Lessons Learned From Street Preachers: Part 2
*This is the second post in a series where the practice of street preaching is put under scrutiny. The inspiration for this series comes from a street preacher I recently encountered at the local DMV. In my last post, I argued that the form of the message matters and that most contemporary street preachers do not give messages with good form.
The second lesson learned from the street preacher relates to the venue—the geographic location of a given message. The venue is of great importance and the lesson concerning it is seen clearly in the case of the street preacher. For him, it worked against him. Why? Because he spoke as one seeking to invoke corporate conviction and worship at a place that had no atmosphere of worship. Its the DMV on a weekday morning. People here are inclined to be frustrated, tired, and, and lacking charity. They are not in a place where there is any inclination to listen. To add to that, the DMV does not operate as a place where ideas are expected to be exchanged. Thus, the forum does not act as a place that cultivates worship, it actually works against it. The odds of a swayed audience, then, are miniscule.
In my last post, I noted that preaching is a dialogue between speaker and audience. And in instances such as the DMV, it appears that the audience is not wanting nor seeking a connection. Thus, the connection is nearly impossible to foster. It is just not a strategic place for mission. Does this mean that God can’t reach them there? Not at all, for the Spirit moves wherever he wishes. But such Spirit movement appears to be the exception, not the norm, at locations such as these.
Some might ask: ‘what about the early church? Did they not practice this form of street preaching?’ My answer to that would be, not quite. In Acts, often when you see the apostles/missionaries enter into a new area they go to a strategic preaching center (place of prayer or synagogue). What they did required boldness, but there was also some thought as to where they would give their message. And when they went to a place where acceptance would have been unlikely, a sign usually accompanied the preaching (a healing miracle). Though they went to uncharted territories, they generally did it in a tactical manner or the Spirit moved in a special way that should be seen as the exception, not the norm (Pentecost). In all these instances, street preaching comes with a connection to the audience—whether it be natural to the venue, a sign, or a unique outpouring of the Spirit. The audience, then, has been moved to listen and the way in which the venue is utilized factors into this connection.
Charles H. Spurgeon, who was all for street preaching, agrees with the general principle of this notion. He notes, in his Lectures to My Students, that the preacher should rather start with a few who will listen and let it grow, rather than preach to fifty and have no hearing (276). The connection remains to be an essential element in his view of street preaching. He’d rather preach to a few who would engage him, then to a multitude that ignores him. Wisdom, to Spurgeon, dictates that the preacher must think through how he operates in a specific venue for the Gospel. For instance, in the example of the DMV, maybe a personal approach should be utilized because it fits the context of the DMV better than a rhetorical appeal. In following the advice of Spurgeon, then, the preacher may want to start with personal evangelism and let the personal encounter grow to fifty, rather than forcing the audience to listen. Or, if you enter a poor area, maybe the practicing of social justice should come before a visible Gospel appeal. In these ways, the form of Gospel witness adjusts itself to the venue.
Ultimately, street preaching of the modern era most often does not utilize the venue to gain an audience, but rather loses one as a result. And a scene then arises that resembles the type of situation the command to not throw pearls to swine is transgressed (Mt. 7:6). But in such instances, it can appear that it is the speaker who leads them to a swine-like attitude, not the message itself. Thus, the danger with modern street preaching is that the messenger can appear to be the swine-like one. Next week’s post will go on to develop why I think this is often so.