From time to time I am blessed by brothers and sisters in Christ who come to me seeking advice, expressing their genuine concerns about the current state of street preaching in their area, on their teams, and in their own lives. They voice concerns about the motives of some of those who carry the title "street preacher," and they do so with a level of humility -- asking my opinion not merely to entice me to write about the behavior of others, but out of true concern for their street-preaching brethren. They also want to learn and grow as preachers.
I've received many emails asking me to write about the perceived manner in which some street preachers measure the effectiveness of their open-air preaching. The emails I've received carried with them a level of urgency.
Questions for Street Preachers
Do you measure the effectiveness of your ministry by the volume with which you are able to proclaim the law and the gospel?
Effectiveness is not measured by mere volume, yet we are called by God to lift up our voices to proclaim the gospel (Matthew 10:27; Luke 12:3). So, it may also serve you well to remember: "The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools," (Ecclesiastes 9:17). Also, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," (Proverbs 15:1). We do not want to be perceived as merely "loud mouth boasters," (Jude 1:16).
The preacher George Whitefield (1714-1770) could be heard as far as a mile away. No doubt we know other modern-day "howitzers" that can likewise be heard from great distances. But the volume of a person's voice does not determine the effectiveness of the street preacher. In fact, a street preacher proclaiming the gospel in quieter, almost conversational tones, can at times draw a larger crowd than the largest set of "pipes." People naturally come closer to hear what is being said.
I am not making a case against "belting out" the gospel. If you have a big voice, use it for the glory of God. But if you are being loud for the sake of being loud, and if you are not satisfied with the volume of your voice until you see people jump with a start or cringe with otological pain, then your motivation may be something other than the truthful, loving, and clear proclamation of the gospel.
Do you measure the effectiveness of your ministry by whether or not you draw the attention of security or the police?
Today, some street preachers talk about their "rights" more than they talk about Christ. Men can take away rights given by men. So, street preacher, I ask you: when the government eventually takes away your "rights" to proclaim the gospel, will you continue to preach? Of course you will, if you are truly one of God's heralds!
This is not to say we should allow government or non-government entities to run roughshod over the freedoms we presently enjoy. But, in the end, our rights are of little consequence when compared to the glorification of Jesus Christ and reaching the lost with His gospel.
Can we challenge the interpretation and application of laws by police officers, security guards, other public officials, and business owners? Yes, but how we do it and why we do it is every bit as important as making the stand. Never forget, dear street preacher, that every word you speak and everything you do is a representation of your faith, as well as a representation of the One who is the object of your faith -- the Lord Jesus Christ.
The apostle Peter had much to say in his first letter that I believe is helpful. In 1 Peter 2:13-25, Peter wrote:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Today, you will find more videos online in which street preachers have negative encounters with law enforcement. Granted, as the persecution of the Church in the west grows, we will undoubtedly see more negative contact between law enforcement and street preachers. It seems though that more street preachers are looking for such negative encounters -- even going as far as to create an atmosphere around their preaching to almost dare law enforcement to make contact with them. All one has to do is look at the title of some of the videos being posted to understand what I am seeing. Here are some examples:
- "Unlawful Cops Strike Again"
- "Angry Police Officer Bullies Street Preacher"
- "Street Preaching Then The Police Show Up"
- "Street Preachers Hassled By Police"
It is true that many police officers on the streets are either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the laws protecting freedom of speech in the United States. For example, the open-air proclamation of the gospel does not constitute loitering. In fact, most loitering laws in the United States have been deemed unconstitutional by the courts as a result of the misapplication of such laws by law enforcement. That being said, it seems that more and more street preachers are looking for confrontations with law enforcement, hoping to gather video footage for the next exciting YouTube video.
If you survey some of the videos of this kind being posted on YouTube, you will rarely hear the preaching of the gospel by the street preacher. More often than not, the fight is about individual rights and not for the lost or the furtherance of the gospel. More preachers are intentionally setting the wheels in motion to almost bait law enforcement into a confrontation, and then cry "persecution" when the confrontation comes their way.
There is a difference between anticipating an encounter with law enforcement and hoping for an encounter. Nowadays, with the increase in efforts by government entities to silence the public proclamation of the gospel, street preachers should anticipate contact with law enforcement and plan accordingly. However, the street preacher should never go out hoping to have a negative encounter with law enforcement.
Having worked the streets for many years as a deputy sheriff, I can assure you that more people talk their way into the backseat of police cars than out of them. To hit the streets under the auspices of proclaiming the gospel, with the hope of a confrontation with law enforcement is, frankly, foolish. It is a measure not of the effectiveness of your ministry, but the ineffectiveness of your ministry. Examine yourself, street preacher, if this is you.
Do you measure the effectiveness of your ministry by how angry the crowds get at the sound of your voice or the content of your message?
I have caught myself doing this. There have been times when the first words out of my mouth, to my fellow street evangelists following an open-air preaching segment, were words such as "Did you see how angry that guy got?" Or, "There were some good hecklers in the crowd." Often times the statements were made with almost a sense of glee.
Granted, if we as street preachers are preaching so that no one is moved in a negative way by the proclamation of the truth of the law and the gospel, then it is likely that something biblical is missing from our presentation. The message is either too light on the law or does not lift Jesus Christ high enough. After all, lost people hate God (Romans 1:29-30). They hate you because they hate His Son and our Savior (Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:25). They hate the truth of His Word (Proverbs 13:13; Amos 5:10).
However, if you measure the effectiveness of your street ministry by how angry the crowds get then you are missing the point. Eventually, you will begin to do more to stir the crowd and you will preach Christ less. You will then run the risk of going the way of so many nomads of our day who rarely ever get to the gospel. They spend much of their time on the box spouting fiery rhetoric for the purpose of stirring the crowd, and then they spend the rest of the time arguing with the crowd and justifying their rhetoric.
When this happens to street preachers, the gospel becomes a mere afterthought to calling people "sinners" and other names. Their speech becomes more sarcastic. Their tone becomes less loving. They stop pleading with people and they start mocking them. They respond in kind to the crowd's angry barbs. They cease to be street preachers and instead become little more than just another "debater of the age," (1 Corinthians 1:20). Their speech becomes less gracious and is no longer seasoned with the salt of wisdom, discernment, and love (Colossians 4:6). They become, in effect, clanging cymbals and noisy gongs (1 Corinthians 13:1) that derive more joy from hearing themselves speak than from the gospel they are supposed to preach.
Is this you, open-air preacher? Then examine yourself.
What Really Matters in Street Preaching?
Dear open-air preacher, how should you measure the effectiveness of your ministry?
The size of the crowd to which you preach is irrelevant. Whether one person hears or a crowd of one thousand hear, in the end you preach to an audience of One -- the Lord Jesus Christ. It is Him you proclaim. The preaching of the gospel is not only evangelistic; it is, for the open-air preacher, an act of worship. Do not profane that worship by making any aspect of the proclamation of the gospel about you, and do not profane that worship by acting sinfully while proclaiming the gospel.
The effectiveness of your ministry should be determined, in part, by how consistently you speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), not by how many watts you push through your "half-mile hailer."
The level of respect you show toward others should determine, in part, the effectiveness of your ministry. When Jesus was reviled, he did not revile in turn (1 Peter 2:23). You should gauge the effectiveness of your ministry by how clear your own conscience is regarding the manner in which you herald the gospel, so that those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame (1 Peter 3:16).
The respect you show toward others must include law enforcement (Romans 13:1-5). God commands us to submit to governing authorities, so long as that submission does not cause us to disobey God (Acts 3:1-5:42) -- not only to avoid God's wrath in our own lives, but for our own conscience (Romans 13:5). The effectiveness of your ministry should be determined by how well you interact with law enforcement, not how easily you find yourself in conflict with those who protect and serve. Never forget, the law enforcement community needs Christ, too! They need to hear the gospel from you!
The effectiveness of your ministry should be determined not by the number of hecklers you can draw, but by the number of still, quiet, anonymous faces you reach in the crowd who are clinging to the words of Christ coming from your lips.
I used to look for the antagonists in the crowd. I don't any longer. I look for that one person in a hundred who may be listening, whose heart the Lord may be preparing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to hear and respond to the preaching of the gospel. I will preach around, through, and over any heckler to reach that one quiet person. I will plead with the listener before I will ever engage a heckler.
The angels rejoice over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10). They do not rejoice over the 20 people you antagonize during an open-air session. See the one in the crowd. Preach to the one in the crowd. Let not the enemy seduce you into arguing with the many and effectively keep you from reaching the one.
Street preacher, do the people to whom you herald the gospel still hear the love in your voice? Can they still see the love in your eyes? Is yours a shoulder on which to cry? Is your hand on their shoulder a welcome comfort to the one who is lost?
Yes, you will be hated for Christ's sake. But if you relish that more, if you find joy in being disdained by others, if you relish confrontation with others more than providing consolation to the lost, then your street ministry is utterly ineffective. Remember, your ministry is not about you. It is about Christ.
Street preacher, how do you measure the effectiveness of your ministry? Examine yourself.