Open Air Preaching
by John Wesley
I am persuaded that the more open-air preaching there the better; if it becomes a nuisance to be a blessing to others—if properly conducted. If the Gospel is spoken, and if the spirit of the preacher is one of love and truth, the results cannot be doubted: The bread cast upon the waters must be found after many days. (See Ecclesiastes 11:1.) At the same time, it must be the Gospel, and it must be preached in a manner worth the hearing, for mere noisemaking is an evil rather than a benefit.
I know a family almost driven out of their senses by the hideous shouting of monotonous exhortations and the howling of "Safe in the arms of Jesus" near their door every Sabbath afternoon for an entire year. I once saw a man preaching with no hearer but a dog, who sat upon his tail and looked up very reverently while his master orated. There were no people at the windows or passing by, but the brother and his dog were at their post whether the people would hear or whether they would forbear. Once also I passed an earnest orator whose hat was on the ground before him, filled with papers, and there was not even a dog for an audience, or anyone within hearing; yet he did "waste his sweetness on the desert air." I hope it relieved his own mind. Really it must be viewed as an essential part of a sermon that somebody should hear it: It cannot be a great benefit to the world to have sermons preached in a vacuum.
As to style in preaching outdoors, it should certainly be very different from much of what prevails within, and perhaps if a speaker were to acquire a style fully adapted to a street audience, he would be wise to bring it indoors with him. A great deal of sermonizing may be defined as saying nothing at extreme length; but outdoors verbosity is not admired. You must say something and have done with it and go on to say something more, or your hearers will let you know.
"Now then," cries a street critic, "let us have it, old fellow." Or maybe the observation is made, "Now then, pitch it out!
You'd better go home and learn your lesson." "Cut it short, old boy," is a very common admonition, and I wish the presenters of this free advice could let it be heard inside Bethel and Zoar and some other places sacred to long-winded orations. Where these outspoken criticisms are not employed, the hearers rebuke wordiness by quietly walking away. It is very unpleasant to find your congregation dispersing, but it is also a very plain suggestion that your ideas are also much dispersed.
In the street, a man must keep himself lively, use many illustrations and anecdotes, and sprinkle a quaint remark here and there. To dwell long on a point will never do. Reasoning must be brief, clear, and soon done with. The discourse must not be labored or involved, neither must the second point depend upon the first, for the audience is a changing one, and each point must be complete in itself. The chain of thought must be taken to pieces and each link melted down and turned into bullets: You will not need Saladin's saber to cut through a muslin handkerchief as much as Coeur de Lion's battle-ax to break a bar of iron. Come to the point at once, and come there with all your might.
Short sentences of words and short passages of thought are needed for the outdoors. Long paragraphs and long arguments had better be reserved for other occasions. In quiet country crowds, there is much force in an eloquent silence, now and then interjected; it gives people time to breathe and to reflect.
Do not, however, attempt this in a London street; you must go ahead, or someone else may run off with your congregation. In a regular field sermon, pauses are very effective and are useful in several ways, both to speaker and listeners, but to a passing company that is not inclined for anything like worship, a quick, short, sharp address is most appropriate.
In the streets, a man must be intense from beginning to end and, for that very reason, he must be condensed and concentrated in his thought and utterance. It would never do to begin by saying, "My text, dear friends, is a passage from the inspired Word, containing doctrines of the utmost importance and bringing before us in the clearest manner the most valuable practical instruction. I invite your careful attention and the exercise of your most candid judgment while we consider it under various aspects and place it in different lights, in order that we may be able to perceive its position in the analogy of the faith. In its exegesis we shall find an arena for the cultured intellect and the refined sensibilities. As the swirling brook meanders among the meadows and fertilizes the pastures, so a stream of sacred truth flows through the remarkable words that now lie before us. It will be well for us to divert the crystal current to the reservoir of our meditation, that we may quaff the cup of wisdom with the lips of satisfaction."
There, friends, is not that rather above the average of word-spinning, and is not that art very generally in vogue in these days? If you go out to the obelisk in Blackfriars Road and talk in that fashion, you will be saluted with "Go on, old buffer," or "Ain't he fine? My eye!" A very vulgar youth might cry, "What a mouth for a later!" and another will shout in a tone of mock solemnity, "Amen!" If you give them chaff, they will cheerfully return it into your own bosom. Good measure, pressed down and running over, will they mete out to you. (See Luke 6:38.) Shams and shows will haw no mi-ivy from a street gathering.
But have something to say, look them in the face, say what you mean, put it plainly, boldly, earnestly, courteously, and they will hear you. Never speak against time or for the sake of hearing your own voice, or you will obtain some information about your personal appearance or manner of oratory that will probably be more true than pleasing. "Crikey," says one, "wouldn't he do for an undertaker! He'd make 'em weep." This was a compliment paid to a melancholy brother whose tone is especially funereal. "There, old fellow," said a critic on another occasion, "you go and wet your whistle. You must feel awfully dry after jawing away at that rate about nothing at all." This also was specially appropriate to a very solemn brother of whom we had often remarked that he would make a good martyr, for there was no doubt of his burning well, he was so dry.
It is sad, very sad, that such rude remarks would be made, but there is a wicked vein in some of us that makes us take note that the vulgar observations are often very true, and "hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." As a caricature often gives you a more vivid idea of a man than a photograph would afford you, so these rough mob critics strike an orator to life by their exaggerated censures. The very best speaker must be prepared to take his share of street wit, and to return it if need be; but primness, demureness, formality, sanctimonious long-windedness, and the affectation of superiority actually invite offensive pleasantries—and to a considerable extent deserve them. The less you are like a parson, the more likely you are to be heard; and if you are known to be a minister, the more you show yourself to be a man, the better. "What do you get for that, governor?" is sure to be asked if you appear to be a cleric; it will be well to tell them at once that this is extra, that you are doing overtime, and that there is to be no collection. "You'd do more good if you gave us some bread or a drop of beer instead of those tracts," is constantly remarked; but a manly manner and the outspoken declaration that you seek no wages but their good will silence that stale objection.
The action of the street preacher should be of the very best. It should be purely natural and unconstrained. No speaker should stand up in the street in a grotesque manner, or he will weaken himself and invite attack. The street preacher should not imitate his own minister, or the crowd will spy out the imitation very speedily if the brother is anywhere near home. Neither should he strike an attitude as little boys do who say, "My name is Norval." The stiff straight posture with the regular up-and-down motion of arm and hand is too commonly adopted, but it is not worthy of imitation. And I would even more condemn the wild raving maniac posture that some are so fond of, which seems to be a cross between Whitefield with both his arms in the air and Saint George with both his feet violently engaged in trampling on the dragon. Some good men are grotesque by nature, and others take great pains to make themselves so. Clumsy, heavy, jerky, and cranky legs and arms appear to be liberally dispensed. Many speakers don't know what upon earth to do with these limbs, and so they stick them out, or make them revolve in the queerest manner. The wicked Londoners say, "What a cure!" I only wish I knew of a cure for the evil.
All mannerisms should be avoided. Just now I observe that nothing can be done without a very large Bagster's Bible with a limp cover. There seems to be some special charm about the large size, though it almost needs a little baby buggy in which to push it about. With such a Bible, full of ribbons, select a standing near Seven Dials, after the pattern of a divine so graphically described by Mr. McCree. Take off your hat, put your Bible in it, and place it on the ground. Let the kind friend who approaches you on the right hold your umbrella. See how eager the dear man is to do so! Is it not pleasing? He assures you he is never as happy as when he is helping good men to preach to the poor sinners in these wicked places. Now close your eyes in prayer. When your devotions are over, somebody will have profited by the occasion. Where is your affectionate friend who held your umbrella and your hymnbook? Where are that well-brushed hat and that orthodox Bagster? Where? Oh, where? Echo answers, "Where?"
The catastrophe that I have thus described suggests that a brother had better attend you in your earlier ministries that one may watch while the other prays. If a number of friends will go with you and make a ring around you it will be a great acquisition; and if these can sing it will be still further helpful. The friendly company will attract others, will help to secure order, and will do good service by sounding forth sermons in song.
It will be very desirable to speak so as to be heard, but there is no use in incessant yelling. The best street preaching is not what is done at the top of your voice, for it is impossible to lay the proper emphasis upon key passages when you are shouting with all your might the entire time. When there are no hearers near you but people standing on the other side of the road to listen, would it not be well to cross over and so save a little of the strength that is now wasted?
A quiet, penetrating, conversational style would seem to be the most effective. Men do not bawl and holler when they are pleading in deepest earnestness; they have generally at such times less wind and a little more rain, less rant and a few more tears. On, on, on with one monotonous shout and you will weary everybody and wear out yourself. Therefore, be wise now, you who would succeed in declaring your Master's message among the multitude, and use your voices as common sense would dictate.