Last month I had the privilege of hearing Alistair Begg preach at the North Syracuse Baptist Church. He brought an excellent message on Romans 1:16-17, a very thorough and able message on the gospel. At the end there was a Q&A and most of the questions had to do with evangelism: how to do it and why there is such a weakness in this particular area in the church in spite of the glorious truth of Romans 1:16-17. Frankly, it was surprising since serious questions about evangelism in a venue like this are about as common as serious questions about one's favorite police officer or judge on death row. A speaker of Mr. Begg's caliber usually draws deep theological questions. This line of questioning is intellectually stimulating but very comfortable since it doesn't require much of anyone.
One of the questions came from a friend of mine named Robert Gray. Robert is retired from the US Air Force (Major). He has guarded presidents of the United States and nuclear weapons in his role in the USAF's version of the Military Police. He has been touring the USA and the world since then preaching the gospel in the open-air. Robert is theologically sound, a voracious student of the Word of God, and a man of prayer. He is the real deal.
His question was, "Considering the heritage of open-air preaching in church history, why don't we see more of it?" It's an excellent question, especially considering the fact that Begg is a native of Scotland where there have been some fantastic open-air preachers, such as Robert Flockhart and some of the Covenanters (e.g. Alexander Peden). Begg's answer was a mixed bag. He rambled a bit, explaining that in the 1970's he used to open-air preach in Edinburgh with Campus Crusade. However, he said that: 1) he didn't know of anyone who open-air preaches and 2) he doesn't know anywhere it would be effective. He suggested that there are better means today, such as Twitter and Facebook. He did admit that the "point is well taken." It was a confusing answer to a straightforward question which did nothing but make a lot of comfortable Christians feel more comfortable.
Ironically, Robert and a team of 20-something open-air preachers just returned from Scotland this week where they preached in the city of Begg's birth (Glasgow), Sterling, and Edinburgh. The reports from this trip are nothing short of amazing. Steady, consistent crowds gathered on the streets in the central business districts everywhere the men went. Around 15 people professed faith in Christ and they were referred to solid local churches.
Check out this video from Glasgow just last week. Note that it seems to be working.
2012 Thunder Over Scotland Tour from Shane Sands on Vimeo.
The Seminary Answer
So what's the deal with Alistair Begg? How does such an intelligent, gifted man know virtually nothing of open-air preaching in the 21st century?
I told Robert later that Begg gave the seminary answer to the question.
In seminary, evangelism is either relegated to trendy, cool methodologies (right now the "missional" term is the thing) or to old stand-bys such as Campus Crusade's four spiritual laws or some convoluted mish-mash of methodologies meant to take the best from all and scrap the objectionable. In other words, seminary training on evangelism isn't much better than what you can get in an average Sunday School class in a local church. Or it might be far worse. Someone who has taken the Basic Training Course from Way of the Master has a far more coherent and Biblical method of sharing the gospel than what is offered in most seminaries.
Robert and others like him have a crazy idea. Remember the whole KISS acronym? Keep It Simple, Stupid. We have a Bible, there are people on the street, and in a postmodern society that rejects absolutes and meaning, preach the gospel and watch people interact with it real-time. After all, Jesus and the apostles seemed to think it worked as did many major figures throughout church history (Spurgeon, Whitefield, Wesley, Flockhart, Peden, Moody, etc.).
Abuses Do Not Disqualify the Methodology
So why don't men of the stature of Begg acknowledge or support the Biblical nature and call of open-air preaching? I suspect the abuses have a lot to do with it. James White agreed to accept an invitation to speak at an open-air preacher's conference in 2010 after much soul searching because of the antics of some misguided Pelagians in a venue where White used to go to witness. Their lack of local church affiliation, a common issue in street preaching circles, was also a concern for White. I am glad he agreed to come anyway because we all were greatly blessed by his message on Isaiah 6. Discarding open-air preaching because of the bad theology of some in the camp would be like discarding pulpit preaching because there are preachers like Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard.
I think the church as a whole would be greatly blessed if men of the stature of Begg, White, John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney and many others would take to the public square and preach the gospel. I know these men are busier than I have ever thought of being, but arranging to have some of them preach in a free speech zone on a college campus would be a great encouragement to the entire church to do evangelism. We would all probably learn something in the process.
Here is my open-air preaching dream team.
I hope no one misunderstands me. All of these men have made valuable contributions to the Body of Christ. We are all stronger for their work. But one area that has been weak within the Body in recent years is evangelism. Watching James White handle a heckler at a secular university or seeing Mahaney preach the cross in a similar environment would go a long ways toward motivating the Body to do the same. We would also have excellent examples of open-air preaching to emulate. It's a pipe dream, I know, but we can all dream.
Someone with a whole lot more money than I have could put something like this together. Maybe they could call it Together for the Gospel. That sounds strangely familiar--might already be taken. Kinda catchy though.