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Open-Air Preaching: 1 - Open-Air Preaching in the Establishment of the Church

By Edwin Hallock Byington


      Open-air preaching is not one of the "new methods." It was the original way of extending among men the revealed will of God. Not only is it "as old as preaching itself," but for centuries it was the only kind of preaching. "We are at full liberty to believe," says Spurgeon, "that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, when he prophesied, asked for no better pulpit than the hillside, and that Noah as a preacher of righteousness was willing to reason with his contemporaries in the shipyard wherein his marvelous ark was builded." The absence of permanent structures might account for its use in primitive times, but in the Mosaic era, when Jehovah worship was systematized and sacred buildings erected, we find neither in the commands of the Lord, nor in the customs of the people, the modern idea of a building into which the congregation should enter for worship and religious instruction. The Lord had His Tabernacle, the people had their tents ; but their place of meeting was beneath the blue sky. Moses' grand valedictory addresses, recorded in Deuteronomy, as well as all his others, were delivered in the open air. Three times on the plain on the east side of Jordan the venerable leader gathered the children of Israel about him. Forty years before he had said, "I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue;" but now he spoke with a marvelous eloquence. To the south stretched the wilderness, the scene of his life's labor; in the opposite direction lay the promised land for all except himself; above him Nebo, his watch-tower, and his tomb; and before him God's chosen people. Standing thus, he was moved mightily, and over that plain rang out an acknowledgment of God's mercies, a presentation of duties and an impassioned appeal such as no consecrated building ever heard. Moses, during the time of his leadership, gave extensive and minute directions for public worship, but closed his ministry without having authorized the erection of a covered auditorium for the worshipers.

      Several of Joshua's open-air services must have been very touching and impressive. One he held on Mount Ebal, after all hearts had been softened by the punishment of Achan and the fall of Ai. Here he gathered not only the men, but the women also, and even the little children. At another he had present only "mighty men of valor," the soldiers of the two and a half tribes, who several years before had left their wives, their little ones, and their possessions on the other side of Jordan, and had fought valiantly for their brethren. Now he spoke farewell words, and added a blessing. At his last service, when "Joshua was old and well stricken in years," he assembled the people and led them to renew their covenant with the Lord. Then taking a rock that had stood near their place of meeting, perhaps one he had used as a pulpit, he placed it under an oak tree and said : "Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which He spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness against you, lest ye deny your God."

      Naturally we find no change during the period of the Judges; and after the manner of Moses, the lawgiver, did the prophet Samuel deliver his farewell address, when he surrendered to Saul the leadership. At Gilgal the people assembled to renew their covenant and to listen to the tender and faithful words of the "old and gray-headed" seer. Then no human structure, enclosing the assembly, concealed the fury and marred the effect of the storm, summoned by Samuel as a confirmation of his words and as a warning to king and people alike. They saw, what never before they had witnessed at that season of the year, the heavy black clouds rapidly rolling across the sky and darkening the day; they felt the passionate embrace of the wind, and the pitiless rain beating upon them; the lightning dazzled them ; "and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel," as nature joined in the meeting and uttered her impressive "Amen."

      During David's reign the kingdom was extended and established, the dwelling-places became permanent, the king's palace was built, and the Temple planned. But, though it was now possible, we find no suggestion of a public building for worship after our fashion. Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple was in the open air. "For Solomon had made a brazen scaffold, and had it set in the midst of the court, and upon it he stood, and kneeled down upon his knees before all the congregation of Israel and spread forth his hands toward heaven." The Lord had His Temple, with the holy place covered, the people had their houses, but the, worshipers continued to assemble in the courts of the Lord's house and other open places, as their fathers did before them in the wilderness. Possibly the method and place for religious instruction at that time is indicated by such passages as this from Proverbs: "Wisdom crieth aloud in the streets. She uttereth her voice in the broad places. She crieth in the chief place of concourse; at the entering in of the gates in the city she uttereth her words."

      Few religious services have equalled in the manifestation of divine power and in the number turned to the living God the one held on Mount Carmel under the leadership of Elijah. Ninevah was brought to repentance by a prophet who preached not to an interested few in a quiet building, but whose voice rang out above the noise and confusion in the crowded streets of that great city. Jeremiah had no option. The Lord directed him very plainly: "Go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the gate Harsith, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee", " Go and stand in the gate of the children of the people, whereby the kings of Judah come in, and by the which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem." Their own judgment as well as the commands of the Lord led Jeremiah and other prophets to seek the gates of the city. Here the street was thronged with the crowds coming in and going out. A more difficult place to preach it is hard to imagine ; but here they attracted attention, secured audiences, delivered their messages. These men were determined that the people should hear "the word of the Lord," and over the surging multitude fearlessly they heralded the divine warnings and invitations. Another favorite place with these open-air preachers was the gate of the temple, where their earnest exhortations were addressed to the people entering for their formal and too often hypocritical acts of religious service. That these prophets sometimes encountered opposition and ridicule is evident from Isaiah's reference to those who "lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate," and Amos' warning to those who "hate him that reproveth in the gate."

      The experience of the captivity resulted in no immediate change. On the return the Temple was rebuilt. Still there was no enclosed building for the worshiping multitudes. We learn from Nehemiah that the first pulpit ever made was not for use in a consecrated building but for street preaching. "And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water-gate. And Ezra, the scribe, stood upon a pulpit of wood which had been made for the purpose. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people (for he was above all the people); and when he opened it, all the people stood up; and Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen! Amen! with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground." In the New Testament times the whole subject assumes a new aspect. The synagogue has appeared. The open-air service is no longer the sole, nor even the normal, religious gathering of the Jews. Formerly it was the rule, now it is the exception. Then it was a necessity, now it is simply an alternative. Therefore, to find it almost as prominent in the establishment of the Christian Church as it was in the Jewish is specially significant. "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness," said John the Baptist, as he stood on the banks of the Jordan, and never were his warning words hemmed in by wall and roof, except when as a prisoner he spoke to King Herod. He was not excluded from the synagogues by the chief priests and elders, for "they feared the people; for all verily held John to be a prophet"; but apparently he chose to begin and continue an open-air preacher. Thus better could he reach the masses, whose attention would not otherwise have been attracted so widely. Such a method, also, better accorded with the spirit of the man and the nature of his message. Here he was free from priestly supervision. Here he was responsible to none save to Him from whom he came, and whose temple, not made with hands, he occupied. He allowed no human structure to muffle the ringing tones of his warning voice; nor human authority to muffle its moral power, as it rolled along the banks of Jordan, across the hills of Judea, past the Roman guards, into the king's palace.

      Our Saviour, while claiming a position above Jewish law and custom, ordinarily followed them. Thus, naturally, we find Him attending the synagogue. Yet how few would be the treasured words, if only those spoken in consecrated buildings had been preserved for us. Like His forerunner, Christ was in the main an open-air preacher. Gather together His sermons on the mountains, His parables by the seashore. His warnings and encouragement's along the wayside, and they will form a large part of His teachings. Rev. Dr. Kerr, in his lecture on preaching, referring to Christ, says: "Another sphere was His occasional preaching on the mountains, by the seashore, in the city, wherever men gathered about Him. In this He seems to have spent the great part of His ministry." Christ is well called by open-air preachers "Our Great Exemplar." When we think of our possible relations with Him, had we lived in those days, how seldom do we picture ourselves shut up in a pew with the Master looking down upon us from behind a pulpit. Rather do we imagine ourselves sitting by Jacob's well, drinking eagerly the "water of life" He offered there. In thought we walk with Him by the wayside, we seat ourselves on the shore while He stands in the boat, or we recline on the green sward of the mountain side, as we listen to His words. Thus do we picture to ourselves the Son of Man. Thus artists have loved to paint Him, for thus He did His preaching.

      It is noticeable how much of His own personal spiritual life is associated with the open air. Early one morning He "went out and departed into a desert place and there prayed." After feeding the five thousand, when "He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into the mountain apart to pray." Before making the final choice of the twelve "He went out into the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God." The birth of the Saviour was proclaimed by the angels in the fields. He was baptized in Jordan. The temptation was in the wilderness; His transfiguration on a mountain; His agony in a garden; His death on Calvary; His ascension from a mount. Christ's was a life in the open air; there most of His miracles were performed, and there most of His preaching. Christ had no aversion to the synagogue. He simply went where the people were. He did not wait for them to seek Him. He sought them. The apostles evidently followed His example. When they received the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, instead of having a delightful season of prayer and praise in that house where they were sitting, they went out where the people were, apparently on the street, at least that would be inferred from the nature and size of the audience and the number of their converts. Paul usually went to the synagogues, but his first European convert found Christ on a river bank. He never delivered a more masterly address than that on Mars Hill at Athens, nor one of more intense and dramatic interest than when he stood on the castle stairs, and, beckoning with his hand, addressed as "men, brethren, and fathers" that street mob from whose violent hands he had just been rescued by the Roman soldiers.

      Thus the Bible record reveals that prophets and apostles, and above all, the great Head of the Church, were open-air preachers. It is a divinely appointed means of grace. It was faithfully practiced. So far as preaching was a factor, it was by open-air preaching mainly that the Church of God was established on the earth.

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See Also:
   Open-Air Preaching: Introduction
   Open-Air Preaching: 1 - Open-Air Preaching in the Establishment of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 2 - Open-Air Preaching in the Extension of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 3 - In the Reformation of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 4 - In the Normal Life of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 5 - The More of It, the Better!
   Open-Air Preaching: 6 - As A Factor in City Evangelization
   Open-Air Preaching: 7 - Who Will Go For Us?
   Open-Air Preaching: 8 - The Best Methods

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