Charles Spurgeon’s Public Evangelism (Part 1)

Charles Spurgeon’s Public Evangelism

This article is Part 1 in a series.

Each local church plays a vital role in the great commission. Sadly, according to C. H. Spurgeon, the great commission has become the great omission. Spurgeon writes:

The gospel command is so little obeyed that one would imagine that it ran thus, ‘Go into your own place of worship and preach the gospel to the few creatures who will come inside.’ ‘Go ye into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in’ … we ought actually to go into the streets and lanes and highways, for there are lurkers in the hedges, tramps on the highway, street-walkers, and lane-haunters, whom we shall never reach unless we pursue them into their own domains.[1]

The aim of this article is to set before you a minister of the gospel, namely Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who sought to wield the sword of the Word in the public Sphere. Spurgeon made it his every effort to win the lost wherever he went. Speaking of this, he writes: “not only must something be done to evangelize the millions, but everything must be done … This must urge us onward to go forth into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.”[2] As we begin, let’s think of the “what” and the “how” of Spurgeon’s evangelism.

First, what is an “Effective” Public Witness? As we begin, we must think of that common argument you often hear regarding public evangelism. Is it an “effective” witness in our day? One may attempt to argue that this “public” witness was effective and acceptable in Spurgeon’s day, but times have changed! Many would argue that a “public” wielding of the Word is offensive to the sinner. However, it is critical to understand that society has never been accepting of such evangelistic labours. Consider the following statement from an interview done with Paul Washer:

Spurgeon was constantly attacked in his culture for the openness of his faith and the openness of his preaching. If you go back to the time of Whitefield and just look at the political cartoons written against Whitefield, I mean, he was considered an absolute fanatic, a crazy man. Why? Because he preached in the open-air … It has never been with the culture to do open-air evangelism … It has been against the culture since the moment the apostle Paul stood up in that great coliseum and spoke the Word of God.[3]

In his public witness into the community, Spurgeon was not trying to “re-invent” the wheel of public evangelism, but instead was seeking to go back to the “ancient paths” and follow the pattern of his Lord. Spurgeon argued that “open-air preaching is as old as preaching itself … Indeed, we find examples of open-air preaching everywhere around us in the records of the Old Testament.”[4] Similarly, through open-air preaching, Spurgeon followed the pattern of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his apostles, who actively sought the lost outside of a building. Spurgeon writes: “Our Lord himself, who is yet more our pattern, delivered the larger proportion of his sermons on the mountain’s side, or by the seashore, or in the streets. Our Lord was to all intents and purposes an open-air preacher.”[5]

Second, what did Spurgeon to do bring the Gospel to the public square? Over the next three articles, we will seek to look at Spurgeon’s public witness in terms of open-air preaching, personal evangelism, and tract and literature distribution. For this article, I want to look at Spurgeon’s use of open-air preaching in his early years of ministry.

The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, avidly supported open-air preaching, arguing that it is “very easy to prove that revivals of religion have usually been accompanied, if not caused, by a considerable amount of preaching out of doors, or in unusual places.”[6] The great benefit of open-air preaching is “that we get so many new-comers to hear the gospel who otherwise would never hear it.”[7] Recalling his former days of ministry at Waterbeach Baptist Chapel, Spurgeon wrote the following:

There went into that village, a lad, who had no great scholarship, but who was earnest in seeking the souls of men. He began to preach there, and it pleased God to turn the whole place upside down.[8]

Throughout his journals, Spurgeon would fondly recall his days of open-air preaching: “I preached at Bristol, many years ago, in the open-air … I had a crowd of sailors and collier to listen to me, and when I began to talk to them about Christ’s redeeming work, I saw the tears streaming down their cheeks.”[9]

As the Lord richly blessed and multiplied Spurgeon’s pulpit ministry, he still made it his effort to preach in the open-air from time to time, and he greatly encouraged others to do so:

I have preached twice, on a Sabbath day, at Blairmore not far from Benmore, on a little height by the side of the sea … I have been compelled to abstain from these exercises in London, but not from any lessened sense of their importance. With the Tabernacle always full, I have as large a congregation as I desire at home, and therefore do not preach outside except in the country; but for those ministers whose area under cover is but small, and whose congregations are thin, the open air is the remedy, whether in London or in the provinces.[10]

The street evangelist has the great privilege of picking up those who would never enter a church building: “The open-air evangelist frequently picks up these members of the no church party, and in so doing he often finds some of the richest gems that will, at last, adorn the Redeemer’s crown.”[11] Therefore, if we are to see multitudes of sinners won to the Lord Jesus Christ, the church must actively seek them. The doctrine of the total depravity of man showed Spurgeon that man is not seeking after God. Instead, the evangelist must seek after the lost.

However, Spurgeon believed that open-air preaching must only be done by some men, men who are called by God, sent out by the blessing & support of the local church, and compelled with love for sinners. Far too often, open-air preachers are controlled by their pet peeves, and not the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Spurgeon gave certain criteria for open-air preachers:

He must have (1) a good voice; (2) naturalness of manner; (3) self-possession; (4) a good knowledge of Scripture; (5) ability to adapt himself to any congregation; (6) good illustrative powers; (7) zeal, prudence, and common sense; (8) a large, loving heart; (9) sincere belief in all he says; (10) entire dependence on the Holy Spirit for success; (11) a close walk with God by prayer; (12) a consistent walk before men by a holy life.[12]

From this list of criteria, we can learn two lessons. First, open-air preachers must have large and loving hearts: “We win hearts for Jesus by love by pleading with God for them with all our hearts that they would not be left to die unsaved, by pleading with them for God.”[13] We must proclaim “a great Saviour to great masses, a great Saviour to great sinners” showing that “Jesus, by his death, has become immensely rich in pardoning grace”[14] If properly done, open-air preaching can be greatly used by God:

I am persuaded that the more of open-air preaching there is in London the better. If it should become a nuisance to some it will be a blessing to others, if properly conducted. If it be the gospel which is spoken, and if the spirit of the preacher be one of love and truth, the results cannot be doubted … The gospel must, however, be preached in a manner worth the hearing.[15]

On another note, the open-air preacher must be resolved to fix his eyes upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. When preaching in the open-air, Spurgeon rightfully argues that “our object is not to conquer them in logical encounters, but to save their souls … Christ is to be preached whether men will believe in him or no.”[16] Similarly, the preacher must “keep to [his] subject, and never be drawn into side issues. Preach Christ or nothing: don’t dispute or discuss except with your eye on the cross. If driven off for a moment always be on the watch to get back to your sole topic. Tell them the old, old story.”[17]

Second, Spurgeon argued that the open-air preacher must be done in a manner worth hearing. This means that the style of preaching must be simple, clear, and compelling. The open-air preacher must acquire a style fully adapted to a street audience. Spurgeon suggests that “the less formality the better, and if you begin by merely talking to the two or three around you and make no pretence of sermonizing you will do well.”[18] Additionally, the preacher must use illustrations and interact with the audience: “In the street, a man must keep himself alive, and use many illustration and anecdotes.”[19] The preacher must “have something to say, look them in the face, say what you mean, put it plainly, boldly, earnestly, courteously, and they will hear you.”[20] Therefore, when open-air preaching, Spurgeon would recommend a quiet, loving, penetrating, conversational style of preaching.[21]

Concluding Remarks:

So what? How do we go forward as the people of God in 2024? As pastors, if our congregation is to function as a public witness for  Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century, we must prepare our people for it. Our people must know the message of the gospel that we are to proclaim. They must be firmly committed to the means that God has given us to share the gospel, namely, the proclamation of his Word. And as pastors, we must seek to train and disciple leaders who will then go out and proclaim the gospel on the streets. To encourage public witness in the church, Spurgeon would do two things. First, he would make public evangelism regular pray in the life of the church. Second, he would actively encourage and development evangelists in his local church. We can do the same as we seek to be salt and light in this dark generation.

 In terms of prayer, you can see Spurgeon’s evangelistic heart in the following exhortation to his congregation:

Preaching the gospel is the means which He is pleased to bless. much that he may work by the means of our Evangelists and bring thousands to the Lord Jesus. They are men full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and God is with them.[22]

In terms of encouraging the development of evangelists in the local church, Spurgeon his pastoral students to be active in open-air preaching. Spurgeon writes: “One of the earliest things that a minister should do when he leaves College and settles in a country town or village is to begin open-air speaking.”[23] One of Spurgeon’s students, Thomas Medhurst, followed Spurgeon’s advice and began his ministry preaching in the open-air. This open-air ministry later led to his call as pastor at the Baptist Church at Kingston-upon-Thames.[24] Pastor, what are you doing to equip and send out evangelists into the public square? Who knows what God would do if His people unleashed His Word in the streets of our Nation! May God bless your efforts for the glory of His great name and the advancement of His gospel.

                  [1] Ibid.
                  [2] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (1894; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 253.
             [3] Cameron Buettel, “Cameron Buettel Interviews Paul Washer” (Grace Community Church. San Antonio, July 23, 20.
                  [4] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 234.
                  [5] Ibid.
                  [6] C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Full Harvest, ed. Susannah Spurgeon and Joseph Harrald (1900; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), 2: 91.
                  [7] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 255.
             [8] C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Early Years, ed. Susannah Spurgeon and Joseph Harrald (1900; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 1: 193.
                  [9] Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Full Harvest, 92.
                  [10] Ibid., 87-89.
                  [11] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 257.
                  [12] Ibid., 269.
             [13] Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (1995; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2010), 82.
             [14] Ibid.
                  [15] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 265.
                  [16] Ibid., 270.
                  [17] Ibid., 269.
                  [18] Ibid., 263.
                  [19] Ibid., 265.
                  [20] Ibid., 266-267.
             [21] Ibid., 268.
             [22] Ibid., 31.
                  [23] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 262.
             [24] Ibid., 27.

Joshua Mills is a graduate of Toronto Baptist Seminary (M. Div.) and has the privilege of serving as pastor at Trinity Baptist Church (Burlington, Ontario). Joshua is married to his beloved Kyla and they have two children: Isaac and Lydia.
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