A few years ago, I was discussing open-air preaching with a veteran pastor in Missouri. He told me, “Thirty years ago, you’d maybe see five or six open-air preachers in the whole country. Today there are at least twenty in every city.”
The renewed interest in open-air preaching is not just happening in charismatic circles, either. It is taking place in pockets typically considered more reserved and evangelistically challenged. Confessional Presbyterians and Baptists now have men across America and the UK who regularly preach in the open air. Reformation Heritage Books even published a book about Reformed open-air preaching (with a foreword by Joel Beeke).
But questions remain for many: Is it effective in the twenty-first century? Is there biblical warrant for this type of ministry? What should a person do who is interested in open-air preaching? I would like to give some brief answers to these questions.
Open-Air Preaching Today?
When people ask whether open-air preaching is effective in today’s context, I find it helpful to consider what the Bible says about humans. Are people in the twenty-first century really that different from the people in Jeremiah’s or Paul’s day? The Bible answers with a resounding no.
People in ancient times felt the same natural aversion to the gospel as the people in our own day do — hence why Jeremiah was thrown into a well and why Paul was stoned and beaten with rods. Since the fall of Adam, man is born in sin, which means we have a nature hostile to God until we are “born from above” (John 3:3 NET). This is why the Bible says, “No one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11). Thus, for man to be saved, God has commissioned us to go and seek them (Matthew 28:18–20).
But what methods do we use to seek such people? Many give their answers: seeker-friendly church services, Easter-egg drops, free lunches, feel-good sermons, car-wash outreaches, and so on. While some of these efforts can bear fruit, Scripture gives us a simpler way: share the gospel with them. Expose them to the message of Christ. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). “The gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16).
Enter open-air preaching. Although many other ways to evangelize exist, open-air preaching is especially useful in the rush of a busy marketplace, on the hustle of a college campus, outside a sporting event, or at a local abortion clinic. Moreover, open-air preaching was a preferred method of Jonah, Jeremiah, the apostle Paul, and many others. They went to the people and preached God’s word. It is really that simple. Even Jesus went into the boat or up on the mountainside to preach the good news. Open-air preaching is a form of evangelism that communicates the gospel to a crowd of people at once.
Preachers Beyond Church Walls
Aside from the many examples we have of open-air preaching in the Bible, church history also lends its testimony. Charles Spurgeon points out, “It would be very easy to prove revivals of religion have usually been accompanied, if not caused, by a considerable amount of preaching out of doors” (Lectures to My Students, 275). Michael Green notes that the first two centuries of the church witnessed a plethora of open-air preaching, including that of Irenaeus and Cyprian at the local marketplaces (Evangelism in the Early Church, 304).
In the Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux, Arnold of Brescia, and even Francis of Assisi were open-air preachers. In the Reformation days, John Wycliffe, John Knox, several English Puritans, William Farel, and others could be seen preaching in the open air. George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and John Bunyan also add to the list. In recent decades, Paul Washer, Leonard Ravenhill, and Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til have regularly preached in the open air.
Through the centuries, God has used open-air preaching to bring the gospel to the lost. When done correctly, such preaching heralds the gospel to all who have ears to hear.
Who Should Street Preach?
Just as preaching the gospel is different from sharing the gospel, so preaching in the open air is different from evangelizing in private. As with church office, there is a public dimension to the work that makes it wise for an open-air preacher to be approved and sent out by his church. This process will look different for each person and church, but open-air preachers do well to be under some kind of accountability and oversight.
At the same time, churches might consider actively examining and preparing men to preach in public. Oftentimes, such a ministry will be new to churches, so the aspiring open-air preacher should exercise patience and understanding when broaching the topic with his leaders. At the same time, church leaders should be willing to evaluate biblical data and church history to see the justification for such a ministry. Ideally, the two sides will work together to decide how to best approach open-air preaching in their context, eagerly training men for it.
Also, since there is a difference between public preaching and privately sharing the gospel, only men are called to preach in the open air (1 Timothy 2:12). Churches would be wise to evaluate such men according to the qualifications of an elder (as laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9), even if the preacher is not an elder. These passages describe a mature follower of Christ, and the open-air preacher will need such maturity to maintain a good witness when exposed to intense spiritual warfare, obscenities, lewdness, and theological challenges.
Preacher’s Training Ground
Open-air preaching is especially ideal for men who are training for the ministry. Formal preaching opportunities may be difficult to come by, but there is always a nearby college campus, street corner, abortion clinic, or sports event. Open-air preaching will help train the budding minister to crucify his flesh and reason with the lost in his community. It will help him learn to preach extemporaneously. It will remind him of how impossible it is to save people dead in their trespasses and sins. And thus, it will teach him our great need for God to move in the hearts of our hearers.
Assuming you have the backing of your church, the next step is to identify a good place to preach. Then go do it. Bring your Bible, some gospel tracts, and an amplification device (if permitted). As far as what to preach, the answer is the same as in pulpit ministry: text-driven, even expository, and directed toward an evangelistic call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. It should certainly be Christ-centered.
Before you preach, however, you will want to spend ample time in prayer. We need a demeanor sweetened by the Holy Spirit. The society we live in is hostile to the gospel, so expect rejection and scoffing. Responding to your enemies in a humble, patient manner is critical, and we cannot accomplish this without the softening influence of the Holy Spirit. As with any ministry, you will grow more comfortable with open-air preaching the more you do it. The butterflies will grow more faint. Responding to hecklers will become easier.
What About Fruit?
Will you see conversions? Will you see fruit? Yes and no. Every time you preach the gospel in the open air, you are leading people to Christ; whether God saves them or not is up to him. That said, testimonies abound of people being converted, strengthened, and convicted by open-air preaching. I’ll end with two examples.
In 2021, I was preaching weekly at a college in east Texas. A young man would come out and heckle me every time, shouting blasphemies and causing quite a stir among the student body. After eight straight weeks of this, I noticed the tone of his mocking began to change. His questions were becoming more sincere. Eventually, he came up and asked me for a Bible. Instead of mocking and challenging, he would now quietly listen. By the end of the semester, he had called upon the name of the Lord and was baptized. Recently he married a godly Christian woman and continues to walk with Jesus.
Another time, I received an email from a young man in Glasgow, Scotland. He said I probably would not remember him, but he had been heckling us when we were open-air preaching on Buchanan Street two years prior. He wrote to tell me that what we had been preaching had stuck with him ever since, and he recently started going to church and reading his Bible.
We live in trying times. Spiritually, things can seem bleak, depending on where we are looking. But God still has sheep who will hear his voice and be saved through the preaching of the gospel, including in the open air. Our job is to preach Christ, the name above all names, knowing that God is glorified when we do, regardless of whether we see conversions.