Definite Directions for Open Air Preaching
Gawin Kirkham (The Open-Air Preacher’s Handbook, written by Gawin Kirkham 1890)
We are told that “open-air preaching can be learned only by doing it.” No doubt that is mostly correct, just as the art of swimming can be learned only in the water. But as the swimmer can learn more readily by a few plain directions, so the street preacher acquires his art more easily when aided by the experience of others. It is hoped, therefore, that the following hints will be found useful to those who desire to “purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13).
A Leader Is Essential
Someone should take charge of the meetings and choose the place, the hymns,and the speakers. It is not necessary that he should be a practiced speaker or a good singer, but he should be able to arrange and control. It is desirable also to have a leader of the singing, so that the preachers do not strain their voices in attempting high notes. “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
The Choice of a Place
In villages, a preaching station is more easily chosen than in towns. The village street or the village green may be occupied, or a farmer will lend a field. But “field-preaching” is not so popular now as it was in the days of Wesley and Whitefield. As a rule, it is desirable to be so near the houses that those who do not care to come out may yet hear inside. But in towns, it is not desirable to select the busiest thoroughfares, unless it is on Sunday when there is less traffic. A side street just off the main street is best. Large open spaces are not suitable, unless the helpers are numerous and the singing attractive. A passage should always be kept clear on the sidewalk so that pedestrians do not need to go into the middle of the street. “Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification” (Romans 15:2).
The Order of Service
If the preacher is alone, like Jonah in Nineveh, he may begin by reading a chapter from his Bible, choosing a familiar and striking portion for this purpose. Or he may talk confidentially to two or three children until the curiosity of the grown-ups is awakened and they gather round. Or he may hand a few tracts to the strollers and idlers, encouraging them to come and hear.
But if he has helpers, they had better sing first. Then a brief lesson may be read and a brief prayer offered. But if the people are not likely to stay for reading and prayer, speaking may begin after the first hymn. The addresses, as a rule, should be brief—say, ten minutes or a quarter of an hour—with singing between, and the meeting limited to an hour. But the wise leader will not confine himself to any definite order, as one of the charms of an open-air meeting is its freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
The curb is a sufficient elevation when speaking to a handful of people, but it is an immense advantage to stand on a stool, chair, or raised platform when speaking to an ordinary street crowd. The speaker can thus spare his voice and be better heard than when he is on the same level as the people. The common sense of street preachers is sadly lacking when they will not thus aid their voices by standing head and shoulders above the people. Besides, this method is a scriptural one, for we read in the account of the great open-air meeting in “the street that was before the water gate” (Nehemiah 8:1, 3) in Jerusalem that “Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose” (v. 4), and thus “opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people)” (v. 5). It is worthy of observation that that is the only place in the Bible where a “pulpit” is mentioned, so that the street preacher is fairly entitled to its use on the best authority. “Jotham…stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried” (Judges 9:7).
The Value of Helpers
One of the most interesting sights to men and angels is a solitary preacher, crying like John the Baptist in the wilderness, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). But it is more to the preacher’s comfort and the good of the work to have a band of helpers. Some can sing, while others can give tracts. They help to gather a crowd, to maintain order among the children, to keep the pavement clear, and to cheer the preacher by their presence and their prayers. In commencing a meeting, instead of standing behind or at the side of the preacher, these helpers should face him, as if to form part of the audience, and encourage others to gather behind them. But, as a rule, they should not interfere with a disturber, as that is better done by the leader; nor should they be allowed to give tracts at the meeting while the service lasts. This latter course sadly distracts the attention of the hearers, though it is a very common proceeding on the part of kind and active helpers. Christians should be encouraged to stand at open-air meetings, even if they cannot sing—ladies especially. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The Art of Attraction
The preacher has first to secure and then to retain his hearers. Since “music has charms,” good singing should be cultivated, and the singers should understand that harmony and sweetness are far more important than mere noise. Ladies render important service in street choirs. Solos, duets, trios, and quartets may occasionally be introduced, but the singing should be in harmony with the preaching and not merely a pretty performance to please the ear. It should be appropriate, lively, abundant, and entirely under the control of the leader of the meeting.
The distribution of hymn sheets is helpful in keeping a crowd together. A picture or diagram with lyrics is good for variety. Reed organs are the most common at open-air services, but a cornet is the most effective for leading the singing. Prettily painted banners are pleasing to the eye, and when they have on them the name of the church or mission from which the workers come, they are useful in directing the people where to worship inside. A duplex lamp placed on a tripod is a great help in meetings after dark, though a street lamp may be made to do duty where a special one cannot be had. But these arts of attraction must be in harmony with the apostle’s rule: “/ am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some”(I Corinthians 9:22).
The Art of Preaching
Whatever means may be used to draw the people together, it will depend largely upon the preacher himself whether they are retained. Cold, formal, measured, precise preaching will not do. Nor will what may be called “a good sermon” indoors necessarily do outside. Life, fire, and energy are essential, just as our powder is essential to carry the shot. There is an indefinable style needed for open-air preaching that can be acquired only by practice. The preacher’s temptation is to rely too much upon impulse and surroundings, and so to neglect his studies. But if he is to be successful he must study; and his studies must include books, and men, and nature. The exhortation of Paul to Timothy is as important for the outdoor preacher as for the regular pastor—“Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee…Meditate upon these things, that thy profiting may appear to all” (1 Timothy 4:13-15).
The Bible in the Street
The preacher’s chief weapon must always be the Word of God, wielded by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet the Bible must be sparingly used in the street. The lesson may be read from it; but in preaching, it is better to quote from it than to be perpetually giving chapter and verse, especially if this involves turning over the leaves to look for them. There is a powerful magnetism in the human eye; and the preacher’s eye should rarely be taken off his hearers if he wishes to retain his hold of them. But the preacher who has the greatest knowledge of the Bible and the ability to quote appropriate texts correctly—other things being equal—will be the most successful. It is a good thing to set young preachers to read the lesson, as it encourages them afterward to speak. Those who would bless and save their fellow creatures must heed the Lord’s commission to Ezekiel: “And thou shall speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear” (Ezekiel 2:7).
But while the Word of God is the preacher’s chief weapon, the human voice is the medium by which that weapon reaches the people. How many books have been written on the art of speaking—and yet how few really effective speakers there are! The voice is soon injured in the open air unless it is used with care. Generally, the young preacher starts in too high a key and in too loud a tone. He forgets the oft-repeated advice “Begin low, speak slow. Aim higher, take fire.”
Aware of this danger, John Wesley said to his preachers, “For the sake of Christ, don’t scream. There is no doubt that the moderate and steady use of the voice outdoors strengthens it and also the chest of the speaker. Yet there are times when— owing to some condition of body, atmosphere, or both—the voice of the most practiced speaker fails. It is then the height of folly to continue using it. It should rest, and only by that process will it be regained. Or if it becomes a little husky by speaking, it may often be recovered by singing, taking care to sing the part that is easiest. Spurgeon has a valuable lecture, entitled “On the Voice,” in the first volume of his Lectures to My Students. If preachers would take the trouble to enunciate their words more distinctly, they would speak with far less labor and with more effect. “Lift up thy voice like a trumpet” (Isaiah 58:1).
The Cultivation of Reverence
It is true that we do not go into the streets to worship, but to proclaim the Gospel; nevertheless, if we are to commend “ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2), there must be reverence in this open-air temple, as much as in a consecrated building. This is best accomplished by realizing the Lord’s presence. “Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). This realized presence prevents the spirit of trifling and levity, which are, alas, far too common at open-air assemblies, on the part of both the preacher and his helpers. It was this realized presence that produced such a marvelous effect at the meeting “in the street that was before the water gate,” as described in Nehemiah 8:6, when the people “bowed their heads, and worshipped the lord with their faces to the ground.”
There is another aid to reverence in the attitude of the preacher. How many preachers fail to mark 1 Corinthians 11:4: “Every man praying or prophesying [i.e., preaching], having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” This is a plain direction, which should be adhered to except in very severe weather, or by those who are liable to take cold easily. A further aid to reverence is the attitude in prayer. Happily it is the custom almost universally for the preacher and his helpers to uncover their heads during prayer, and this act is a sermon in itself. There are so many disturbing elements outdoors that the promoters should do all in their power to produce a becoming solemnity at street meetings. “Let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3).
How to Deal with Interruptions
But with the best arrangements and the wisest proceedings, interruptions will occur. If the police interfere, it is more seemly to give way than to have a dispute by standing on our rights. If a thoroughfare is blocked, the police may interfere by virtue of the authority vested in them; but even if they are wrong, it is better for the preacher to complain to their superiors than to contend with them in the presence of a crowd, since he represents the Gospel of peace. If a homeowner complains, however frivolous the objection, the police are bound to remove the preacher on such complaint being made. He cannot legally be arrested, but he may be summoned before a magistrate for resisting lawful authority. If a drunkard interferes, it is generally useless to argue with him. The police should protect the preacher by removing him; but sometimes a kindhearted helper may persuade him to walk away. If the interruption is by a Catholic or an infidel, it means discussion; and if the preacher begins a discussion, there is an end of the preaching. Men who have studied these questions in all their bearings may discuss them, for truth has nothing to fear from error; but the ordinary preacher shows his wisdom by continuing his preaching and declining discussion. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
The Conclusion of the Whole Matter
(Ecclesiastes 12:13). As the object and end of preaching is the glory of God and the salvation of sinners, the methods that are most likely to bring about this end should be pursued. Prayer, preaching, and perseverance will work wonders by the blessing of God. If one plan fails, another should be tried. Young preachers should not be discouraged, for it may be some time before they can determine the question whether the Lord means them to be open-air preachers or not. They should be urgent in season and out of season, seeking to pluck brands out of the fire. Success is more likely to be attained by connecting the outdoor meeting with an indoor one.