Guessing and gauging the street preacher

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A couple of interesting questions have come in following the recent piece on street preaching, and it might be helpful to offer some answers in this same environment.

First, no, I did not have any particular individual or group in mind when I wrote the piece. I began thinking it through a couple of weeks ago, and wrote it without studying or watching some of the more recent reports and pieces of footage, although I think some of them do bear out some of the comments and suggestions made. Also, bear in mind that a brother can be strong in some areas and not so robust in others, and often - for example - the gift that makes one man excellent in one-on-one discussions might not particularly equip him for preaching, or the same spirit that makes one man particularly clear in his gospel proclamations might make him a little cut-and-dried when interacting with the authorities. As I hope was plain, I have seen a number of men do things I think are sometimes unwise, and seek to steer clear of such mistakes myself. If the hat fits, wear it, but it was not designed for any one individual or group in particular.

Second, and more interestingly and valuably, someone asked about the relationship of the street preacher to the local church, and the matter of qualifications and calling. "Who," asks this thoughtful correspondent, "is qualified to open air preach?" It is a good question, and an important one.

Let me begin by stating that this is not the same issue as whether a man is qualified for the office of a pastor or elder. That is a different question, though it may at times be related. The Confession of Faith to which I subscribe, the 1677/89 Baptist Confession of Faith, states the following in its chapter on the church:
Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches to be instant in preaching the Word, by way of office; yet the work of preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the church, may and ought to perform it. (26.11)
The texts offered as proofs are Acts 11.19-21 and 1 Peter 4.10-11, primarily proving the point that the preaching of the truth is not necessarily restricted to the elders of the church, but ought to be discharged by those gifted for and called to the work. Here the confession bears close resemblance to the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks in Question 158, "By whom is the Word of God to be preached?" and answers, "The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office."

This makes plain that the questions of divine gift and equipment go alongside the issues of ecclesiastical approval and calling in the matter of preaching, but that a man might be gifted for occasional or regular preaching in a variety of circumstances without needing to meet all the qualifications set out in Scripture for the elders of the church, and may and should discharge that gift and responsibility in a responsible and appropriate fashion. In other words, street preaching, like all other preaching, should be exercised under authority and oversight and after proper evaluation of gift and grace.

Street preaching is too often the preserve of the proverbial loose cannon. It may be that the man in question is simply zealous but uninstructed, or perhaps he is a man who cannot or will not be governed, but who is not willing that his voice should not be heard (if the church will not give him a platform, he will go out and make one for himself). He sets himself up autonomously - "Me Ministries International" or "Fire on the Streets" or "The Bellowing Prophets of Doom" would be typical of this approach - and cracks on with the job, apart from or even despising any kind of church authority. But street preachers are not some kind of disavowed secret service, working beyond the fringes of the law by rules of their own making. We need to ensure that this work is exercised under government with appropriate oversight - specifically, that under all normal circumstances it is carried out by and under the auspices of a local church.

Such identification and appointment is not the same as ordination or induction, if you practice such things. It is a recognition that Christ has appointed a particular agency for the spread of the gospel in the world, and that agency is his church. Any man seeking to exercise a gift for the public proclamation of the gospel should begin by submitting himself to the care and discipline of a faithful church. That is the proper environment in which his gifts and calling can and should be assessed. If he cannot or will not do this, then he ought not to be involved in preaching anywhere, for a man cannot exercise authority until he proves that he can submit to it. Now, it is possible that in some circumstances a gifted man, called of God, might be prevented by an unfaithful church or a skewed authority from the proper exercise of his legitimate gift. I am not addressing that situation, because difficult exceptions and hard cases make poor laws. Is it possible that God should raise up a man to preach whose gift and calling is not recognised or will not be recognised? Yes. But we are speaking first of a normal, healthy situation. Note that even the apostle Paul did not go out on his journeys apart from or against the church: under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he was set apart by the church , sent out from the church, and went back to the church to report on the work that he had done.

So, the church - first and foremost - should be responsible for assessing and employing the gifts and graces of a man. At the very least, I would suggest that this requires the intelligent, engaged, consistent oversight of the elders, even if it does not demand the full and formal assent of the church. Any man who stands to preach on anything like a regular basis should give credible evidence of consistent godliness in his life. Other faithful saints - ideally recognised elders of the church - should be aware of both the matter and the manner of his ministry, and able to guide and advise as appropriate. Not least, street preachers need to be sending those stirred or converted toward the local church to be further counselled and instructed and cared for. The church should therefore identify the gifted man, pray for him, send him out, support him appropriately, hear his reports, and anticipate a blessing by his labour.

In practice, I recognise that this might involve tensions. In our experience, I sometimes work with men who are part of a more responsible parachurch organisation. The man who heads up the work is part of a local church in which his gifts have been recognised, and - fortunately - he himself has a robust view of the church. There are men from the church I serve who are involved with me in the work. Not all of them would wish to stand up and preach, but neither would we simply permit one of our men to decide autonomously that he wishes to preach, anymore than we would let him roll up into the pulpit on a whim or - under normal circumstances - than we would want one of our brothers to preach in another congregation without the involvement of both churches and their elders. We would want to encourage, assist and instruct such a man, but not simply abandon him or set him loose in the hope that he will not do too much damage. And if someone else rocked up on the street and asked to be involved, some of our first questions would be about his relationship to a faithful gospel church, because this is one of the ways in which we would determine his credibility as a gospel witness.

This brings us to the proper evaluation of gift and grace. Again, too often street preaching is seen as something apart from or even carried out despite the local church, a work that can be taken up by anyone with a bit of grit and gumption, as if zeal is the only necessary qualification for the work. Perhaps the church can give the impression that a chap might not be quite up to the pulpit in the gathered church, but that he can be safely shunted off to the street to work off his energies. I hope that - in the same way as no-one would think, "We would not want this man to be our pastor, so let's send him off to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named" - no-one will imagine that we put the less gifted or plain awkward men on the street as the place where they can cause least trouble. Identifying genuinely gifted men is the work of the whole church. If I might borrow and redirect the cogent words of the Baptist theologian, John Leadley Dagg, "Every man who believes alone, that he is called of God to the ministry, has reason to apprehend that he is under delusion. If he finds that those who give proof that they honor God and love the souls of men, do not discover his ministerial qualifications, he has reason to suspect that they do not exist" (Manual of Church Order [Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990], 248).

The church must therefore discharge this responsibility wisely and well. In doing so, we need to remember that there are degrees of grace and varieties of gift, and in this matter I would submit to the claims of clear revelation and sanctified common-sense. The street preacher must clearly be a soundly-converted man, one who knows and feels the gospel which he proclaims, wherever he does so. There are some particular aspects of the man's spirit worth considering. Unholy aggression, pride, hot-temperedness, machismo and bravado do not serve the man here any better than they do anywhere else. The church should not suspend its assessment of basic Christian graces under the impression that they matter less on the street than any other place.

With regard to practical qualifications, not everyone who is competent to stand in the pulpit and preach for 30, 45 or 60 minutes to a gathered congregation will be equally competent to preach on the street, and not everyone who is competent to preach on the street is necessarily equipped to preach from the pulpit. Of course, we would hope that there would be genuine and significant overlap. Nevertheless, it is possible that a man with a quickfire mind, catching at the attention of the people who hurry past in the street could not sustain the lively yet more systematic structure required to keep attention and make progress in the pulpit. Similarly, the man able to develop an engaging and reasoned discourse from the pulpit might be entirely flummoxed by the give-and-take of the street environment. Some men can do both, some either, some neither. Some of this can be learned, but some will be natural, and the church should take account of this. Again, zeal and desire are important, but are not the only consideration: a man might be full of zeal to play his rugby in the front row, but if he barely reaches five feet in height and weighs in at ten stone (140 pounds, American friends) then he simply has not been equipped for the task, and zeal must give way to prudence.

We must take account of the fact that the environment and dynamics are not the same as in the gathered church, and - while that does provide some room for manoeuvre - I would not go so far as to suggest that this suspends all normal principles for the proclamation of God's Word. I say this because I have heard it suggested that, for example, because it is not the gathered church, it would be appropriate for a woman to preach or 'speak' (i.e. preach but call it something else) on the street. I would not subscribe to this because of what I believe are the spiritual dynamics involved in the authoritative proclamation and application of the Scriptures. I recognise that in Acts 1.12-14 and 2.1-4, for example, all - including the women present - were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak." This is in accordance with the prophecy of Joel that  "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Jl 2.28) - they would all declare the saving truth, "speaking . . . the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2.11). However, quite apart from the different setting, I do not think that this act of witness necessarily involved authoritative public teaching. When the time came for that, it was Peter who stood up to make the case. So, while I am always delighted to have the sisters labouring with us in this sphere, I would not anticipate that they would be leading the teaching and preaching, though they would, I hope, be personally engaged with various people passing by, speaking with and to others the wonderful works of God.

Returning to the capacity to preach, testing the gift is always a good idea. While this might be done in measure in the Sunday School class, the pulpit, the small group, or some other similar environment, preaching on the street is sufficiently distinct in some of its dynamics that it may be that a man should be given his opportunity there as well to see whether or not he has some potential. In all this, remember that - as in any other assessment - the man in question does not need to be the finished article, nor (again) are you necessarily assessing him for the pastorate. But perhaps this is a sphere, alongside other appropriate environments, in which a gift can be nurtured and prompted, a way of developing a man's spiritual and practical capacities in ways that would not otherwise happen. It may be that, in due course, you might find yourself with a cohort of gifted, courageous, principled men, all of whom are likely to be better for the experience, and some of whom might in due course serve as pastors or function as evangelists, to the praise and glory of God and to the prosperity and good of his church.

In short, then, without confusing the capacity to preach with the call to shepherd the flock, a church with the opportunity or demand for this kind of witness - whether because there are gifts becoming manifest among the saints, or because the church and her elders see an opportunity, or some other good reason - should consider, assess and employ appropriately gifted men in the work, providing them with the kind of prayerful support that will make the most, under God, of their particular opportunities and capacities. The church should not relinquish this task to some other group or individual, nor abandon her zealous and gifted men to their best but isolated efforts. In this, as in all else, the church is responsible for the identification, nurture and employment of the gifts that Christ has given to her.
Posted October 4, 2013 @ 6:24 AM by Jeremy Walker


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