“I can tell of instance after instance where men who have not been at church or a mission hall for years have been reached by open-air meetings. The persons I have known to be reached and converted through open-air meetings have included thieves, drunkards, gamblers, saloon-keepers, abandoned women, murderers, lawyers, doctors, theatrical people, society people, in fact pretty much every class.”
R.A. Torrey, Methods of Christian Work
“The great benefit of open-air preaching is that we get so many new comers to hear the gospel who otherwise would never hear it. The gospel command is, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,’ but it is so little obeyed that one would imagine that it ran thus, ‘Go into your own place of worship and preach the gospel to the few creatures who will come inside.’ ‘Go ye into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in,’—albeit it constitutes part of a parable, is worthy to be taken very literally, and in so doing its meaning will be best carried out. We ought actually to go into the streets and lanes and highways, for there are lurkers in the hedges, tramps on the highway, street-walkers, and lane-haunters, whom we shall never reach unless we pursue them into their own domains.”
Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students.
“If we are serious about reaching this world, let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles and preach where sinners gather. In thirty minutes, a good open-air preacher can reach more sinners than the average church does in twelve months.”
Ray Comfort, The School of Biblical Evangelism
I agree with all three of the above statements. Open-air preaching brings the gospel to people who won’t go to church. Open-air preaching takes the gospel to where the unconverted are. More unbelievers hear the gospel through open-air preaching than through most Sunday sermons. But none of these truths make open-air preaching better than a church service.
This afternoon, I spent about 90 minutes at the North Hollywood Metro Station with three Christian brothers. Together, we preached the gospel to hundreds of people and we distributed 70 bibles (English and Spanish) to people in need of Christ. I also had the opportunity to counsel and pray for a Jordanian man who professes faith in Christ and is battling depression. Again, all of this ministry, predominantly to lost people, took place in 90 minutes. But none of this makes open-air preaching or street evangelism in general better than a church service.
So, why do I bring this up? I think sentiments the above true statements convey have been abused by open-air preachers, including this one.
As we packed up to head back to church, one of the brothers who was with me today, when expressing his heartfelt joy over all the Lord had accomplished for His glory in such a short amount of time, said, “More lost people were reached with the gospel this afternoon than most churches will reach in an entire year.”
With shared joy in my heart and a smile on my face, I immediately affirmed what my brother had said. Almost as quickly, however, I corrected my self and, in doing so, I also corrected my brother.
“We have to remember this isn’t better than a church service. What we’re doing out here is different than what happens in churches on a Sunday morning.” I said.
My brother agreed with me.
The problem, one to which I have contributed over the years, is that open-air preachers have taken accurate observations by great evangelists (past and present) regarding the potential reach of open-air preaching and used those observations to malign the Church–specifically the Sunday morning service. In doing so, open-air preachers have played the same pragmatic card of the “seeker movement” by expecting the Sunday morning church service to be something God never intended–an event during which the primary function is to reach out to the lost.
Granted, the “seeker service” and open-air preaching couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. The “seeker service” is designed to entertain the dead. Open-air preaching is designed to awaken the dead with the gospel. However, both miss the mark when the respective practitioners impose their desired goals upon the Sunday morning church service.
To the Point
Sunday morning church services are not primarily evangelistic endeavors. Yes, good pulpit preaching includes a clear call to repent and believe the gospel. Pastors know there are lost people in their midst every Sunday morning–most of them professing to be Christians. But the pastor’s primary function on Sunday morning is to shepherd the sheep, not to herd the goats. And the primary function of the sheep during a Sunday morning church service it to worship Christ, not to evangelize their lost neighbors who they finally convinced to come to church.
Open-air preachers, myself included, err when they compare the potential evangelistic reach of open-air preaching to the potential evangelistic reach of the Sunday church service, and then boast about open-air preaching’s greater potential evangelistic reach. To do this is a disservice to churches, pastors who lead them, and Christians who gather corporately to worship Christ. In a sense, making side-by-side comparisons to Sunday morning church services and street evangelism is to make a category mistake because a property (evangelism) is being assigned to church services that is neither the primary intent nor of primary importance.
The Potential Harm
So, what’s the big deal?
I don’t believe I’m straining at gnats by addressing this subject. Look at the formation and DNA of any group of nomadic street preachers and you will find a general disdain for local assemblies of believers–churches. And how did this sinful disdain begin? It began, at least in part, as a result of zealous preachers seeing reaching the lost as more important than gathering under the leadership of elders/pastors to corporately worship Christ. It began as a result of misguided men and women seeing telling lost people about Jesus as more important than gathering with brothers and sisters in Christ to worship Jesus.
Again, the error is in seeing one as more important than the other–seeing evangelism as more important than corporate worship instead of seeing both as co-equal and necessary components to a healthy, Christian life. Sadly, even a cursory look at the nomadic street evangelism groups with which I am familiar reveals the fruition of the potential harm of which I speak. In distancing themselves from local assemblies of believers (churches), nomadic street preachers inevitably begin to talk on the streets less about Jesus and more about themselves and the sins they see in others. As their love for the Church wanes so does their love for Christ. And as their love for Christ wanes so does their love for the lost. The result: the formation of nomadic tribes of street thugs, bullies, and verbal bombardiers who feed their arrogant-filled egos at the expense of lost people, saved people, and Christ Himself.
However, the potential harm is not limited to the nomadic street preacher–the negative caricature of a noble calling. The open-air preacher who does not drift off into nomadism can do great harm inside a local assembly of believers.
When an open-air preacher allows the “I reach more people through street preaching” attitude to fester in his heart, it can show in the way he carries himself at church. It can show in the air of superiority he brings to the table when evangelism is the topic of conversation. It can show when he forces every conversation toward evangelism. It can show in the way he distances himself from other forms of ministry in the church, consciously or subconsciously seeing his particular calling as higher and more noble than that of the nursery worker, Sunday school teacher, usher, groundskeeper, or janitor. The open-air preacher who allows such a mindset to develop and fester in his heart and mind is too arrogant to be of any real service to Christ and His Body. He needs the counsel, correction, and accountability of his pastors/elders and he should remove himself from the streets until such time as his repentance in this area is sure.
Open-air preaching isn’t better than a church service. Sure, more lost people hear the gospel through open-air preaching than through a Sunday morning sermon, but that in no way makes open-air preaching superior to the Sunday morning sermon. And it certainly doesn’t make the open-air preacher superior to the pastor in the pulpit.
Street evangelism and the Sunday morning service are different. It’s as simple as that. While there is certainly overlap between the two activities, street evangelism and the Sunday morning service have distinctly different purposes. Open-air preachers would do themselves and their churches well to remember this. They would also do well to remember that if they are not committed to serving and loving their brothers and sisters in Christ, in a local assembly of believers, for the glory of Christ and love for His Body, they are neither called nor qualified to serve Christ as a herald on the streets.