Speak” video, for example, appeal is made to the likes of St. Francis, George Whitefield, John Wesley, C. H. Spurgeon, and E. M. Bounds, among others. We are not denying that “open air” ministry has been conducted and advocated in the past.  One wonders, however, if this appeal might be overstated and even somewhat distorted.   Would we want to base patterns for Biblical ministry on the practices of a medieval mendicant order like the Franciscans?[5]  In addition, though we might grant that Whitefield and Wesley did preach out of doors, we should also recall that they did so primarily when establishment church buildings were closed to their use.  We should also keep in mind that the Methodist movement eventually developed and opened its own meeting houses and chapels for their gatherings.[6]  It appears that the type of “in-your-face” street preaching being advocated in the street preaching movement today came into prominence primarily with the revivalism of the 19th century.[7]  Even then, it likely was not always what some might imagine today. Spurgeon, for example, in his Lectures to My Students advocates “open air ministry,” but it should be kept in mind that he did so while addressing students in his ministerial college.[8]  Even Spurgeon did not see the call to preach as universal among Christians but limited to those called by God and ecclesiastically sanctioned for public ministry.[9]

In addition, we would also do well to note that even in the midst of the revivalist movement not all warmly welcomed the innovations introduced.  The stalwart Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney, for one, offered a stinging critique of the popular mass evangelistic efforts of lay preacher D. L. Moody in his 1876 essay “Lay Preaching.”[10]  He made similar points in his essay “Spurious Religious Excitements,” which he concluded by observing:

One corollary from this discussion is:  How perilous is it to entrust the care of souls to an ignorant zeal!  None but an educated ministry can be expected, humanly speaking, to resist the seduction of “revival measures,” or to guard themselves from the plausible blunders we have analyzed above.  And the church which entrusts the care of souls to lay-evangelists, self-appointed and irresponsible to the ecclesiastical government appointed by Christ, betrays its charge and duty.[11]

Dabney’s prohibitions against the practice of “lay preaching” would have been shared by most of his Protestant, Puritan, and scholastic forebears, such as John Calvin, George Gillespie, John Owen, Thomas Manton, Francis Turretin, Wilhelmus a Brakel, John Gill, and John Brown.  It also would extend to many modern Reformed and Calvinistic theologians, including A. W. Pink and Gordon Clark.[12]  The prohibition of lay preaching unsanctioned by the local church was, in fact, the confessional position of the Westminster Standards, as Question 158 of the Larger Catechism instructs:

Q. By whom is the word of God to be preached?
A. The word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.[13]

A similar sentiment is also expressed in chapter 26 (“Of the Church”) in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), which limits public preaching to pastors and “others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church.”[14]  By the late 19th century, Dabney’s opposition to Moody was more like a voice in the wilderness or an attempt to hold back a virtual tidal wave of egalitarian, democratic “every member a minister” sentiment.[15]  One is left to ponder whether the contemporary street preaching movement reflects more the spirit of the revivalistic age than the spirit of the apostolic age.

Practical Concerns

Lastly, one might also raise practical and even ethical concerns about the contemporary method of “in your face” street preaching.  Some have recently made this a “free speech” issue, challenging various local laws against public disturbance.  No doubt there is an increasingly hostile stance against traditional Christianity by many secularists.  When the apostles were told to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, they did indeed reply, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  We must ask, however, whether the absolute prohibition that the apostles faced against teaching in the name of Jesus is really parallel to the prohibition of preaching in busy shopping centers or on street corners.  Again, what of Paul’s admonition that Christians live quiet and peaceable lives?  One wonders, in fact, if some street preachers do not revel in the notoriety of experiencing some “persecution” for their public preaching.  Paul taught that Christians were to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), and Peter taught that however commendable it was to suffer “for righteousness sake,” believers should not suffer for “evil doing” (1 Peter 3:14, 17).

We might ask further about the ethics of some street preaching practices.  Is it really right to take a captive audience at a train station, subway, or bus stop and essentially force them to listen to preaching?  Would we feel the same level of tolerance if we, our children, or our fellow church members were unwillingly forced to hear Muslim, Mormon, or Wiccan teaching while going about some necessary activity in public life?  No doubt, some will tell anecdotal stories of the occasional incident where a person will become interested in what the street preacher is saying and some spiritual fruit will result.  We cannot base our practice, however, on such anecdotal experiences.  For, no doubt, there will be many others who will raise examples where street preaching has had the opposite effect.  Our practice must be based on Biblical warrant rather than anecdotal experience, and, as our survey above has suggested, there is precious little evidence that Jesus or the apostles went out into the public streets and attempted to gain an audience with otherwise disinterested passers-by.  Contrary to contemporary street preacher wisdom, it appears that Jesus did not so much go out to the people (to draw a crowd) as much as the people came to Jesus (in crowds).

Can preaching be done in the “open air” in a Biblical manner?  Of course, it can.  Again, we cannot be legalistic about the place of preaching.  A gathering for worship can take place on a street or in any other public setting.  If the saints are assembled to hear a set-apart minister rightly divide the word of truth and set forth the gospel, preaching can take place as an element of worship in just about any venue.    The Biblical model suggests, however, that preaching most often took place in private religious gatherings, either in synagogues, homes, or rented spaces.  Did this mean that they opposed evangelism?  Of course not!  It does perhaps mean, however, that they saw wisdom in Jesus’ teaching that pearls were not to be cast before swine.  It also meant that they invited the unlearned and unbelievers into their midst to hear the Word of God intelligibly proclaimed, and they prayed for their conversion. Like the friends of the paralytic they brought the spiritually lame and placed them “into the midst before Jesus” (Luke 5:19).  Have we lost confidence in this Biblical pattern?  Ω

Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia

.


[1]Go Stand Speak:  The Forgotten Power of the Public Proclamation of the Gospel (The Apologetics Group and Go Stand Speak Ministries, 2010).

[2] Sean Morris is given a significant presence in the video.  An internet search reveals that Morris is part of a small independent church in Wells, Texas (The Church of Wells) that has been accused of some cult-like practices (e.g., some parents in Arkansas have accused the church of brain-washing their adult daughter; local media reported the death of a young child in the church while the church leaders prayed for the child’s healing and resuscitation, resulting in  questions about the whether or not the child received proper medical care; postings on the church website offer “rebuttals” to those who have criticized the church [mostly family of church members]; and critics have posted online attacks of the church, etc.).  I do not have enough information to judge these matters and indeed the most righteous, godly, and faithful churches in a community are often the most maligned by outsiders and non-Christians.  The prominent role given to such a seemingly young and untested man as a spokesman for this movement, however, raises questions about discernment by the video producers.

[3] The O’Conner quotation:  “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures” (from “The Fiction Writer & His Country”).  The irony of this quotation is that O’Connor probably intended it in reference to her own literary efforts to critique conservative Southern Protestants and advocate her own sacramental Roman Catholic worldview.

[4] It is fitting to examine the Gospel of Luke to test the claim that Jesus was a “street preacher,” since we will turn later to the book of Acts (written also by Luke; cf. Luke 1:1-5; Acts 1:1-2) to test the claim that the apostles were “street preachers.”

[5] For a brief survey of how the medieval Franciscan and Dominican orders gained papal sanction and promoted papal authority through public preaching, see Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity:  How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (HarperCollins, 2011):  pp. 307-308.

[6] See Iain H. Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Banner of Truth, 2003).

[7] For a helpful survey and analysis of this era and its impact on contemporary evangelicalism, see Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism:  The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Banner of Truth, 1994).

[8] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Open Air Preaching:  A Sketch of its History” and “Open Air Preaching:  Remarks Thereon” in Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954):  pp. 234-253, 254-271.

[9] Ibid., see “The Call to the Ministry,” pp. 22-41.

[10] R. L. Dabney, “Lay Preaching,” Discussions, Vol. 2 (Sprinkle Publications, 1982):  pp. 76-95.

[11] R. L. Dabney, “Spurious Religious Excitements,” Discussions, Vol. 3 (Sprinkle Publications, 1996):  p. 474.

[12] See the collection of quotes from the men here cited in the article Against Lay Preaching on the website of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church, Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

[13] Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976):  p. 251.

[14] The London Confession of Faith 1677/1689 (Chapel Library, n. d.):  p. 38. For a discussion of the “gifted brethren” in early Particular Baptist churches see James M. Renihan, Edification and Beauty:  The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists 1675-1705 (Paternoster, 2008):   pp. 107-114.

[15] See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989).

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful interaction.

  2. I am a 65 year old woman who was raised in the Methodist Church and in my 30s began to attend a Baptist church. At the Baptist Church the pastor would talk about Jesus dying on the cross, shedding His blood for my sins, and being raised from the dead three days later. I would quietly sit in the pew weeping over a sinless man being nailed to a cross because of sin. The truth of the matter was I did not understand sin at all. I believed most everyone wanted and tried to do the right thing in every situation and I certainly put myself in that category. Because that pastor asked for everyone that wanted to receive Jesus as Savior to come to the alter, I did as he requested. I went to the alter, prayed to receive Jesus and asked Him to forgive me of my sins. I believed the pastor when he said I was now right with God. I also believed the pastor when he said I was under the grace of God. Over the next 20 years I moved a couple of times and attended different Baptist churches. The message I heard was basically the same. I was under the grace of God and therefore I believed I was right with God. I wanted others to know about the Bible and what the Bible said. I can recall telling others to received Jesus and ask Him to forgive them of their sins. Yet I still had many questions about the Bible and doubts about salvation being so easy to acquire. On one occasion I went to a friend who was dying of cancer. I implored him to receive Jesus as Savior and ask to be forgiven of sin. He was unmoved and told me that he was happy I had found Jesus but he did not believe. Over those 20 years I went to many Bible studies, seminars and listened to many preachers/teachers on the radio and television. I heard many different approaches to Scripture and what it meant for me and others today. Each one sounded credible and I wondered if this person had different insight or better insight than someone else. I wanted to know what the Bible said and I wanted to know Jesus. I tried reading the Bible and became frustrated, telling myself who can understand the Bible as it was originally written in a different language. I justified not committing myself to the reading of the Bible because I was not a pastor or Bible teacher. Then I heard about a class my church was offering called The Way of The Master. It was advertised as a new way to evangelize. In this class I found out the Ten Commandments were used in witnessing about the Bible. It was the first time I had ever truly looked at the Ten Commandments and I had to memorize them in order to talk about them with others. Needless to say I was scared and nervous about telling others what the Bible said. Initially my fear about talking to others about the Bible kept me from thinking about the Ten Commandments. As I continued to reach out to people and talk about the Bible I found I had a desire to know the Bible better. I began to read the Bible more and the more I read it, the more I understood it. The more I talked about the Ten Commandments to others the more I understood them. As I continued to read the Bible and talk to others about what I was learning I began to hear in my heart the Holy Spirit speak to me and tell me I had broken all the commandments, over and over, without thought and without care. At first I could not accept this because I believed myself to be a good person, under grace, and who had attended church faithfully for many years. But my continued Bible reading led to a better understanding of the Ten Commandments. I began to see for myself how wicked and evil my heart truly was and it was as if my heart was laid bare and I saw for myself all the ways I had sinned against God. Finally my only response to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in my heart was to fall on my knees and cry out for forgiveness and mercy. I finally understood sin and that everything God said about sin and my sin nature was true. I wanted to agree with God that whatever He said was sin I also said was sin and I wanted to repent of every thought, word, and deed that did not honor Him. I wanted Him to prune me and shape me by showing me everything in my life that did not honor Him. His Word and especially His Ten Commandments were the light unto my soul. What Jesus did for me became so precious to me I determined in my heart to follow Him and obey Him, no matter what. I wanted to examine myself by His Word and repent of everything that did not honor Him. I knew I was a changed person. I found my beliefs, my feelings, my thoughts, my attitudes were all changed. I could not explain what had happened to me. I just knew I wanted to honor God above all things and I wanted to tell others what the Bible truly said.
    There are many voices crying out in the wilderness today. I cannot judge them. I said many things to others when I first felt the drawing of God . My prayer is that God will send the true gospel to the whole world. I go out with people who believe the gospel must and should be preached to all, in season and out of season. We don’t always agree. We struggle to find the right way to share the good news of the gospel. We cry out to God to show us the way and to reveal to us His way to accomplish His will. Yes there are many beliefs and many opinions about the Bible. But let us all continue to cry out to God for wisdom and for every way to share the good news of the gospel.

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