06 Aug, 2012 The place of open-air preachers in todays Church

Charles Spurgeon said, regarding Open Air Preaching

One of the earliest things a minister should do when he leaves college
and settles in a country town or village is to begin open-air
speaking. No sort of defense is needed for preaching out of doors; but
it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his
duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meeting place

What is its place in today’s western Church?

Those who are bold to share

There is no doubt that some are gifted by God to have a passion for talking to strangers. I’ve seen people doing an excellent job sharing faith with people they don’t know on the street and at carnivals. While many are sceptical of the approaches used in the 1950s – and rightly so, it’s about people skills, and people still enjoy a good conversation. I take my hat of to many who share faith on streets in a culturally receivable manner. Their boldness is an example to us.

Of note, while some have this boldness as if were naturally there, others ‘catch’ the passion because they get a revelation of just how important sharing faith is. I think of a man in our Church who started going out to share on the streets with people only when in his 70s, realising only then just how important sharing faith was. Love motivates and compels some of these seemingly ‘over-zealous ones’ to such action – and I suggest it could likewise one-day compel many of us to do things we might not yet have imagined if we keep growing in love!

The challenge of these zealous ones in the local Church

The challenge is that such great passion leads some of these street ministers to feel that everyone in the Church should be like them. This ‘unmitigated’ (un-softened) passion sometimes makes them a bit of a ‘thorn in the side’ to pastors, who will agree that sharing the gospel is important, but doubt the wisdom of promoting such a direct approach. They fear it will put more people off than it will attract – and with good reason! The challenge is thus how to ‘manage’ these more liberated ones without hindering or discouraging them.

My view on street-evangelism

While I’m told by sources I trust that there are still people out there making a real botch-up of it, I know from experience and observation that there are many doing a really good job. People enjoy their conversations, and thank the Christian afterwards – even if not agreeing or being ready in any way to accept Christian beliefs.

However, realistically I think it’s only ever going to be 5% to 10% who will get involved in these more direct approaches. For one, not everyone has the confidence or ‘gift of the gab’ needed to make and take a conversational opportunity. God made us to be of different shapes and sizes!

Note however that I do call the street-preachers the liberated ones, because I think their boldness is nearer to the truth (even if overzealous at times) than that of the silent ones – among whom I am often found.

However, the recognised danger is that pastors sometimes side-line these liberated ones, and that this is to our detriment.

What I propose

I suggest Church leaders would do well to

1. Recognise street-evangelism, and door-to-door… as a gift

2. Channel it into a team

3. Be clear that we are ALL called to be witnesses to God’s love shown in Christ – so the challenge to action is affirmed

4. Affirm that different approaches are legitimate – so that there is no guilt inferred from the choice of many to not get involved with this team.

5. Train those who do this with good people skills, so they don’t offend people, accuse people, speak disrespectfully of other people’s beliefs etc. etc. etc. (What is needed in this training is not a change in the message, but in the way it is presented. Its about people skills – and some who seek to represent the Christian Church’s message in public places are lacking in them. While this isn’t the point of this reflection, this is something else we could seek to address in our churches also).

While some might share on the street

– others might serve in the op-shop, talking with those who come in and have ‘time to burn’

– while others might learn to talk with their colleagues and neighbors when sitting over coffee at morning tea time… and give both gifts (like booklets/DVDs) and extend invitations to relevant Christian programs and events.

The challenge is to affirm the validity of these equally – assuming that each one is genuinely seeking to be a witness for Christ in the ways they feel able.

(I do recommend a thought for pastors I wrote on this which you can view here titled ‘raise a standard.’)

For me, I’m enjoying some involvement in a ministry that gives food and drinks away on the streets at night, and I get to have all manner of conversations with people I don’t know as a result. This works for me – as opposed to having no ‘connection point’ for a conversation, and I enjoy it!

But what about what Spurgeon said?

In essence Spurgeon is reminding us that it is our responsibility to share faith with everyone in our community – and many of our churches are failing in this. Our lack of boldness for witness beyond the boundaries of our programs is – I believe – a failure. It certainly also a product of our times, as there is a higher scepticism toward the promotion of religion in our communities than in the past, and a lower responsiveness to the sharing of the message also.

But could our distaste also be a reflection of our insecurities, doubts and fears? I believe it would be true to say that many of us pastors have lost our boldness – myself included. Serving within the confines of the local church is our ‘safety zone,’ and many live their lives inside the walls of their churches programs.

For myself – is sharing with people I don’t know a goal?

I’ve been very active in Christian outreach my whole life – but sharing faith through one-on-one conversations with people when I have no real link to them has never been a passion. To me, I enjoy conversation, and this often happens while helping people at their point of need.

However, I can see how I have grown across a 25 year span now, and as I project this growth forward I see myself becoming increasingly comfortable talking with strangers about faith, and actually wanting to do this! I feel ashamed of my lack of boldness in certain situations – yet can see (and specifically identify) the journey that I am on, overcoming insecurities that my early life experiences placed within me. I can see myself healing and growing with the years. I’m not there yet – but am getting closer.

A conclusion?

So, could a passion to share faith with people everywhere – even when we don’t know them – be a sign of spiritual maturity? Well – I’m not going to say such, but I know that for me it is one of the directions that my growth in faith is slowly taking me.

However, just as I will have taken years to come to a place where I’m comfortable with it, most in our Churches will also (and some will never get there).

So we need to ‘manage’ this passion, and positively channel it – so we do not squash it, even though the ‘over-zealous passion’ that comes with it can be annoying.

Just as there might be an Alpha team in a Church, and an op-shop team, there could be a street ministry team. This way those who come to this passion can be affirmed, and given a place of service that is recognised by the Church.

However, everyone doesn’t need to join that team!

Closing examples of Churches applying it

By harnessing the passion of these evangelists we will be stronger. I think of a medium sized church who employed a man gifted in evangelism as a pastor. He not only helps various community ministries of the church, but goes door-to-door visiting houses in the neighborhood. He is well received and his ministry appreciated – yet the church don’t feel pressured to have to be like him.

I think of a pastor who has led the charge, pushing himself to higher levels of passion and boldness. While ministering gently to his congregation he has rallied a team who are visiting houses to encourage, help and share faith. They have been well received, and had some great conversations – and, importantly, have represented Christ to those who do not know Him.

Friends – taking Christ to the people is what we’re called to do, so while this street evangelism ministry is not the ‘be-all and end-all of evangelism’, and not many peoples ‘cup of tea,’ it is quite fairly part of the picture, suiting those who are confident to talk with strangers, and who have good people skills.

Many have become sceptical of it – but I don’t think it’s day is over. (Note that all NZers have been visited by Mormons and JWs many times – but very few ever by a Christian). It just needs a gentle and conversational approach – and people really don’t mind!

So let’s give it a place, and foster it within our churches, because God has given some this passion for a reason!

DAVE MANN. Dave is an Author and gifted communicator with a passion for the Gospel. This passion started when he came to faith at age 11. After Secondary School he went straight to Bible College, followed by 7 years in outreach ministry in New Zealand, then nearly 9 as a pastor in Singapore, before returning to New Zealand at the end of 2011. Dave is a visionary and fearless about pioneering initiatives aimed at helping the Church in New Zealand in the area of its mission. Author of various books and Tracts including “Because we care”, “That Leaders might last” and available free on this site: “The what and how of Youth and Young Adult ministry”.
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