In Defense of Street Preaching


by John Ellis

Standing on a milk crate in the middle of the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, the street preacher yelled at the small yet growing crowd. Curious, my wife and I paused our evening walk, sat on a bench, and watched. The man’s pleas to the crowd to repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus quickly devolved into a shouting match between the crowd and the street preacher.

Much of the angry shouting seemed to center on whether homosexuality is a sin or not. The street preacher asserted that it most decidedly is a sin; the angry crowd asserted that he was a hateful bigot. The shouting continued to escalate, and very little of value or substance was shared. Eventually, the crowd grew bored with poking rhetorical sticks into the worldview bicycle spokes of the street preacher, and they continued down the boardwalk.

As the crowd dispersed, my wife and I noticed that even though the street preacher confessed a Biblical ethic regarding homosexuality, albeit in an unhelpful manner, he didn’t seem to think that leering at the passing women in bikinis violated any of God’s sexual ethics. The jibes from some of the passing women revealed that we weren’t the only ones who noticed the street preacher’s lust and hypocrisy. Saddened by the display of ungracious hypocrisy, my wife and I returned to our hotel.

Admittedly, the above anecdote is a strange way to open an article titled “In Defense of Street Preaching.” However, there is well-known anecdote of a street preacher that is the mirror opposite of the disaster that my wife and I witnessed on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.

After running from God, being swallowed by a really big fish, and then spewed back onto dry ground after repenting of his sin, Jonah preached the uncomfortable truth of God’s word that Nineveh was under God’s wrath and would suffer His judgment. Entering the city, Jonah began his street preaching by shouting, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown (Jonah 3:4).”

Unlike the response from the crowd at Virginia Beach, the crowd at Nineveh repented of their sins. Nowadays, though, many who confess to be evangelicals would look askance if Jonah raised his hand in their small group and shared his experience as a street preacher. Many evangelicals would respond to Jonah the same way my wife and I responded to the street preacher on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk – with disapproval and disdain.

Before offering a defense of street preaching, however, some buzz word/phrases clutter and the ensuing confusion needs to be swept away. Starkly put, living the gospel is not the same thing as obeying the Great Commission.

The Great Commission is what Christians call the command that King Jesus gave his followers to preach the gospel. In his short book The Gospel & Personal Evangelism, Mark Dever gives as excellent a summary of the gospel as I’ve heard/read: “The good news is that the one and the only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.”[1]

Preaching the gospel requires words. By all means, Christians should live their life in a manner that reflects their joy in their salvation, their freedom from the bondage of sin, and their desire to obey their King. But, once again, preaching the Gospel requires the use of words, the use of propositional statements. If a sinner doesn’t repent of his sins and trust in Christ, that sinner will not receive new life. The Apostle Paul explains, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching (Romans 10:14)?”

Living the gospel does not fall under either Jesus’ or the Apostle Paul’s rubric for preaching the gospel. Unfortunately, many evangelicals have convinced themselves that disobedience is actually obedience because they are “living the gospel.”

Another buzzword/phrase is “building gospel relationships.” In some ways, this is more insidious that “living the gospel.” Those who profess to be “building gospel relationships” are often fooling themselves into believing that they will eventually speak the gospel. I’ve heard several prayer requests for the Holy Spirit to provide an opportunity to share the gospel with a friend that he or she is building a gospel relationship with. The answer to that prayer request is that the Holy Spirit has already provided that Christian an opportunity to share the gospel, they just haven’t obeyed.

In contrast, however, brothers and sisters in Christ who stand in faith and speak to sinners the gospel message of Christ crucified are obeying the command of King Jesus to preach his gospel. The nervous office worker who falters and fumbles as she tells her skeptical and smirking co-workers about how Jesus lived the perfect life they can’t, died for the punishment of the sins of those who place their faith in him, and then rose from the dead three days later is glorifying God and obeying her King. Likewise, the brother in Christ who boldly stands on a street corner and confronts pedestrians with the Word of God is in a much better position to claim obedience to King Jesus than the Christian who shirks his or her responsibility by hiding behind buzzwords/phrases like “living the gospel” or “I’m building a gospel relationship, pray for the Holy Spirit to provide an opportunity to speak the gospel.”

Sadly, though, I realize that much of what’s tagged “street preaching” today has far more in common with my opening anecdote than it does with Jonah. But, if we haven’t opened our mouth and spoken the gospel to the sinners that the Holy Spirit has placed in our life, we have very little call to criticize street preachers. In fact, more of us should take our cues from street preachers and pray for the grace to be bold in our gospel witness. We then need to speak the gospel to the sinner sitting in the cubicle beside ours or to the unbelieving neighbor whose name we have trouble remembering. In fact, we should be willing to preach the gospel to the stranger standing next to us on the street corner.

The final earthly command that King Jesus gave his followers was to preach the gospel, verbally preach the gospel. Instead of criticizing the culturally odd methods which other Christians use to preach the gospel, many of us should be repenting of our sin of failing to obey Jesus. And then we should get up off our knees and preach the gospel to the sinners that the Holy Spirit has placed in our life.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 43.


3 thoughts on “In Defense of Street Preaching

  1. Well stated, John. I enjoyed this post a great deal. You were right about Mark Dever: That IS one of the most concise and pointed (true) Gospel messages I have ever read. I loved how you used Jonah as an example of a “street preacher.” What a reluctant evangelist he was. First, he ran in the opposite direction of Nineveh, and, then, when he actually got spit out onto dry land, he had a horrible attitude about his evangelism. BUT GOD still worked through his message! I’m not sure street preaching will ever be very effective anymore — nor, unfortunately, crusades like Billy Graham’s stadium events. This week, Mark M., Martha B., a school dad, 30 students from Southside Christian, and I attended Ken Ham’s seminar at Bob Jones University, and I believe Mr. Ham is exactly right: We’re too frequently preaching an Acts 2 Gospel to an Acts 17 audience today. In Acts 2, Peter preached to an audience of Jews, who understood the Old Testament and God. Many of them also, certainly, were contemporaries of Jesus. Three thousand were saved after a single example of street preaching! Amazing! In Acts 17, Paul knew that he could not start with Jesus when preaching to the Greeks, so he met them on their own ground, with the interesting philosophical ideas of their times; some dismissed him; others wanted to hear more; and some actually believed! Remarkable. Ken Ham’s point is that we don’t live in America of the 1950s anymore, when people did know the Bible stories, and evangelists could be effective in street preaching and rallies. Today, our American population is (largely) biblically illiterate, so we need to approach them as “Greeks,” not “Jews.” To conclude my comments on your post, I’ll never forget two scenarios in my life: (1) My family was with my Mom and Dad on a family vacation to the Wisconsin Dells, when we encountered a street preacher, who was using a very angry “turn-or-burn” style, and my folks, who were not followers of Jesus Christ, were horribly disturbed by his presentation, certainly NOT turning to the Lord as a result of that preaching; and (2) during my second trip to a dangerous Middle Eastern country, for the purpose of planting an underground church in that country, one of the evangelists who was living on-the-ground at the time, said, “It’s not enough to ‘live’ the Gospel in front of these Muslim people; you must ‘speak’ the Gospel during your spiritual conversations with them.” Wise words from a 20-something young man. Sorry about the length of my post, but your writing always stimulates some response from me, which is probably the best compliment I could pay to you. I regret you couldn’t join us at SCS in February, but I hope things work out for March. Keep up your great Kingdom work as a writer!

    Liked by 2 people

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