We should preach where it is legal. As citizens we must respect and follow the government’s laws. Romans 13:1-7 covers our obligation to submit to the government. Obviously we are commanded to follow civil disobedience when the government commands us to stop preaching the Gospel as in Acts 5. Peter responded to the command to stop preaching the Gospel by saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” We must do this as well. However, Peter’s situation is not currently ours. We are allowed to exercise our freedom of speech, but there are some restrictions which we must consider as open-air preachers.
1. We cannot preach on private property without the owner’s permission.
As open-air preachers, we do not have a right to trespass someone’s property. They are the rightful owner and can grant access to their property based upon their values. While most of us would not violate an individual’s property, some may be bold enough to set foot on an institution or private organization’s land. Here are some examples of private landholdings: malls, private universities, business parking lots, and sports stadiums. While these locations may be attractive considering the crowds, we cannot break a good law for the sake of the Gospel. God set up land to have private ownership in the Bible. This concept is valid and should be respected.
Think about the benefits that churches have due to private property. Imagine you are at your church on Sunday morning. You are in the middle of the service and the congregation has finished singing. Now is the time to hear God through the preaching of the Word. Suddenly, hecklers stand up and start shouting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” What can the church do? They can call the police since the protestors have disturbed the service being held on the church’s private property. This is an advantage for our churches and follows Biblical guidelines. Let us be submissive to the authorities on this matter.
2. We may not be able to preach on public property which has been rented out.
In part 1 of the series, I suggested that parades and festivals are a great place to open-air preach and hand out tracts. While this is true, you may be told that certain locations are off limits. When an organization rents a public space, it may now be considered private property for that period of time. This means that the public space is under the direction and control of the organization. If they do not want you preaching on the property, then they can have the police remove you.
Let me give you two examples. Every year I go with a group to St. Louis to preach at the Gay Pride Festival. The event organizers rent out Poelker and Kaufman Parks. Both parks have sidewalks that run adjacent to them. You would assume that since a sidewalk is public property, then you could open-air preach on it. Last year, our group started to preach outside of the entrance on the sidewalk. Within five minutes, the police came to shut us down. They told us that the event’s permit included the park and the sidewalks that touched it. Therefore, we were trespassing. We were allowed to go across the street to that sidewalk since it was not under the organizers’ permit.
My second example took place in Springfield. In March, there is always a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Our group usually shows up a couple of hours before the parade to preach where the floats are being organized. At this year’s event, we set up at the corner of the parade starting line to preach from the sidewalk. We had already contacted the city to make sure that amplification was allowed in Springfield. Within 10 minutes, we had police and organizers from the parade upon us. The police explained that the organizer’s permit allowed them to shut us down at any points along the parade route. We were allowed to move a block east on the edge of the parade route to continue preaching.
3. Some public parks have special rules against preaching.
In Chicago, Millennium Park management shut us down twice for preaching. First, we started off to the side by the Beam. After a few minutes, the park police stopped us and requested us to leave. We moved to the edge of the park and stood on the public sidewalk. It was a nice 78 degree Saturday in May. Many people were enjoying the warm weather by lounging in the grass. After hearing our preaching for several minutes, the manager of the park told us that we must leave. Five Chicago Police cars pulled up to investigate the matter. After talking with them, we decided to leave.
An open-air preacher can be tempted to argue with the law and have a long conversation with them. We decided to move on, because we had come to preach the Gospel. By moving across the street to the sidewalk, we still had hundreds of pedestrians walk past us. We still accomplished our goal of preaching. Remember that we have come to do this very thing. Do not let legal issues sidetrack you to the point that the Word of God is not proclaimed.
4. Some public areas have designated areas to express free speech.
The Chicago Transit Authority is one of these government entities. Our evangelism team decided that we should preach on the subway platforms when it was raining on the streets. On one occasion, we went down into the Red Line station at the Chicago stop. We preached for over a half an hour before a transit cop told us that we could not be there. We argued for our right to free speech, but he would not buckle. While we were going up the escalators to leave, we found another cop. He told us that we could not preach there since it is a smaller platform. It was a safety risk. However, the CTA allowed people to speak at a different subway stop down in the Loop. With this information, we went to that subway stop in a future trip. We have not had any issues with preaching at that location.
5. Many communities have amplification restrictions.
Most open-air preachers prefer using amplification. It has many benefits. First, you are able to save your voice and preach for a longer period of time. Second, more people are able to hear you. Third, since you are not raising your voice to be heard, then you will not come across as yelling. For these reasons, please invest in amplification if it is legal to use in your area.
To find this out, contact the city hall. See if you can speak to the city attorney about their ordnances. Some cities require a person to buy a permit in order to use amplification, while other communities allow it without a permit up to a certain distance. In Chicago, you can use amplification as long as it cannot be heard past 100 feet. Since the city has excess street noise, a preacher can usually push past those limits without receiving a visit from the police. Finally, some communities do not allow it at all. In Kirksville, you can only use amplification as long as the sound stays on the property that you are on. If it travels across the street and can be heard, then you can be shut down if people complain. Unfortunately, this requires preaching like George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon by relying only upon the voice.
As you can tell, this list is based upon my experiences from the past. I am not an expert when it comes to first amendment constitutional law in regards to freedom of speech. It is possible that some municipalities have passed laws that are unconstitutional, but they have not been challenged in court. While I am grateful for Christian lawyers who argue these cases, I am called to preach the Gospel. If you have this same calling, then do your best to stay focused on preaching Christ crucified where you can without objection. Do not be tempted to have your ministry time taken up or shortened do to legal battles on the streets.
Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History and from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity. He is a PhD student in Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. In April 2016 Brandon accepted the call to pastor at Faith Baptist. He loves history and reading and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.