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Open-Air Preaching: 6 - As A Factor in City Evangelization

By Edwin Hallock Byington


      Greatness has been thrust upon our cities, at first delighting and then alarming us. To-day earnest men in every sphere of life are wrestling with the new and perplexing problems created by this rapid growth. The church has her share, and among them is the problem of city evangelization. Large numbers of people are away from all visible religious influences. The devil has mortgages on many down-town churches and is foreclosing rapidly. Often on Sunday the bell of the excursion-train extends a more effectual call than the church chimes; and the "closed door " of the saloon successfully rivals the "open door" set before us by the Lord. In speaking of these non-churchgoing masses we say they have drifted away from the Church. They, on the other hand, stoutly assert that the Church has deserted them, and is the guilty party. Neither deny the separation. Whose the fault, God knows. Their reunion is the problem of city evangelization.

      To accomplish this we must adopt in our church work the cardinal principle of modern business methods. We are behind the times. A merchant managing his affairs as we do ours would not be able to pay ten cents on a dollar. "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." In the business, world to-day the demand does not seek the supply, but the supply seeks the demand, and if necessary awakens and even creates it. Upon this principle have our business enterprises been erected. No longer do merchants wait for their customers. The wholesale houses send their traveling men. The retailers solicit orders and deliver goods. Everything is brought to a man these days--except the Gospel. The Church alone still follows the old plan, securing a building, offering its treasures, and waiting for the demand to seek the spiritual supply.

      But this will not do. Non-church-goers cannot be drawn to the church simply by attractions offered there, however successful such inducements may be in drawing people from other churches. A brilliant preacher told me that he repeated in a New York mission a series of sermons which in a New England town had crowded the church, but only one new auditor was drawn. Some years ago a famous evangelist held special services in another down-town New York mission. It was kept out of the papers, but widely advertised in the vicinity. Few came, until the up-town church-going people, hearing he was there, came down and crowded the church. I attended a service in the only church of a populous district in London. The music was wonderfully sweet and inspiring, but the singers numbered more than the audience. The strongest attraction, whether of sermon or song, within the church affects the world, the flesh, and the devil about as much as the latest sensation at a dive affects a spiritually-minded Christian.

      To succeed we must adopt this important business principle in our religious work: the spiritual supply must seek the demand, and if necessary revive or create it. Objections that this degrades the Gospel are not pertinent, for this is God's way. He sent Moses, Isaiah, Jonah, and other prophets to the people, not the people to the prophets. We have reversed this divine method. We demand that the people shall seek the preacher. The Good Shepherd did not wait until the lost sheep stood at the door of the fold bieating for admittance. Christ did not *wait until we knocked at the door of heaven, but from its portals he hastened while our feet were at the threshold of hell, and our hand stretched forth to knock there. The Son of Man came to seek the lost. What right have we to say that the lost, whom we are sent to save, must seek us. The responsibility rests upon us. Too often we shirk it. A minister said to me once: "The churches are practically saying to the people, ' We have put the Gospel in this building. You may come here and get it, and find the way to heaven; or stay where you are, and go to hell.'" This assumption that a Christian's responsibility terminates when he has given the good news to all willing to come and hear him is unscriptural. We cannot wash our hands at their failure to come to a place of worship appointed by us. If they refuse to heed the Gospel, the sin is indeed theirs: if, however, it is not brought to their hearing, the fault is ours. We must not leave them alone. The doctrine of laissez faire has no place in the creed of the church militant.

      There are many turning the Church upside down with their theological teachings : whether or not such men are needed, we do need men who shall turn the churches inside out, that each pew may become an outside pulpit, preaching salvation to the portion of the city over against itself. Church buildings too often are huge "bushels" under which a glorious light is hidden, instead of being candlesticks, sending rays of spiritual light in all directions. The words "Preach the Gospel to every creature" are relegated to foreign missionary meetings. We emphasize it, when obedience by proxy is possible. But absolute and imperative is the command for us to present Christ to every creature within our cities. If it cannot be accomplished by our regular church services, then must it be done some other way. One British Presbytery is right when it requires its ministers to go out to the people several times a year and preach in the open air. We, too, must go to the people in their houses, on the streets, in the parks, wherever we can get a hearing. House-to-house visitation is necessary and is effective in reaching mothers and children in their homes. Men and young people, working all day and going out generally in the evening, must be reached by open-air preaching, if at all. And this will reach them. Wherever in Great Britain and elsewhere it has been fairly tried, such people have listened to the message brought to them. The character of these audiences is well indicated by the fact that such services flourish best where there is a large non-church-going element. The two New York pastors, who complained that few of the crowds at their openair meetings would follow them into the church, were witnesses to the need and opportunity of open-air preaching as a factor in city evangelization.

      The motives bringing them to listen are varied. This is true of a church congregation, also. But so long as they are willing to listen, the opportunity exists, and the preacher's duty is plain and imperative. Sometimes opposition is aroused and manifested, but as a rule the majority of the people are kindly disposed to the open-air preacher. They recognize the unselfish loving interest prompting his effort, and are touched by it. Except in strongly Roman Catholic districts, the large majority sympathize with the preacher and are against the intruder. Ordinarily, the attention of an open-air audience is equal to that of any, and the speaker's opportunity as great. There are more distractions than in a church, but the audience keeps awake. The wandering mind simply carries off the body, instead of leaving it to gaze blankly at the pulpit; and there is not much choice between these two common occurrences. Expressions of approval and disapproval are more apparent and disturbing, hut also more stimulating. Though the environment apparently is unfavorable, an audience outdoors will receive and carry away about as much as one in a heated closed building.

      All sorts and conditions of men will be reached by the openair preacher. Among them will be found, besides others, three classes who can be reached with difficulty by ordinary means.

      The first class includes those who have come from priestridden countries, where religion is a mere form, presenting irksome restraints rather than spiritual inspiration. Continuing in subjection, they regard Protestantism as a damnable heresy; or, having escaped, they shun all religious organizations as alike detestable and dangerous. Bitterness, prejudice, or fear of priestly condemnation keep them from crossing the thresholds of our sanctuaries. With such our cities are crowded, and yet to get a mere handful within a Protestant church is no easy task, as all laborers among them will testify. It requires generally a moral earnestness within their hearts to surmount these barriers. This, the Gospel alone can supply, but they do not have the Gospel. It is absurd to expect them to enter our churches for that power, without which their coming is impossible. As well signal the shipwrecked sailor to swim to the shore for the lifeboat. As well ask the sick man to walk to the place where he can find nourishment which will enable him to walk. As well bid the fettered prisoner come forth and secure implements with which to break his fetters and free himself. Rather should we take to them the means of escape, and then, being free, will they come to us. The nail will leap to the magnet and cling to it, but the magnet must first be brought near the nail. Thousands never will feel the attraction of the sweet story of old until it is taken to them. These Italians, Bohemians, and other such, know nothing of the sweetness, purity, and power of the Gospel as it is in Jesus Christ. When we urge them to our churches, they picture to themselves as ours a religion from which we ourselves would shrink. We must make clear to them the good tidings. The Bible, and portions of it, tracts and illustrated papers must be distributed, and the old, old story must be told again and again to them, in their houses, on the streets, at the parks, wherever they can be found. Only thus can their false ideas of Christianity be banished and their prejudices removed. Especially valuable is the opportunity of sowing the good seed in the hearts of the children of such parentage, who often gather in large numbers around the open-air preacher, though they dare not cross the threshold of his church. Let those who claim that Romanism does not offer the Gospel, cease their tirades, and strive to make good the lack, by simply holding up Christ wherever Romanists will listen. The philanthropist, George Holland of London, told me that he had observed that Jews who shunned every appearance of Christian interest, gathered in large numbers in open-air services after dark, Mr. Spurgeon, after relating the conversion of a Jew who had attended such meetings, adds: "How many other strangers and fellow-citizens may, by the same instrumentality, have become fellowcitizens with the saints and of the household of God we cannot tell. Romanists also are met with in this manner more frequently than some would suppose. It is seldom prudent to publish cases of conversion among Papists ; but my own observation leads me to believe that they are far more common than they were ten years ago, and the gracious work is frequently commenced by what is heard of the Gospel at our street corners." Such people after their conversion require faithful instruction and Christian sympathy for a long time. These, open-air preaching cannot supply: but it can let them taste and see that the Lord is good, and arouse in them a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, sufficiently strong to bring them to the churches.

      Another class includes foreigners very different from these, being nominally Protestant, but whom it is almost as difficult to reach. Some of them have had a Godless childhood. Still more regard religion as a childish diversion, to be put away at manhood. They speak pleasantly and patronizingly of the religious forms observed by them in their youth, as we would of their playthings. They have nothing against the Church ; it has no attractions for them. They receive an invitation to attend church with a smile and expression of thanks, as a little courtesy extended to them out of good will; they never accept. Neither church nor mission reaches them. The former they consider an expensive luxury, and less desirable than the beer garden; the latter is for criminals and the poor, they think; and they are neither. They pay their debts; they care for their families. This is religion enough, they say. Real religion is unknown to them. Such form the bulk of our respectable Protestant non-church-going element. Their hearts are good ground, but they will not come to receive the seed. From them could be formed tender, faithful, aggressive Christians, if only we could reach them. They can be found in large numbers on our parks on Sunday afternoons, and offer a most attractive field. Here at leisure and sauntering about, they are drawn by their love of music or simple curiosity to join a congregation. I know of no other way of successfully bringing to this class the Gospel. It is this or nothing; a Hobson's choice for the Church. Fortunately the opportunity thus offered is favorable. The bright sunshine, the pure air, the rich coloring of sky and earth, prepare the mind for God's revelation spoken by men, I would much prefer an auditor coming from a walk on the park to one coming from the perusal of a Sunday newspaper, as do the majority of men in our church congregations. A man shut up in a shop or store all the week, with its close air and gloomy rooms, finds his whole nature soothed and uplifted; his mind and heart are in a wonderfully receptive condition. Some of the most reverent, responsive, inspiring audiences I ever saw were in parks on Sunday afternoons. So this is not only the sole opportunity of reaching large portions of our respectable non-church-going population, but it is a grand opportunity, and full of promise.

      Some fear this work will discredit the regular church services. This easily can be avoided by choosing other than the usual hours for church services, and by going out avowedly as representatives of the Church. Nor will it be accepted as a substitute for church life. Almost invariably when a man's heart is touched he seeks a regular place of worship. Open-air work has been far more fruitful in convicting men, so that they sought the Church and there found Christ, than in actually securing their conversation while in the open air. After speaking in a Glasgow mission, I was addressed by a young man, who said: "I also am an American." He told me his experience. A professional gambler, once the keeper of an opium joint with a Chinaman,"' he had come to England to swindle people at the races with a card trick. On his way to make arrangements for the coming races he passed some people holding an open-air meeting. A hymn was being sung which touched him strangely. He passed on, but could not escape the impression. Instead of continuing his plan, he sought a religious service in a church, and that night made his peace with God. Many others have done the same. Churches have filled their empty seats by means of open-air services. More might do the same. They are feeders to the Church, and in no sense rivals or substitutes. If men, being converted, were left without a church home, they would die spiritually. The object in open-air work is to present Christ to the Christless, in the assured belief that finding Him, or even seeking Him, they will go to His Church, and receive all it has to offer, and give to it their lives. It is distinctively a factor in city evangelization, and when that has been accomplished and people are all again under the direct spiritual influence of the Church, there will be less need for it. But until that is accomplished, and in accomplishing that, we must use it as an important factor; use it constantly and earnestly.

      A third class who would be blessed by open-air preaching includes those who need to have revived within their hearts spiritual truths, experiences, purposes, aspirations, which have been crushed by the blows of error, or stupefied by the fumes of vice. In this class are children of Christian parents and those who still have in their possession certificates of church membership, whose voices once were heard in exhortation. Among them may be found those formerly Sunday-school teachers and superintendents, deacons and ministers. Few experiences in mission work are sadder and more painful than meeting such. How can I describe my feelings, as the son of a minister I plead, in the midst of the fumes of a bar-room, with one who declared himself a minister's son. These once godly, the children of godly parents, once under Christian influences, are dead in trespasses and sins. They can be reached only in one way. New truths, new exhortations, new hymns cannot touch them. There must be something which shall awaken the spiritual influences of the past.

      But what is there in the surroundings of such men to remind them of the past? It is work, work, work, all the time,-- an incessant drive. How long a man might live in a great city without any external reminder of the things which are unseen and eternal ! The Sabbath can make little spiritual impression with its newspapers, its street traffic, its excursions and sports. The stately church edifices do not remind him of the little white meeting-house with its green blinds. The voice of the preacher never reaches even the vestibule. The grand volume of sacred music is muffled by the massive walls. What is there in the life of the non-church-goer to arrest him in his course, what to remind him of broken vows, of covenants unkept? Scarcely a thing even to remind him there is a God. The stone pavements, the brick walls, the brown-stone fronts, feebly declare the glory of God and show his handiwork. The pure pale starlight shrinks from rivalling the glare of the electric light. Even the sun seems unlovely. Nature indeed is crowded out: she barely has standing room in a few scattered parks. Scarcely able to make herself heard, she speaks no "variable language" to him. And as for his conscience--it has little opportunity. So great is the city's clamor and confusion, a man cannot hear himself think. He has little quiet and no solitude. He is not alone with God. The omnipresence of man conceals the omnipresence of God.

      Nor do men speak to him of faith, hope, and charity. He knows men are harsh and grasping. "All is fair in love and war," and he finds it all war. He is told that a corporation has no soul, and he concludes that every man is a corporation in business whatever he may be elsewhere. He does not search for lovely Christian characters. They do not search for him. He thinks there are none. His associations push him down instead of helping him up. What is there in this intense city life to arouse, to inspire the noble in him ? The brightest public place is the saloon; the strongest invitation is the harlot's; the commonest word is the oath ; the easiest step is toward sin. I marvel that any man ever escapes from that life. Each one saved is a walking miracle. There is a point in the rapids where a man alone cannot possibly stem the current. Unless rescue is brought to him he is lost. Open-air preaching is unsatisfactory in many ways, but in no other way can multitudes in our cities be reached. How full are its annals with the records of the rescue of such. It is preeminently a way of saving backsliders. Though these shun the sanctuary, the Gospel is not yet powerless. A hymn, a prayer, a word of Scripture, an earnest appeal by the street preacher, awakens the slumbering past. 0 the power of a hymn taught by a mother! Should an angel, hovering over a great city some night, sing with a mother's voice and a mother's heart, if that were possible, " Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber," hands clutching ill-gotten gains would relax, feet swift to death would halt, bleared eyes would fill with innocent tears, hardened visages would soften into penitence, and many a soul would sob itself back to righteousness. Men and women, to whom God has given sweet voices, have mercy, for Jesus Christ's sake, have mercy upon these wanderers. Unless some one sings to them their mother's song, they will be lost forever.

      What a powerful reminder is a bowed head. Many in our cities for long years have not seen knee bent, head bowed, eyes closed in prayer. But as they pass a group of worshipers, something brings like a flash the picture of that servant of God in the little quiet church, or perhaps the father gathering them about the family altar--it may have been the reverent manner, the tender voice, or the familiar words. I am not picturing an imaginary scene, but what often has occurred. How many have thus been restored to the path of righteousness! How many more might have been had we been faithful! But some would protest, "Would you have us stand in prayer on the street corners to be seen of men?" Yes, I would. Surely the Master was not condemning this, but hypocrisy. Let the lost wanderer who has heard the name of Jesus a myriad times in coarse profanity, let him hear it once in prayer. Let him who ten thousand times has seen man prostrate before the demon alcohol behold him bow before Jehovah. Let him who has heard only voluptuous music and ribald song listen to sweet voices singing the beautiful words of life. Something is needed to remind him of what has been, to awaken spiritual sensibilities now slumbering in his heart.

      Open-air preaching has saved many backsliders. More might so be saved. We should not be neglectful, though they are doing wrong. For that very reason we should search them out. It is true our church doors are open, and whosoever will may come, and that they are "without excuse," under just condemnation for not coming; but that is no excuse for us. Shall we let the harlot, once as fair and pure as our sons and daughters, who for very shame and bitterness will not enter the holy place, die in her sins without trying to win her? Shall we let the tempted and fallen youth, once the pride of his mother's heart, who now in his swagger scorns the sanctuary, die in his sins without warning? Shall we say to the strong man, embittered by unjust treatment and starvation wages received from Christian employers, " Die in your sins?" Not thus have we been commanded. If we do, it may be better in the day of judgment for them than for us. The Lord hath said: "When I say unto the wicked 'Thou shalt surely die': and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand. Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel. Therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me."

      The time when our cities shall be permeated with the Gospel life and spirit, as were the towns from which they grew, or from which their founders came, is distant. But surely, as the Lord liveth, it will come. The Gospel is bound to triumph among all these widely different classes, for the Gospel has not lost its power, nor is the Church of Christ dead. The body of the city has outgrown its soul. But the soul lives. It is growing. In time it will dominate the body. The evangelization of our cities is certain. The task, however, is difficult. Efforts in many different ways must be made unceasingly. Let there be people's palaces, missions, institutional churches, stately cathedrals. These and many other things are needed. But we should not neglect to carry the Gospel to the people where they are. The more extensively judicious, earnest, spiritual open-air work is employed, the more quickly will our cities be evangelized, and this difficult problem solved.

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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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