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Outdoor preaching – questions to gospel ministers

January 2008 | by Andy Banton

Outdoor preaching – questions to gospel ministers

Back in the 1920s Frank Cockrem, then Secretary of The Open-Air Mission, wrote a pamphlet – challenging and encouraging preachers of the gospel not to confine their invaluable ministry within the four walls of their churches. Such challenge and encouragement are needed even more urgently today.

In fact, since far fewer people attend church in 2007 than they did back then, outdoor or open-air preaching is even more vital. This abridged and updated version of the pamphlet is offered not to offend or discourage, but with the sincere desire that many needy sinners will hear the glorious gospel and, by the grace of God, be saved.

Is there not a large portion of our population who never hear the gospel? We are no longer moved by the statistic that over 90% of the population never attend church. But move us it surely must! If those who know the joyful sound are blessed, then the overwhelming majority know no such blessing.

If Christ came to call sinners to repentance, no such call reaches untold multitudes. If faith comes by hearing, most people will never come to faith in Christ because they never hear.

The vast majority of people live with little or no thought that they are created beings who must one day give an account to their Maker. Because of prejudice, or simply because they have no sense of spiritual need, many refuse to enter a place of worship where the gospel is believed and preached.

For them, church is only necessary to ‘hatch, match and dispatch’. In fact the typical funeral service reinforces their belief that ‘I’m all right as I am’. How will that attitude ever change unless someone explains the gospel to them?

Did not the Lord Jesus intend that the gospel should be preached to all? Indeed he did. He says in effect, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed, and the lame and the blind … Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’ (Luke 14:21-23). ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15).

Isn’t the Lord saying that no stone should be left unturned in seeking unreached people in unreached places with the gospel. The compassionate Saviour wants the message to be published ‘indiscriminately’. If we fail to do just that, are we not guilty of discrimination? Are we not withholding the glad tidings of the gospel from those outside the sphere of church-based activities?

Would those who never attend our churches listen to a message preached in the open air? Certainly many would not and do not. However, experience has shown that many will and do. One of the benefits of open-air preaching is that it identifies those who are interested.

Virtually every day there are people who allow the gospel to break into their thoughts. We rejoice that in some cases it breaks into their hearts as well. Surely we dare not presume that God’s power to deal with the lost is restricted to an indoor venue. Let us be willing to prove that we really do believe in the power of the Word of God, wherever it is spoken!

In a sense it should surprise us that anyone should ever stop to listen to an open-air preacher. After all, few ever leave home planning to hear a man talk about Jesus. However, some are so taken with what they do hear that they put their business aside for a while. Some have even made themselves late for job interviews because they had questions they urgently wanted answering.

Is a soul in this country of less value than one abroad? Isn’t it strange that we gladly invest time and money in training missionaries to go overseas, but easily overlook or even ignore the man in the street here? He is equally lost and yet could be reached with almost no expense at all.

We rightly encourage our churches to support missionary endeavour in the furthest corners of the earth, but easily overlook our own ‘Judea and Samaria’. Is this not the forgotten mission field today? There are literally millions of Brits in spiritual darkness who need to hear the gospel.

And there are also multitudes from others lands who have come to live and work here. Do we not realise that we are living in the middle of an enormous mission field? People from overseas often show a far greater interest in spiritual things than our compatriots – they are far more willing to listen to a preacher and engage in personal conversation afterwards. But are we out there among them pointing them to the only Saviour of sinners?

Is it a lack of courage that keeps us indoors? A man once said to an open-air preacher, ‘How I admire your courage. You could confine your ministry to going from your study to the pulpit and back again, but you are willing to go outside with the gospel instead’. Perhaps it is lack of courage that hinders us from facing what might prove to be an indifferent or even hostile audience. It is so unlike the church service where we can expect our hearers to stay till the end and even offer a word of thanks before leaving the building.

In the face of great opposition the early church prayed for the courage they needed to fulfil their ministry – ‘grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your Word’ (Acts 4:29). Surely we can do the same? We can ask others to pray for us as we go – and, indeed, ask them to go with us and brave the sneers of the world.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus! The trumpet call, obey.

Forth to the mighty conflict in this his glorious day!

Ye that are men, now serve him, against unnumbered foes:

Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.

Is it pride that keeps us from preaching out of doors? Do we feel that somehow it would be beneath our ministerial dignity to preach in the street? Oh brethren, a disciple is not above his Master. May we ever remember that vital truth!

If the Lord Jesus himself was willing to go wherever there was an opportunity to reach people, should we not have the same mind and burden? If the Lord of glory was willing to preach under the canopy of heaven, can we possibly be right to consider it beneath us to do the same?

We may have seen people preach badly in the open air and be reluctant to risk being compared with them. But can we afford to write off outdoor preaching because some do it badly? After all, we sometimes hear poor preaching indoors, but we don’t jettison preaching from our Sunday services as a result.

Is our call to preach governed more by where we preach, than to whom? We can read books and hear lectures on the importance of preaching and somehow presume that it is an activity that must take place indoors. But a cursory reading of both biblical history and church history should convince us that outdoor preaching has always been one of God’s chief means of reaching the masses.

Charles Spurgeon’s two chapters on the subject in his book Lectures to my students make helpful reading. He goes as far as to say: ‘No sort of defence 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 four walls of his meeting house’.

Oh that our consciences might be pricked by those words and that we would all be stirred into action – using the gifts the Lord has graciously given us to preach the gospel to people where they are. If they will not come to us, must we not go to them?

Hear Spurgeon again: ‘those who went from city to city proclaiming everywhere the Word of the Lord Jesus would never have turned the world upside down if they had felt it needful to confine themselves to iron rooms adorned with the orthodox announcement, “The gospel of the grace of God will (DV) be preached here next Lord’s day evening”.’

It was the apostle Paul’s love for his Lord and love for people that caused him to write: ‘yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:16).

May all who have the great privilege of being preachers of the gospel be able to add a heartfelt ‘Amen’!

The author is Secretary of The Open-Air Mission