Open-air preaching in the UK has a long and noble history. Often it has met with vicious opposition from hearers, towards preachers and those willing to identify with them. But sometimes opposition has given way to striking and even numerous conversions.
Some claim that where such preaching is not happily received true evangelism cannot be taking place, since the people are ‘not listening’. But who are we to know who is listening or not (even if sitting quietly in church)?
In addition, some things today seem to shout embarrassment at the practice. The first is the frequent claim that open air preaching invades people’s space without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’, in order to inflict Christian beliefs upon them.
Yet illegal physical intrusion is avoided if open air work is conducted in a suitable, legitimate public place, as Andy Banton of the Open-Air Mission explains on page 32.
As to mental intrusion, that claim is surely obviated by the priority God’s gospel takes over all humankind (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 6:2).
Another oft-heard criticism is that open-air preachers ‘shout’ to make themselves heard, which seems to some to prove that it is an anti-social activity. But did not Jesus do the same when ‘he stood and cried out, saying, if anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink’ (John 7:37)?
Wisdom does indeed ‘raise her voice in the open squares’ and ‘cry out in the chief concourses, at the opening of the gates in the city’ (Proverbs 1:20-21), because of her concern for the souls of others, even though they be complete strangers.
That is no excuse, of course, for preachers to yell and bawl. John Wesley repeatedly warned his preachers against what he called ‘screaming’. ‘I often speak loud, often vehemently; but I never scream. I never strain myself’, he wrote in 1775. ‘Never scream. Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice: it is disgustful to the hearers’ (1789).
Nor have open air preachers a mandate from the Lord to rant against particular sins in order to vent personal anger against the decadent age in which we live.
Homosexuality is a relevant example. This is clearly a sin. But do we cry as vehemently against the sins we may feel more personally liable to – like pride, bad temper and immoral heterosexual thinking? And how about the atheism which fuels this lifestyle (Romans 1)?
No lone rangers
The preacher’s commission is to preach the gospel. That means to preach Christ, according to the pattern, for example, of the book of Romans. The sins of Romans 1-3 lead to the grace of chapters 4-8; and it all comes from the preacher’s heart of love, in chapters 9-11. Do open air preachers preach that?
To prevent fanaticism and subsequent disgrace to the cause of Christ, surely no open air preacher should go forth without definite approval from a local gospel church? Even a weak church knows a genuine preacher when it hears one (and one without the gift!).
If practised, such discipline would silence a number currently preaching a skewed message, with little Christ-centredness and even less compassion – and rightly so!
Open-air preaching is not the only way to make Christ known. But it is both biblical and highly efficient, and we are free to do it. Let us get on with the task, for possibly the night is fast approaching when we will be unable to do so any more (cf. John 9:4).