So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. (Acts 17:17)
My wife and I were inAthens,Greece a year or so ago while I was teaching at the Greek Bible Institute and preaching at the First Evangelical Church of Athens. We took a sight-seeing trip one day and of course enjoyed wandering amongst the ruins of the ancient Acropolis. Afterward we walked down to Mars Hill, which is next to the Acropolis, where the Apostle Paul preached his famous Areopagus address (Acts 17:19ff). We sat on this rather unimpressive rock while I quoted to her the words Paul had preached on that very spot. Very moving!
However, after being there for a while we walked down the hill between Mars Hill and the Acropolis to find a place to eat (we love Greek food) and on our left were the ruins of the ancient agora, the market place, where Paul went ‘door to door’ preaching Jesus to the people of that great city. For some reason this moved me far more than seeing Mars Hill. Perhaps that’s because we know how relentless Paul was in gospel work.
He preached to large crowds. He evangelized one on one. He went first to the Jews, seeking to reason with them in their synagogues, but when they rejected him and drove him out, something they always did, he then went to the Gentiles to proclaim Jesus. In other words, Paul was a street preacher. He did not wait for people to come to him. He preached wherever he could. He did not wait for the ‘right to be heard.’ He did not make friends first and then hope to slip the gospel into conversation. In loving zeal he went straight at people with the gospel.
The prophets did the same thing. There is no indication they limited themselves to the synagogues. After seeing his utter depravity and decomposing spiritual life in the light of God’s perfect holiness, Isaiah said, ‘Woe is me. I am ruined’ (Isa. 6:5). After his cleansing and the Lord asking, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?’ Isaiah responds, ‘Here I am, send me.’ And he went and preached to the people (Isa. 6:8-9).
Jeremiah was terrified at the prospect of preaching, but God promised to give him the words to say, sending him to preach in the city of Jerusalem, urging the people to turn from their sin and return to the Lord (Jer. 2:1ff). God later told Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the Lord’s house (street preaching) and there proclaim his Word (Jer. 7:2).
Ezekiel received a similar call, to go to the rebellious, obstinate people of the city. He was not to fear them. He was to speak the Word of the Lord (Ezek. 2:2ff. See also Ezek. 11-14 for other graphic examples). Jonah finally went to the streets of wickedNinevehand preached coming judgment and repentance (Jon. 3:4). We could say the same about Amos and Hosea (Amos 1-4, Hos. 4:1, 5:1).
Jesus told the apostles that after they had received power they were to be his witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:8) and we know their preaching largely was done in the streets of the cities to which he sent them (Acts 2:5ff, 8:5, 40, Acts 13-14, 18-19). And prior to this, Jesus sent out his disciples, telling them to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 10:7). They were to go to cities and villages (Matt. 10:11).
And Jesus sent the seventy out to the cities and places where he had gone, telling them that he was sending them as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:1-3). John the Baptist did open air preaching (Matthew 3:1ff), and so did Jesus (Matthew 5-7, Luke 6:17ff). And church history is replete with a host of open air, street preachers — men like Savonarola, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland.
But street preachers and intentional, bold, one-on-one evangelistic workers are largely rejected and ostracized by the church. Always have been, probably always will be! The religious establishment does not seem to know what to do with fervent evangelists.
My friends — street preaching and one-on-one evangelism, handing out gospel tracts, conducting religious questionnaires in hopes of engaging people in gospel conversation is biblical. We all should be doing this, but very few of us do.
Why not? I know some street preachers give the work a bad name, using ‘shock and awe’ tactics, focusing on preaching against sin in a harsh way, saying that God hates homosexuals, etc. Clearly this does not honour God. My experience, however, is that this is not generally the case.
The street preachers I know, and with whom I have worked, are grace-filled, courageous men, who stand on University campuses in free speech zones, or in public venues at major sporting events, and proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ, warning people to flee from the wrath of God, urging them to repent and call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.
What, my friend, is so wrong and objectionable with that? I know what people say, ‘That doesn’t work anymore . . . I prefer to do friendship evangelism . . . that does more harm than good . . . our postmodern world does not respond to such approaches . . .’
When, my friends, has the world ever liked preaching! It is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18ff). When I hear those objections I then know several things are in play.
1. First is the denial that God uses many different means of evangelism. By no means is street preaching and direct, one-on-one work the only thing we should do.
There clearly is a place for longer-term relationships with unbelievers, patiently answering their questions, taking them through an evangelistic Bible Study. Street work is a broadcast of the gospel, trusting the Holy Spirit to bring those nearby whom he has prepared for a moment such as that.
2. Second is a failure to remember that salvation is always a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, that only he can open the hearts and minds of people to believe the gospel. We should, however, expect him to do such a great work, and we must go to the streets with that expectancy.
3. And third, our objection to street work is probably an admission that we are deep down ashamed of the gospel. Be very honest with yourself — when you come upon street preachers, are you embarrassed, repulsed by them? Why? Are they not proclaiming the beauty of Christ? Are you embarrassed to hand out gospel tracts? Do you say, ‘This cheapens the gospel. I prefer to win the right to be heard.’ Could it be, my dear friend, that you are, deep down in your flesh, filled with pride and a desire for comfort and acceptance by people? Has this caused you to be ashamed of Christ and his gospel!
In a series of graphic descriptions, Paul says that we are slaves, chained to the oars, deep in the bowels of a ship (1 Cor. 4:1-2). He says that we are as men condemned to death, a spectacle (literally a theatre) to the world (1 Cor. 4:9). He says that we are fools (literally morons) for Christ (1 Cor. 4:10). Indeed the words of Paul concerning himself ring true of many street preachers I know, ‘We are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and roughly treated . . . reviled, persecuted, and slandered, the scum of the world and the dregs of all things’ (1 Cor. 4:11-13).
The simple truth, my dear friends, is that street preaching and street evangelism are biblical and necessary.
Jesus told us that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24). We must die to ourselves and one of the best ways to do so is to face the rejection our Lord Jesus and his apostles and prophets faced, as well as that of saints now and throughout the history of the church.
Jack Miller said that the greatest tool in evangelism is the willingness to be a fool for Jesus’ sake.
Finally, if you know street preachers or if you have street evangelists in your church, thank God for them. They are a great gift to your church. Turn them loose. Pray for them, support them financially, and go with them to the streets. This is front line evangelistic work and it is a beautiful thing to behold.