Contend Earnestly: John the Baptist and Street Preaching

Monday, March 01, 2010

John the Baptist and Street Preaching

Before I start this post, I want the readers to understand that this post is a process of trying to get some different perspectives on the ministry of John the Baptist and street preaching. The reason I am bringing this post to the surface is that I have run into many street preachers and spoken to them about their means of preaching and why they do it. Asked them specifically, "where do you get this method in the Bible?" Most of the time, they specifically point to John the Baptist and his way of preaching. This sort of evangelism is done in the form of just yelling on the corners, holding up signs with questionable messages and going to different religious venues telling people that they are going to hell if they don't repent. I guess my question is, "Was John the Baptist setting a prescriptive way of preaching, or was his ministry done because of the prophecies concerning him and the context he was preaching in?"

What John the Baptist Did

John the Baptist definitely preached the word of God. He is odd because he is the first voice of God after 400 years of silence. He is also a little different from his countrymen because he is from the wilderness. This just wasn't where John was preaching, but was most likely where he was from. We know this because we are told that he was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. John wasn't doing this to prove a point, he was doing this because this is just what his context and culture was being a man from the wilderness. It's like saying, Billy Bob wore tight pants, had a mullet, ate pork rinds and his house had wheels. Billy Bob is just from the sticks, this is his culture. Is Billy Bob a little odd for people from the city? Yes. Is Billy Bob a little odd for tornado alley? Not at all.

Notice too that John the Baptist was one that was foretold about:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.’ ”

Mark 1:2-3

John the Baptist if fulfilling his role as the connection of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant to come. He is bringing the voice back from the silence. John the Baptist is a "one of a kind" type of guy. His role was one that was specific to him and his role in the story of God. We shouldn't automatically just copy what he did because it's found in the Bible. If this is the case, then I am worried because Isaiah was called to go naked and barefoot for three years. We have to understand that sometimes prophets are called to do things that are specific to them, not for Christians for all time.

Should We Copy John the Baptist?

This is actually a yes and no answer. The yes in my mind though isn't how the street preacher would like me to answer. Notice that John the Baptist was in the wilderness and the people came to him. John stayed in his context and the people came to him. Quite interesting when you think of it. I believe this is what the street preachers get confused with. What they don't understand is that John the Baptist was actually contextualizing in his culture. He stayed in the culture of one that was from the wilderness and preached the message the people would understand. Because John stayed in the wilderness instead of going into the city with his message, it makes me wonder if he stayed in the wilderness because he knew his form and function wouldn't work in the city, but stayed where God had called him and preached like a prophet from the Old Testament would preach with a New Testament message. He used terms that they would understand, such as using the term "Lamb" and showed how he wasn't even worthy to be a servant boy to Jesus by untying his sandals. Not only this, but along with his preaching he used the Jewish washings to point towards the washing of the Holy Spirit as he baptized people to ready them for the coming of Jesus. All this is completely contextualized to the Jewish culture.

Not only this, but John preached a message of repentance and of the Messiah who would wash away our sin. John preached a message that was specific. He preached about the Messiah and didn't draw back from it. This is definitely something we could all learn from John the Baptist, as we take this message to our context and to our culture.

Just as John preached to his culture and in his context, so should we. We need to study our culture, our context and preach to them the understanding of repentance and the hope in the Messiah in a way that they would understand. Being counter cultural and getting persecuted isn't godly persecution, it's just being ignorant. It's like saying I am getting persecuted for being a Christian if I go to a ranch and wear baggy pants, white tennis shoes and my hat slammed backwards. No, I am getting laughed at because I am out of place in that culture.

Did those Following After John the Baptist Copy Him?

Yes. But not in the way you would think. Peter, Paul and John (the apostle) all copied John the Baptist by still preaching the message of repentance and the hope of the Messiah. But you will notice none of them went to the trailer park, bought a trailer, ate pork rinds and grew a mullet for Jesus. Instead, they preached the message of repentance in their context to their culture in a way that they would understand and have the best chance to accept this message without watering it down.

When Peter and Paul preached to Jews, they used the Old Testament and went to their synagogues to do so. They didn't stand on the corner yelling at people with bug guts stuck in their teeth.

When Paul spoke to the gentiles, he quoted their poets and drew from their context to point to Jesus and redemption.

When John wanted the people of his day to understand his message he drew from their source of understanding and took their phrase "logos" and attached that to Jesus.

Again, these men understood that John the Baptist was a one of a kind dude. He did what he was called to do in his context and culture and did it quite well. They took what John did and applied it in their culture. That is what we are called to do. The only reason one can truly say that they are being persecuted for their faith is if they are living out the gospel and preaching it in the context they're in and are rejected for doing so. You can't say you are being persecuted for Jesus just because people laugh at your means. This probably means you just didn't do your cultural homework.

If you eat bugs and wear camels hair in downtown Seattle yelling at people to repent, not only will peopel make fun of you, but I'll make fun of you. That's just weird.

Our Hearts are God's

All this is said to bring us to one thing. God is the one who knows our hearts. I do my best not to judge street preachers because I do not know them or their hearts. But, I will say this: if you base what you are doing on John the Baptist your interpretation of Scripture is pretty weak. We are never told to do what John the Baptist did. But, over and over again we see that we are to take the message of God and preach it in our context to our culture so that they will see clearly the ways of God and his plan of redemption. If we do anything that blocks people from seeing this message clearly, that is our fault. This is exactly what every preacher/prophet did in the New Testament.

I just ask everyone who is preaching the message of Jesus to do it in a way that presents itself fully and clearly to the culture we are in. Do not put up unnecessary walls for people to climb to get to the gospel. And from what I have seen, these walls are usually lined with megaphones and signs saying, "repent or you are going to hell."

I will also say that if this is how your culture gets out important messages to people and they respond to these types of communication, then by all means go for it. I am not hear to tell the dude with the mullet and walkman that his ways are evil, they just look odd to me.

If you want to live how John the Baptist lived, then look how your culture looks, speak how your culture speaks, and clearly show them how Jesus Christ is the center at everything that they do. Show them the greatness of the One who created their culture and context.


Darlene said...


I would like to encourage you to read a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog, "Glory to God For All Things." It is entitled, "You Are Not a Bible Character." He posted it some time last year, I think in the Fall. It is quite apropos to what you are saying here.

BTW, would you be open to attending a Divine Liturgy at some point? I think you would have the opportunity to learn more about the Orthodox Church of the East, and appreciate a church that has suffered, has many martyrs, and has many battle scars after 2,000 yrs.

Christ's blessings to you this day.

Joel said...

Hi Seth, from Joel in St. Louis.
Some good well balanced comments. Street preachers and the like are definately 'fringe' of the our society. Their work may be the right context for some people. A lot of the people that are on the board walks or at college campuses may not know any Christian for that 'better' context of a loving friendly relationship, attend or attend a church, or watching a cheesy TV evangelist (I know a solid Christian that was saved from flipping channels). I think we also shouldn't error on contextualizing to the 'average' among us. Thanks for not blasting something that seems wacky and the wrong approach to most of us but may be a blessing to the right person at the right time. I hope you get some responses from someone who 1st heard the good news from a 'fringe' speaker.

Joel said...

Another thought on the subject.. With our American way of thinking we might think if a preacher isn't speaking to the culture we're worried about his effectiveness, wasting his effort (or even making it 'worse' for us normal Christians). God calls us to be obient, not always to be effective. Maybe speaking out in the way they are doing is a way to make a public statement of their faith. He certainly is statement of his faith in the power of the words of the Gospel. More so than a lot of people who are overly critical of his tactics.

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