Engaging Culture

Does Street Preaching Still Work?

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?

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28 Comments

  1. I think we have many fresh new opportunities online to effectively engage our culture. I do know most Christians do not spend time on evangelism and will never have the joy of leading someone to The Lord. Some may read your post and simply condemn the guy (I myself have never understood the megaphone men 🙂 the question are doing something better? Are you doing something? Penn (of Penn and Teller) an avowed atheist, said if you really believe this stuff, eternal life at stake, how much do have to hate not to tell them?

  2. It’s not so much about the method today but the message being delivered. The digital age has ushered in a society that is more on the pulse of what is happening all over the world. Your message must be clear, concise, and resonate with those you seek to reach. To blindly preach at a group of people without some focus, not only is not effective, but actually can push people away from what you hope to accomplish.

    There is nothing wrong with Street Preaching, but to just go out there and read or not understand your audience will be tantamount to preaching in the dark. Our society is too engaged for that type of preaching to be successful.

  3. Street preaching still works. I know Jacob Bock and his ministry and know it realy works. There are lots of opportunities reaching people with other things but together all these methods filling its place. With treet preaching you reach people you would never reach…

  4. Street preaching could possibly be compared to any form of communication effort and evaluated with a few simple questions:

    – Is this the right audience for this message?
    – Is this the right time?
    – Is this the right place?
    – Am I delivering it in a way they would want to listen and can understand its meaning?

    I imagine some may argue the answer is yes to the first three for street preaching. However, if we fall short on the last question, people aren’t engaged & the message will fall on deaf ears.

  5. I don’t think social media is solely to blame here but also (more so maybe) advertisement. People on the street trying to give you anything is usually an annoyance and usually uncomfortable. It’s like in large stores or malls that have small sellers or food stands in the isles. All you want to do is walk from A-B but WAIT, “Try our new fragrance! Try our best smoothie! Please I need money! Hey you need Jesus! You need new cell service! You need hair extensions for 5 dollar two pairs!!!” See how Jesus got lost in there? I put my blinders on more than I should but if I stopped for every person in my way I’d get nowhere.

  6. I think lots of us try to do on-line ministry like many of these street preachers that you observed in LA. Just because we “preach” on-line, does not make it interesting or attractive to an audience. So the same principles that make a street preacher effective will make an on-line preacher effective. Conversely, we can get the methods all wrong on-line too, and be pretty ineffective… To me, it has everything to do with the message and the presentation of that message.

  7. I just saw a massive Street preaching campaign this past Saturday at the LA Coliseum. I was walking past the USC campus and across the street toward the Coliseum to the USC/Utah football game, when I saw a huge banner reading JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY. Below it a man was preaching scripture, no, yelling scripture, to the 50,000 people who were shuffling past. Then a ways down was another large banner, manned by a quieter man who was passing out traks. Then 1/2 a block down was a third huge banner, held by another “street evangelist.” My thought was, “different strokes for different folks,” but I had to admit, as a Christian, I was a little embarrassed. Then I caught myself and remembered that I’ve read and listened to thousands of stories of how people came to faith, and many of them were by people yelling at them, telling them they would go to hell, etc. And yet, even with a poorly presented message, the truth got through. So, I decided that I should just focus on how my walk with Jesus is and question my own effectiveness, and let everyone else figure out their way. I sure wouldn’t want to be a mountain climber, but I know someone who is, and as crazy as I think he is, he does lead others to become mountain climbers. Am I leading anyone to Jesus????……

  8. There is a new approach to reaching people or rather finding your audience “people who are willing to engage… not all people desire to be “come-after”d with the story of how we all are sinners…

    People no longer need random pronouncements to their unidentified errors, they do not want to be told what to do… rather they would be comfortable initiating a search for solution to some of their specified problems (most cases social, economic or marital,. The moment you are identified with a solution, once you are let in through that door, who says you cannot bring the gospel along? You find it easier to spread the word. People do not want to be preached AT, but be spoken WITH!

    We are a sea of people who do and will always have needs! Knowing how to organize and prioritize our needs is in itself another more prominent need and if in helping others with their needs you lead them to the Way, then you are the best street preacher.

    Did I say its a new approach? If you believed that then you haven read the story of the cute lady Jesus had a Chat with at the well-side social platform. We can pay attention to anyone who says the things we like to hear, but we more likely to change at the request of someone who must have listened to us! Yes confrontation may induce fear towards repentance but conversation induces a steady growth inspired by love 🙂

  9. Street Preaching still works…”IF” the Holy Spirit is the one truly leading, and not man in their own strength. HE calls the un-qualified and qualifies them. Most of, if not all, the men HE used to accomplish HIS plans, in Bible accounts, were NOT, in the world’s eyes so called, primped and qualified. They were simply servants with a heart sold out for their God, who were willing and available before HIM. God did the work through them. They, like we, were just willing and available vessels. If God can use a donkey (in Matthews Gospel), HE can use anyone, anywhere, any time. No matter what, God’s word never comes back void. It is the working of The Holy Spirit, that convicts and converts the sinner’s heart. So, it depends nothing, of our own efforts and strategy. – Much love.

  10. My own first instinct is to assume it’s some nut job or slobbering fanatic (and given what I’ve seen being done in the name of “street preaching,” those terms definitely apply to some of them).

    But then I think of my own efforts and I’m reminded of this story: “I’m sure that what I’m doing isn’t perfect,” replied Billy Graham to an Anglican leader who criticized him. “But I like the evangelism that I’m doing better than the evangelism that you’re not doing.”

  11. From my experience I would say that street preaching is more effective when done on a one-on-one basis with strangers rather than the method that the gentleman you encountered choose to engage in. It’s hard enough to get people to notice you in a world where everyone is moving so fast and is too busy to stop and listen to what you have to say – even if our message if of utmost importance. Methods are important and like you said, their hearts may be in the right place but most street preachers just don’t understand how it really works. Keep up the good work Phil!

  12. One in particular that stands out….and won’t forget. We went to a Braves game and there were 5-6 of them yelling to the top of their lungs as all of us went in to watch the game…..it was sooo quiet from those of us going in. People were walking fast and heads were down. The Holy Spirit is a gentleman and will not force himself on anyone; however the opposite was happening that day. I was ashamed. But you can’t talk to folk like that….the more you try to talk to them, they see it as antagonizing and the more they like it. Lack of training or wrong training combined with fervour isn’t a good combination.

  13. Great post Phil, I think in today’s world the debate ‘marketplace’ has shifted offline to online.

    Offline we don’t mind being stopped IF it engages us, but we do mind if it feels awkward and not socially placed.

    If you are going to preach on the streets then you have to be socially placed in that street space with the message articulated in a way that resonates with the audience you are speaking to. A great example is busking. Some work, some don’t. You see crowds around ones that really resonate. A crowd draws a crowd.

    Because we live in a high presentation saturated world we filter out as noise the oral spoken word. Unless it is spoken exceptionally well.

    Like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY

  14. My friends have seen great success doing this in Berlin of all places. In years past, I have preached on the streets in Caracas and in several African towns and villages with measurable effectiveness. But I agree that suitable venues/atmospheres here in the US are rare.

  15. I always had a great responce in Romania- going from village to village- always drawing a crowd to listen. The best results were in the gypsy villages they will come out in the droves to listen.

  16. According to the First Amendment, in the United States we have the right to free speech. But, just because someone has the right to say anything
    does not mean he has the intelligence or compassion to say the right thing. The “right to speak” does not mean others have an obligation to listen. As a church, we must earn “the right to be heard.”

    John said, “Love one another” and “You shall be known by your fruits.” Preachers with megaphones say they are being loving by warning people they are headed to hell, but even if one’s words are loving, its tough to be perceived as loving when one is shouting at full volume.

  17. I stumbled upon a viable train ministry where I could engage with fellow passengers one on one and share my faith and pray for them resulting in answered prayers and conversions if one is led by the Holy Spirit. One has to be somewhat forward, amiable, unthreatening and non-dogmatic.

  18. I actively engage in street evangelism. But I don’t stand on any soapbox.

    I talk to people. Make conversation. If they don’t want anything then I move on (sometimes it’s benificial to not even hand off a tract). I ask questions. I listen. I share the whole story of what Jesus did for us. I explain why I’m grateful and why I’m out here doing this.

    I see on average 60% of people respond to the gospel this way and accept Christ. I’ve seen many miracle testimonies over the years too.

    1. And by the way, this 60% rate holds true whether I’m in Mexico where people are much more open to conversation about God and recognize their desparate need, or whether I’m in Austin TX where everyone is intellectual and has everything they need.

  19. I see a lot of people saying “its not the right place” and “not the right time” or “people are not interested, they are busy” I think that’s the reason why God loves open air preaching and chosen it as the main means of preaching the Gospel in all of Christian history. It’s mans wrong place, the wrong message for the wrong time, people are too busy and so on. Maybe God uses it because we cant say our efforts in structuring a set message, to the right audience and the right time resulted in a conversion of a man. Just thoughts.

  20. God can use any method or approach to reach folks who don’t know Jesus, including street preaching. However, street preaching comes from a tradition of walking someone through a linear set of beliefs and progressing to a conversion “formula” (belief + repentance + sinner’s prayer = “saved”) that is a reflection of the print culture that dominated our culture for the past few hundred years. In that culture we classified things and put them in straight categories. The goal is to move someone from “unsaved” to “saved” or “non-Christian” to “Christian”. The problem is that we aren’t in a print culture anymore, we’re in a visual image culture, and those old categories are blurred. In our old print culture mindset, Whitefield and Booth could preach to audiences for hours, very effectively, because of how people processed information at that time. Very rarely now in our image culture do you see someone presented with “truth” in 10 minutes and change their entire life right then (or if they do, it’s because there has been a conversation or relationship moving them in that directions for some time prior to hearing a message). We just can’t put/move people in those categories effectively without pushback. Information is processed in a much more fluid way now that generally takes weeks, months, or years to see someone arrive at an entirely new place spiritually.

  21. I think it depends on what is being said. I get the impression that for some street preachers, they don’t care if they’re being heard or not, they’re doing it to perhaps gain heavenly brownie points for their ‘obedience’. The more people mock them, the bigger the ‘reward’.
    But street preaching done in a relevant way still has its place – I know some guys with the Christian bikers who get out there with their harleys and stand up and share how God changed their lives. People always stop to listen. Likewise, some friends take their church out to a park’s bandstand in the Summer – they hold their regular service with worship, a short preach and testimony (followed by a BBQ). There’s always a decent crowd.

    1. Love what you’re saying here. It’s more than thinking you’re doing the “ministry” thing. It’s thinking it through so you maximize your outreach. The Apostle Paul was very strategic in his ministry. We could learn from that….

  22. For over 30 years I have preached ‘in’ the streets- marketplace. Sharing very simply John 3:16. The Gospel. Good News! Jesus death burial resurrection. Positive has always outweighed the negative. Marcus Gras to Rock Concerts. And weekly in a strategic areas of my Jerusalem. SOS Sowers of Seed. Laborers are few but really have never needed an army. Luke 14:21-23

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