John Wesley, Saint Francis and street preaching

November 24th, 2014

Today brings us to the end of our pilgrimage through a little portion of the wisdom in Rev. Adam Hamilton's Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It. We rest from our learning like St. Francis above, as Caravaggio depicts him in ecstasy. It has been a delight to learn from Rev. Hamilton's book as I have blogged through it. If you've been following along with my posts, I thank you and hope it has been worthwhile for you as well. In case you're finding this series only now at its conclusion, or might have missed a post or two, there are links to each installment below.

I won't leave you in suspense about Rev. Hamilton's last chapter: It is really good. We're shown Wesley's perseverance in the face of opposition, Wesley's late teachings on wealth and in opposition to slavery — including an account of a sermon Old Wesley gave which started a fistfight among British Methodists themselves! Last, we're shown Wesley's holy death, which is quite an inspiration.

What I want to focus on in this eccentric final post, though, has to do with the opposition Wesley aroused by his outdoor preaching. O no! — the dreaded street preaching! Run away! What I suggest is that we see something in Wesley's witness that is intrinsic to the ethos of Methodism (and Christianity generally), and of which Methodists' general (if not universal and categorical) neglect might be seen as one among the seeds and signs of decline.

Let's let Rev. Hamilton show us Wesley in action:

Because of Wesley’s challenging style and message, many churches were closed to him, so he began preaching in the fields and marketplaces, often quite near the churches that had shut their doors to him. As we’ve learned, most towns with a market had a market cross at the center as a visible reminder to merchants that Christ watched as they conducted business. Wesley often preached on the stairs or near these crosses. He would start by singing hymns until a crowd had gathered, then he would begin to preach about the need for salvation, forgiveness, and waking to God (125).

This was the way Wesley worked weekly and sometimes even daily for nearly 20 years. The crowds were often hostile in this period. Sometimes, even offended Anglican priests hired thugs to disrupt Wesley (125).

Wesley was sometimes beaten up, sometimes taken before magistrates, sometimes "pelted with rotten tomatoes, manure, and stones" (126).

But he didn't give up.

And in every crowd, some were moved by his preaching (126).

Based on Hamilton's telling, it looks like the basic elements of this street preaching for Wesley were:

1. Start singing hymns somewhere in public.

2. When you've got a crowd, start preaching about the need for "salvation, forgiveness, and walking with God."

3. If the crowd is hostile, roll with the punches, so to speak.

4. Repeat. never give up.

I attempted street preaching once myself. Or rather, attempted to attempt it. I should write sometime the comedy about all the ways I went about it foolishly which ultimately led to me chickening out and not doing it.

But Wesley did it.

Can we, should we, do this kind of crazy thing today?

Yes, it seems so. It was integral to Wesley's life, not to mention the ministries of Jesus Christ himself and Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint Francis... the list goes on. The Gospel gives Christians something to say, something (to our frequent embarrassment) of the utmost importance, and many Christians will invariably be gifted, or at any rate called upon, to give witness to this in various public ways.

But wait — don't REAL Christians witness with their lives more than with their words?

We love to hide behind the remark attributed to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel everywhere you go, and, if necessary, use words." We think it a mark of humility that we try to show the gospel with our lives rather than merely our words. As if our lives reveal Jesus Christ with some kind of perspicuity.

St. Francis' life looks to me like it reveals Jesus Christ with something approaching perspicuity. Of course, St. Francis himself felt a rather clear distance between his own life and the holiness of Jesus Christ — and he filled that distance with words. They were not words spoken condescendingly down at others. Francis is, after all, the founder of a penitential order. Internal to Francis' invitation to others to repent is the clear and genuinely humble admission of himself as a sinner before God. So, to faithfully interpret the quotation "Preach the gospel everywhere you go, and, if necessary, use words," seems to entail that to whatever extent we think ourselves less holy than Jesus Christ we ought to fill the gap with words that bear witness to our sins and the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Good street preaching will be humbly clear street preaching: the preaching of a forgiven penitent bearing witness to the distance between one's own life and the holiness of Jesus Christ, a holiness made superabundantly manifest in Jesus Christ's amazing mercy for sinners.

Where can we do it?

For many, the most immediate place to preach 'publicly' and 'outdoors' may be YouTube. In some ways that may be too easy. At the same time, there's no reason every Christian working to spread the gospel — and most certainly every pastor — couldn't record and upload a two to three minute testimony ending in a call to conversion which they link at the end of their email correspondence, say.

I am so much of a sinner I haven't done that yet.

Beyond that, when one looks truly outdoors, the opportunities only multiply. Sing hymns and preach in the free speech area of your university, or in a marketplace. You could preach in a shopping mall and go peacefully when they ask you to leave. You could organize a little flashmob scene and say something at the end about how great a sinner you are and how much greater the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. You can take a nod from how some Catholics are doing it, as our brother in Christ Adam Pasternack discusses. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination, your courage, and your humility.

Can you include an interesting example, please?

One inspiring witness in this regard is the pastor and apologist Cliffe Knechtle. As I've heard the story, Cliffe K. used to preach in bars. When he was in seminary at Gordon-Conwell, he and a group of friends would go into a bar. They would each sit down in a different part of the bar and strike up a conversation with someone nearby. Then Cliffe K. would stand up and give a short presentation of the gospel. Of course he would be asked to leave by the bouncer fairly rapidly, and he would go peacefully. But each of his friends would then be able to say to whoever they had been talking to, "Wow. What do you think of that guy?" — and see where the conversation went from there.

To receive the witness of John Wesley — or the Bible, for that matter — will mean to proceed into the public square in all sorts of ways. Even dreaded street preaching. It will be to openly speak of our sin and weakness, and in so doing invite others to know Jesus Christ.

It is by showing and so receiving
the stigmata that we show
the Loving Mercy that moves
the sun and the stars.


Adam Hamilton's Revival-inspired posts: A recap.

#1 Susanna Wesley, Adam Hamilton and our kids

#2 John Wesley's rule of life

#3 The grace of storm chasing

#4 Wesley's impolite enthusiasm for the Name

#5 Wesley's both/and Scripture way of salvation

Thanks Rev. Hamilton for writing the book!

Christ's peace to all, and to all a good night.

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