Lessons Learned From Street Preachers
Its 7:30 AM and I had just arrived at the dreaded DMV. I had arrived a half hour early in hopes that my time there would be cut in half as a result. As I took my place in line, everyone around me looked miserable and the scene was so depressing, so dreary, that a street preacher felt it a necessity to begin a 20 minute message about the upcoming judgment and the salvation possible through Jesus Christ.
I’ll admit, when he began to speak, I became extremely annoyed. Something about his presence, his incessant yelling, rubbed me the wrong way. In the midst of these negative emotions, I began to wonder why I felt that way. There was nothing heretical in his message and as far as street preachers go, I’ve seen far more obnoxious than him. A part of me even sympathized with him because of his courage to get up there and preach a message that is a guaranteed crowd dis-pleaser. Still, I hated every minute of his message and the question I had to ask myself is—why does he annoy me so much? After much reflection, I came up with three reasons as to why he did. And through reflecting on what I didn’t like, I re-learned some lessons on what good preaching should do. The reasons/lessons will be unpacked over the next couple posts.
In this post, I will only tackle the first reason and that is the form of his message. Whether this message was preached at the DMV or at a Sunday morning service, it would have found little receptivity. His points may have been right theologically, but in terms of presentation his sermon missed the mark because it didn’t have any convincing power behind it. By that I mean it didn’t connect to or speak to his audience. This can point to a weakness in the form of the message, the presentation and order of it.
Preaching is meant to sway the listener to action (cf. Teaching Christianity by Augustine) and it is never meant to be the mere impartation of information. For if it doesn’t engage the listener, it can’t sway him. This sort of thinking shows that the form of a message matters—theological accuracy is not enough. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Preachers and Preaching, stresses this point in saying that he’d prefer to put aside a great message given to him by God for a season if the form of the message is unsatisfactory (212). It is only when he feels good about the presentation of his message, that he has done it justice, will he deliver it. Why is this? Because he recognizes that he must do justice to God’s word in presenting it in a powerful way to his audience.
Furthermore, preaching must always be regarded as a dialogue between speaker and audience—there is a connection that needs to be established and fostered in good preaching. Thus, a good preacher prepares his presentation with a specific audience in mind so that he might reach them. The Epistles do the same thing, the author (ex. Paul) writes to a specific audience (ex. Corinthian Church) in order to teach them. That author spent time writing it to that audience in order to win them over—they were clearly in mind. Another way of saying this is that a good message speaks to the audience, not at it. That distinction is essential. Good preaching is never impersonal, it takes into the greatest consideration what a person’s life is like and how their deep needs may be revealed. The preacher must take into consideration how the audience thinks, what issues they deal with, how long they can handle teaching before zoning out, etc. That is what it is to preach to someone. To preach at someone is to impart information with little consideration as to what a person may need to hear or to what would be attractive to them (attractive in terms of its ability to convince, not flatter ears). That would be a monologue prepared in isolation from the intended audience (and most likely in isolation from the Spirit). Thus, form is needed, but the form must be developed with eyes towards the intended audience.
The truth about most street preaching is that it lacks form and a substantive connection to audience. The preacher may be able to yell, thus gaining their attention, but he fails to pierce the heart. The message needs to be heard, street preachers are right in emphasizing this. But this message must be given with an eye to who it is being given to and how it is being given. The Gospel is not something to simply be thrown out. But rather it is to be handled as the treasure that it is—the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16). The implication of that truth is, the preacher must seek to give it in a way that treats it as such.
It can be compared to when you give a special gift to a significant other. You don’t just hand it nonchalantly to the person and say, “take it.” Rather, there is thought behind the manner in which the gift is given and the medium (ex. gift wrapping) through which it is given so that the whole thing is executed with deliberate love and care. The desire in this thoughtful preparation is that the person will receive it with joy and excitement. Note that the gift is given with that specific person in mind, not just anyone. In preaching, we must attempt to do the same thing. This is not to say that you can’t preach to an unknown audience for we must give room for the Spirit to inspire, to lead, and to convict where he chooses. Ultimately, it is his message that must shine forward. But let us not make that an excuse for not seeking to know who we are preaching to and thinking through how our message might find reception. This is serious because preaching is serious. Let us then learn from the mistake of many street preachers in this way.