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How Should
Christians
Think About
Street
Preaching
in Light of the
Book of Acts?
And Other Considerations on
Public Evangelism Today

A Missional Resource of
Church in the Boro
Rob Wilkerson
May 26, 2010
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I received an email from a friend extolling


some precious brothers in Christ who were
attempting to preach the Word of God to
Muslims at a local mosque in Louisville, KY
last week. One of them is a personal
friend of mine.

After watching the video, reading the


story, listening to the news reports, I was
compelled within to briefly scan through
Acts once more to work our current
evangelism practices through the grid of
the first century church and their
practices. This is all part of the ongoing
search in my heart and brain for answers
to the important question of when
narrative becomes normative, when
descriptive becomes prescriptive.

In my brief reading, I was surprised to not


find evidence or stories of the kind of
evangelism portrayed in the video. As it turns out, it appears that when we come across
someone preaching the gospel that they did so by invitation or request, or out of some
necessity caused by the Spirit's miraculous or providential movement. Regardless of why, their
methods of public evangelism seem always to be relational and normal. I’ll address that at the
end of this article, but I’ll begin by building the case for this general conclusion based on the
passages that jumped out at me during my brief scan. I’ll make my observations chapter by
chapter as the incidents appeared in the history of the first century church in the book of Acts.

The Biblical History of Public Evangelism

In Acts 2, Peter preached his sermon out of a necessity caused by the Spirit's miraculous or
providential movement. The commotion occurring as a result of the Holy Spirit's baptism
created confusion among many which needed to be addressed. So Peter stood up in verse 14
and began addressing the people.

In Acts 3, Peter's second sermon was preached out of another necessity of the Spirit's
momentary movement. A man was healed, and in verse 10, "they were filled with
astonishment and amazement at what had happened to him." And "While the man was
hanging on to Peter and John, all the people completely astonished, ran together to them in the
covered walkway called Solomon's Portico. When Peter saw this, he declared to the people..."
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So Peter preached out of a necessity created by the Spirit's miraculous movement. This, of
course, led to their arrest in 4:1.

In Acts 4, Peter's sermon before the high priests family came as an answer to the high
priest's question. "By what power or by what name did you do this?" (v. 7). "Then Peter, filled
with the Holy Spirit, replied,..." (v. 8). So this sermon came by request.

In Acts 6-7, Stephen's sermon came as a result of the high priest and sanhedrin's council's
questioning. "Then the high priest said, 'Are these things true?' So he replied..." (7:1,2). The
sermon was an answer to a question, which sort of makes the sermon a request. It was a
defense that was asked for. The result was that he was murdered.

In Acts 8, Philip's sermon to the Ethopian Eunuch asked a question. "Then the eunuch said to
Philip, 'Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about - himself or someone else?'" (8:34).
So Philip preached by request, which was, of course, created by a another miraculous
movement of the Spirit.

In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit did it again, via another miracle, which sent Peter to Cornelius.
Then we read, "The following day...Cornelius was waiting anxiously for them and had called
together his relatives and close friends" (10:24). So Cornelius asked Peter to come and preach.
It was a request, again created by the Spirit's momentary movement.

In Acts 13, we have our first look at the normal-relational method of Paul’s evangelism. Paul
and Barnabas began their ministry by proclaiming "the word of God in the Jewish synagogues."
This was a social context appropriate for proclaiming the word because it was an atmosphere
where various persons were free to share and speak from the Word.

So there's an atmosphere for request and openness to sharing and preaching. This is just what
we find in verse 15. "After reading from the law and the prophets, the leaders of the synagogue
sent them a message, saying, 'Brothers, if you have any message of exhortation for the people,
speak it.' So Paul stood up, gestured with his hand and said..."

In Acts 14, "The same thing happened in Iconium when Paul and Barnabas went into the
Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a large group of Jews and Greeks believed. But
the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the
brothers. So stayed there for a considerable time, speaking courageously for the Lord..." (vv. 1-
3).

It would be a mistake to read “speaking courageously for the Lord” out of the context of the
group which it’s a part of. This wasn’t street preaching. It was requested preaching in a small
to medium-sized group.
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In Acts 14 again, there’s another story about Paul and Barnabas preaching. A man was
healed (v.8), and “the man leaped up and began walking” (v. 10). “So when the crowds saw
what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us
in human form!’…But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard about it they tore their
clothes and rushed out into the crowd shouting…” (vv. 11, 14).

They then preached the gospel to these pagan worshipers, but it was out of a necessity created
by the Spirit’s miraculous movement, which in turn created a necessity to correct idolatry and
pagan worship.

In Acts 17 we have yet another example of Paul’s


pattern for public evangelism. “After they had traveled
through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to
Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.
Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he
customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he
addressed them from the scriptures, explaining and
demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise
from the dead, saying…” (vv. 1-3).

So once again, there’s this very normal and relational


social context or atmosphere for publicly preaching the gospel and they took advantage of it.
This context created a request to hear more. They seized an opportunity to preach in a place
where there would normally and naturally be a gathering of people discussing religious things,
and more specifically, biblical things.

The result was that “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a
large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. But the Jews became
jealous…” (vv. 4, 5). The results seem to clearly reveal the relational nature of the evangelism.

In Acts 17 the story continues to unfold as we read that, “The brothers sent Paul and Silas
off to Berea at once, during the night. When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue”
(v. 10). No doubt some will remember that Paul’s practice was to take the gospel “to the Jew
first, then also to the Greek” as he is famous for writing several times.

However, my purpose in observing his practice here is not to in anyway denigrate or negate the
purpose for his evangelism, but simply to point out the method. His purpose was to take Jesus
to the Jews first. So his method quite naturally followed from that. He didn’t stand outside the
synagogue and preach to them. He went inside, participated in their worship (since they were
in fact worshiping the same God), and used the social context as an normal opportunity to
evangelize people relationally.

This relational aspect is what seems to have given way to further requests to come back and
keep preaching. This is a reasonable conclusion in light of the results. “These Jews were more
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open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the
scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. Therefore many of them believed,
along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men” (vv. 11, 12).

Acts 17 is filled with great examples for our observation, because there’s a third one in this
chapter. It’s the famous story of Paul and the Aeropagus at Mars Hill. Much like his approach
to public evangelism with Jews, Paul was invited to a place where religious discussion was
normally taking place at Mars Hill at a place called the Aeropagus.

But this famous sermon didn’t happen “out of the blue.” Rather, it occurred as a result of this
normal-relational public evangelism Paul was already accustomed to practicing. “While Paul
was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of
idols. So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the
marketplace everyday those who happened to be there. Also some of the Epicurean and Stoic
philosophers were conversing with him, and some were asking, ‘What does this foolish babbler
want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods’” (vv. 16-18).

Public evangelism then was taking place normally (in places where it was normal to speak about
religious things), as well as relationally (with people one-on-one as well as in smaller groups).

And look what it naturally led to. “So they took Paul and brought him to the Aeropagus, saying,
‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some
new and surprising things to our ears. So we want to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians
and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or
listening to something new.) So Paul stood before the Aeropagus and said…” (vv. 19-22).
Normal-relational public evangelism naturally led to an additional request to continue public
evangelism.

In Acts 18 we see the practice of normal-relational public evangelism continue. “After this
Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth…He addressed both Jews and Greeks in the
synagogue every Sabbath, attempting to persuade them. Now when Silas and Timothy arrived
from Macedonia, Paul became wholly absorbed with proclaiming the word, testifying to the
Jews that Jesus was the Christ. When they opposed him and reviled him, he protested by
shaking out his clothes, and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless!
From now on I will go to the Gentiles!’” (vv. 5, 6).

Many times, public evangelism such as street preaching normally produces angry people who
hate what they hear. Their response is usually justified in the minds of the street preachers as
the normal hatred of the gospel. However, notice two differences here.

First, the hatred was coming from those involved in a normal-relational social context for public
evangelism, not from those near abnormal places for preaching the gospel.

Second, when the hatred turned to opposition and reviling, Paul didn’t keep on preaching.
Instead, he quit and went elsewhere.
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And it’s interesting to note where Paul went. “Then Paul left the synagogue and went to the
house of a person named Titius Justus, a Gentile who worshiped God, whose house was next
door to the synagogue” (v. 7). Paul simply continued with his customary normal-relational
approach to evangelism by walking next door to someone he’d probably met at the synagogue
and sharing the gospel with him.

What happened as a result of this practice? “Crispus, the president of the synagogue, believed
in the Lord together with his entire household, and many of the Corinthians who heard about it
believed and were baptized” (v. 8).

In Acts 19, we delve a little deeper into Paul’s public evangelism “methods”, if that’s even
appropriate to refer to it that way. So I’ll spend more time than usual on this passage. Here we
read that Paul came to Ephesus, initiated the disciples there into the baptism of the Spirit, and
then, “entered the synagogue and spoke out fearlessly for three months, addressing and
convincing them about the kingdom of God. But when some were stubborn and refused to
believe, reviling the Way before the congregation, he left them and took the disciples with him,
addressing them every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that
all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (vv. 8,
9).

In short, Paul did here just what he did in Acts 18 when he was reviled and opposed and hated.
And what he did after he left the synagogue, just as he did in Acts 18, was to find a suitable
place to continue preaching the gospel publicly.

For this he somehow managed to secure a room of some sort in a place called the lecture hall
of Tyrannus. There is inconclusive evidence as to what exactly this place was. All we know is
that the Greek word for “lecture hall” is scholē from which we get our word school. Per one
scholar,

“The major theories regarding the hall of Tyrannus is that it was (1) a lecture hall
named after its owner, (2) a lecture hall named after the person who lectured in
it most frequently such as a local philosopher, (3) a school, and (4) a guildhall.
Whatever the scholē actually was, Paul made some sort of arrangement to
secure it as a consistent speaking venue.” (Brandon Wason, “Paul in Ephesus”).

The author of this comment goes on to write some rather fascinating and insightful thoughts
regarding Paul’s strategy here.

“The Western text has the insertion that he "argued daily in the hall of Tyrannus
from the fifth hour to the tenth (tinos apo hōras e heōs dekatēs)," which
translates to our time scheme as 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Metzger notes that it
"may represent an accurate piece of information, preserved in oral tradition
before being incorporated into the text of certain manuscripts" (Metzger, 470).
Based on this Western addition, it seems that Paul would have worked the
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normal working hours (probably with his tent-making trade) and lectured during
the hours that people would have spent eating their midday meal and
participating in the siesta (cf. Martial Epigrams, 4.8.3). The normal lecturer
himself (Tyrannus?) would have utilized the hall at normal teaching hours along
the same lines as the standard working hours (i.e., before the siesta)” (ibid).

Why would Paul have worked “normal” working hours? For two obvious reasons.

First, he needed money to rent the place at the lecture hall each day.

Second, it put him in direct, normal-relational contact with other people whom he could
evangelize.

He essentially killed two birds with one stone, as the saying goes. This allowed him to lecture
during lunch time, then hang out with people during siesta, another normal-relational context
in which to do public evangelism. (By way of additional resources, Jeremy Pryor has written an
insightful, missional article based on a strategy he’s resurrected from Acts 19 called “The
Tyrannus Effect”.)

In Acts 21 and beyond, the primary method of public evangelism shifts from being under
Paul’s control, to being under the control of the Roman guards who accompanied him now as a
prisoner.

The first incident of public evangelism came as a result of being granted permission to speak to
the mob who had him arrested in the first place, and unfolds from chapter 21 through chapter
22. “Paul answered, ‘I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please
allow me to speak to the people.’ When the commanding officer had given him permission, Paul
stood on the steps and gestured to the people with his hand. When they had become silent, he
addressed them in Aramaic” (vv. 39, 40).

Observing this situation, Paul seized what he saw as an opportunity to defend himself through
evangelizing them, and although it seems chaotic, his addressing them was evidently not
something out of the ordinary or the normal, or else the interchange between Paul and the
officer wouldn’t have taken place.

In Acts 22-26, Paul was put before the Sanhedrin “because the commanding officer wanted
to know the true reason Paul was being accused by the Jews” (22:30). So, “He then brought
Paul down and had him stand before them.”

Paul began his defense which ultimately resulted in a theological circus as soon as the
resurrection of the dead was brought up. Though this passage offers little to us by way of a
sermon from Paul, I merely wish to point out again that Paul seized another opportunity for
public evangelism through a normal context or occurrence, which in this instance was a court of
Jewish law.
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This is just what we find again in chapter 24 when it comes to Paul’s defense before Felix, as
well as chapter 25 in Paul’s defense before Agrippa.

Finally, in Acts 28, we come to the end of the book of Acts and find one final view of
Paul’s public evangelism efforts. Upon entering Rome after much trial and tribulation
(described in chapter 27), three days passed after which, “Paul called the local Jewish leaders
together” (v. 17).

This would have been a normal, natural thing for Paul to do, because there’s no evidence to the
contrary, such as a response from the Jewish leaders to the contrary. “When they had
assembled he said to them, ‘Brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or the
customs of our ancestors, from Jerusalem, I was handed over as a prisoner to the Romans…” (v.
17).

He then goes on to explain his plight regarding the Jews demand for a death penalty and his
subsequent appeal to Caesar (vv. 18-19), then explains to them, “So for this reason I have asked
to see you and speak with you, for I am bound with this chain because of the hope of Israel” (v.
20). Once again, Paul is a mastermind at utilizing every opportunity he can, no matter what his
condition or context, to use normal-relational opportunities to preach the gospel publicly.

And what was the response? “They replied, ‘We have received no letters from Judea about you,
nor have any of the brothers come from there and reported or said anything bad about you..
But we would like to hear from you what you think, for regarding this sect we know that people
everywhere speak against it.’ They set a day to meet with him, and they came to him where he
was staying in even greater numbers. From morning until evening he explained things to them,
testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from both the law
of Moses and the prophets. Some were convinced by what he said, but others refused to
believe.” (vv. 21-23). Nothing different really than the results all of his other efforts produced.
A normal-relational context for public evangelism produced conversions and opposition, just
like always.

In the end, Luke closes his account of Paul’s ministry with the same strategy he employed in
places like Ephesus. “Paul lived there [in Rome] two whole years in his own rented quarters and
welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord
Jesus Christ with complete boldness and without restriction” (vv. 30,
31).

At the end of his life and ministry, Paul’s ministry took up most of the
book of Acts, leaving behind for us an example or pattern of sorts to
which we should look when considering how to do public evangelism.
He ends his life using his house, where he’s under arrest, as a normal-
relational means of doing public evangelism. Never once do we see
Paul or his team employing methods used by “street-preachers” today.
That would have been completely foreign to him and his team, as well
as to the people of that day throughout the known world.
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Some General Observations

With the texts brought together under our feet, I’d like to make some general observations
about the biblical foundation for public evangelism.

1. The Spirit led the way in preaching the gospel publicly, either through
miracle or providence.

The apostles were keen on watching and praying for the Holy Spirit’s miraculous movement so
that they could seize them as opportunities for evangelism. We generally don’t seem them
trying to make or create such opportunities themselves. Rather, they simply follow the Spirit’s
lead, taking their cue from Him.

2. Preaching the gospel publicly was often a result of a request or invitation.

Opportunities like those at the synagogues, in courts of law, and under house arrest reveal that
the normal contexts in which Paul chose to do public evangelism naturally led to additional
requests or invitations to speak more about the gospel.

By contrast, it does not appear in the video or from the story cited earlier that the brothers
were invited or requested to speak. They simply appeared, set up stage, and began preaching
to them. As stated earlier, this would have been foreign to the cultures among which the
apostles ministered. And it would have been foreign to the apostles and their teams in general.
Such methods would have appeared as abnormal.

That said, there was some fruit from the lovingly-motivated efforts of these dear brothers. One
of them writes in an email that was forwarded to me,

“After I was preaching for a little while, one of the Muslims invited me to come
in and speak with them. So I went inside the Mosque and spoke with about 10-
15 Muslims including the Emam about their idolatry and the necessity of the new
birth in order for them to receive the gospel. Their was a variety of responses
and I was able to give my info to one Muslim who seemed interested in getting
together.”

Certainly this response is just the sort of response Paul got in his public evangelism efforts. And
we praise God for them. Evidently some Muslims are closer than they were before to
converting to discipleship in Jesus Christ. My only plea to these brothers however, is that from
the biblical narratives there would have been more normal-relational means by which to do
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public evangelism with these people, means which would have better led into the results, and
perhaps would have produced better results.

3. Preaching the gospel publicly often occurred in social contexts and spaces
which provided a very normal opportunity to preach.

Take one example I did not share above, namely the story of Lydia. Here’s how Luke describes
Paul’s arrival at Philippi and his immediate public preaching ministry.

“On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate to the side of the river,
where we thought there would be a place of prayer, and we sat down and began
to speak to the women who had assembled there” (v. 13).

There is an example of the “average” sort of methods used: look for a place to preach on the
Sabbath day because that would be a normal day; look for a normal place to do the preaching,
because that’s where people will normally be; and speak to whoever is assembled there at that
time. That’s pretty much all Paul and his team did. And what were the results?

“A woman named Lydia…a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened
her heart to respond to what Paul was saying” and “she and her household were
baptized” (vv. 15, 16).

This “average” example is is contra the social context and space in the video, where a dear
brother is standing on top of something, waving his Bible and questioning the Muslim faith.
Based on the reading of Acts, that kind of evangelism would have been foreign to the apostles
and their ministry practices.
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Conclusion

In the end, the aim of first century evangelism seems to have been
relational and normal. By normal, I mean that the apostles did not
seem to preach or evangelize in ways that would have been looked
at as abnormal, weird, or culturally radical. Certainly their messa ge
was in every way. But the methods were not.

The contexts for many, if not most, of the public preaching scenes
occurred in places like synagogues and market places where sharing
in public was quite normal. In addition, there were scenes of court
rooms which, again, would have been normal context for public
evangelism, though not necessarily a relational one. The former
efforts in synagogues and market places in turn led to a relational
evangelism, since the normal means of publicly sharing led quite
naturally to relationships that turned pagans into unbelievers.

The concept of street preaching, especially like that reflected in the


video, does not seem to be relational or normal in the sense in which
it was understood in the first century church. Nor are more
unfortunate examples like the eight-year old preacher I remember seeing a couple of years ago.
This is significant because when our public preaching is not relational or normal, we run the
very real and probable risk that we will unnecessarily offend people with our method so that
they miss the message. It’s the old adage that says, “I can’t hear what you’re saying because
you’re yelling at me” sort of mindset. And that’s quite normal if we’re honest about it. Who is
able to normally receive what someone is saying when it’s being shared in an abnormal context,
and in a non-relational way?

Is it possible that we would see more results from our public evangelism – the kind Paul
seemed to see everywhere he went – if we practiced public evangelism the way we see it in the
NT, at least as evidenced by Paul and his team? There’s another old adage we hear quite often:
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” While I hate to
be cliché about the matter, there’s truth in this statement. And we see that truth evidenced in
the way Paul, in particular, did public (and private) evangelism. It took place in normal settings,
and in relational ways, such that people wanted naturally wanted to hear more, which led to
the salvation and discipleship of many.

The pattern of public evangelism as the Holy Spirit has handed it to us in the narratives of Acts
are something I need to take more seriously…something I think we all need to take more
seriously. The challenge is found in patterning our own public evangelism by these reflections,
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while at the same time doing so in ways that are culturally relevant to our own contexts and
subcultures. On either side of this challenge, I’ve served in leadership with churches in
Southern California (throughout Los Angeles county), Northern California (in the Bay Area), in
West Michigan, and in three cities in Georgia. And in none of these places was the street-
preaching method of public evangelism really perceived by the crowds as normal. And I say this
as one who was trained in “open air evangelism” and its various methods almost twenty years
ago.

Does any of this mean that anybody who supposedly comes to faith in Christ through these
means is not truly saved? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. The power, grace, sovereignty, and
providence of God are all too massive to exclude any of our efforts at street-preaching or open-
air preaching, whether they are motivated by love or anger. Along this vein, Paul wrote,

“Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ


from envy and rivalry, but others from
goodwill. The latter do so from
love…The former proclaim Christ from
selfish ambition, not sincerely…What is
the result? Only that in every way,
whether in pretense or in truth, Christ
is being proclaimed, and in this I
rejoice” (Phil. 1:15-28).

That said, it does seem wiser doesn’t it, to look more closely at the pattern, method, and
strategy employed by these first century church leaders for a better and dare I say, more
biblical method of public evangelism? In the very least it all seems more normal, more
relational than the kinds of methods we employ today. And, what’s more, it seems to have
produced the kinds of results we’re all looking and longing for today from our efforts. Maybe a
greater consideration and implementation of what we see in the book of Acts would offer us
the inner satisfaction and outward results we’re all looking for as Christians hungry to see the
lost come to Jesus and glorify the Father.