My Adventure in Open Air Preaching
Memorial Day 2018. I stood in Union Square, New York City, attached to a personal voice amplification system. I was nervous. I opened my Bible and stepped forward, lifted my voice and began to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Strangers passed by. Some stopped to listen. A few hecklers showed up. A few even drew closer to seek out a personal conversation about the message.
Why would a conservative Presbyterian pastor do such a crazy thing? Humanly, you can blame it on my friend Al Baker, veteran church planter and street preacher, and on his friend, Bill Adams. They had invited me to come to New York that weekend to instruct a group of young men in the basics of preaching. We stayed at a mission school and every morning Al and I would lecture on preaching. Our audience was a group of about a dozen young men who had travelled at their own expense from places such as Georgia, Ohio and Oklahoma. Their eagerness to preach and sacrifice in order to learn was both humbling and encouraging.
Then, after the lectures and a time of prayer, we would hop on the subway and head to Union Square where we would take turns giving open air messages and being available to anyone who wanted to discuss what we were preaching.
By that time of my life, I had spent close to forty years preaching God’s Word each Lord’s Day both morning and evening to my congregation in Connecticut. I had engaged in personal and door to door evangelism many times in my life. But rarely had I ever gone out into the streets and preached the gospel in sermonic form. This was new to me. It was a bit frightening. It was also something I would do again in a heartbeat.
The theological and biblical logic of open air preaching is simple. We believe that God has appointed the preaching of the Word as a means of grace, as a primary instrument for working His salvation in human hearts. It is perfectly fitting to set preaching at the center of a Christian worship service. But why would we limit preaching to that setting? It is fitting to learn from the preachers in the book of Acts and take our preaching to the streets. We should take the gospel within earshot of lost, needy sinners.
Combined with my long experience of regular preaching, here is a handful of counsel about open air preaching that I would encourage you brothers to try sometime:
1. Know what you want to say. Have a text and an outline as you would for any sermon. Drive your point home clearly. Use repetition. Remember, people are hurrying past. If you ramble, those passersby will not get your point.
2. Feature brevity and boldness. Don’t assume you will have people listening to you even for as long as 15 minutes. So, get to the point, and come back to your point several times. Use short sentences in the active voice. Avoid cumbersome passive constructions. Mix vivid descriptions of the truth with punchy imperatives that call the listeners to faith and repentance.
3. Focus on the Lord Jesus Christ. Bill Adams, a veteran street preacher and director of Sports Fan International Outreach, would typically begin his street sermons by saying, “We are out here today to lift up the Name of Jesus Christ.” Exactly. Remember that Jesus said that when He is lifted up he will draw all men to Himself. This lifting up included both His work on the cross and preaching about His work on the cross.
4. Don’t try to go it alone for street preaching. You need a preaching partner for several reasons. You need someone else present for prayer and moral support. You need a partner to engage with those who might have questions while you preach. You also need a partner to help ward off inevitable hecklers. The Apostles always did mission as a team. We should heed their example.
5. Preach! Get out there, lift up your voice and proclaim the Word of God. Don’t try to share a “fireside chat” in a public forum. Rather: “Go up to a high mountain, O Zion herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God.’” Isaiah 40.9
Brad Evans is pastor emeritus at Presbyterian Church of Coventry and a Southern New England Presbytery pastor-at-large. He continues to preach and teach throughout New England.
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"City-to-City Evangelism" by Nick Batzig
"Defending Door-to-Door and Open Air Evangelism" by Al Baker
A Workman Not Ashamed: Essays in Honor of Albert N. Martin, ed. by David Charles and Rob Ventura
Evangelism, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason