This weekend, my wife Kathleen and I went to a movie here in Los Angeles, and outside the theater was a street preacher from a local church. He wasn’t very compelling, so I stood there and watched the response from people coming and going from the theater. Needless to say, I didn’t see any converts. Which led me to the question, “Does street preaching work anymore?” Christianity has a long history of street preaching. Considering it has been a key strategy by many leaders, perhaps we need to give it some credibility.
Noah may have started it all, and it certainly worked for Jonah. George Whitefield (1714-1770) preached in the open air to coal miners in Bristol, England. Even William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army turned to the streets, and founded a global ministry in the process.
But in those days people were used to engaging with a multitude of opinions out in the open. In a world without Facebook and Twitter, it was common to exchange robust arguments in the public square. My friend Joe Noland used to do it in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Franscisco in the 60’s. And fortunately, there are still a few places where this happens – the Hyde Park speaker’s corner in London (and others around the city as well) come to mind. Also, there’s a fantastic ministry outreach in Madrid called On The Red Box. Working from Puerta Del Sol, one of the most popular plazas in the city, Jacob Bock and his team have trained hundreds of street preachers around the world.
From my perspective, street preaching is still alive, but it’s not so effective today. The On The Red Box stories are rare – mostly because the vast majority of street preachers mean well, but don’t understand how it really works. Since July, three street preachers have been arrested in the United Kingdom, so there’s certainly concern about the freedom of expression in many cities. (Who would have thought?)
But even more important is the location. Not every street corner is a place where people will stop, listen, and think about what you’re staying. Watching outside the movie theater in LA this week, those passers by were more interested in seeing a movie than discussing Jesus. So that was a failure from the start. But Jacob Bock in Madrid, knows where to set up and how to engage the audience in a compelling way. He was a born street preacher.
So what about other places? Where are the places in your city with cafes, universities, city plazas, or other locations where people sit, talk, and discuss ideas?
In the digital age, I’m more inclined to take traditional street preaching to the Internet and engage with people via social media. But if classic street preaching is your thing, then my suggestion is that location, and your ability to engage with strangers is just as important as your message.
Because without an audience that’s interested in engaging at some level, you’re only confirming to them that Christians are probably just crazy.
I’d love to know your experiences with street preaching. In a digital age, does it still work?