John Wesley's Journal, March 31, 1739:
“In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church.”
Because Anglican Church leadership had forbidden and barred their churches from allowing George Whitefield from preaching in their pulpits, he, then instead, took to the open air to preach. On February 17, 1739, Whitefield preached, for the first time, in the open air to about two hundred coal miners at Kingswood (near Bristol, England). Within three weeks, thousands began crowding to listen to Whitefield’s preaching. Soon, he called on John Wesley to come help him in this open air preaching. Though Paul and other New Testament figures took to the open air with the message of the gospel, Whitefield and Wesley (re)discovered (if you will) in these (as one author put it) “unsettled conditions,” open air preaching among “the neglected Kingswood colliers” (coal miners).
Soon even John Wesley was refused access to Anglican pulpits. Yet, that did not stop Wesley from preaching the gospel: On one occasion, because he was blocked from a pulpit in Epworth, his father buried just outside that church, Wesley famously stood on his father's grave and began to preach. Many came to listen.
Whitefield and Wesley reached the “neglected” multitudes among us (which I call the “forgotten elect”*) with their open air preaching. And, none can say these outdoor masses weren’t discipled to mature their faith, for much of our present day discipleship is borrowed and built on Whitefield and Wesley’s “methods.”
Now mind you, I am no John Wesley nor George Whitefield, and I haven't been banned from any pulpits (that I know of anyway) and, as far as I can tell, I am in good standing with my denomination, but yet, still, almost everyone who stands in front of me at our Summer "In His Midst" Park BBQs or on the sidewalk each Saturday does not attend church—so, for them it is moot why I preach outdoors, this is the only Gospel, the only church, the only pastoral care, and for some the only discipleship they are going to ever get. They are the neglected among us that regular, ordinary pulpits are not going to reach—by design, default, habit, or ignorance, it matters not. We cannot do ordinary church in a place where there are so many, what I call, the forgotten elect.
No matter which theological background you come from, most of these good sinners will never enter a church building until it is too late. So, the Hill is my parish. Yes, there will be distractions and required other duties, but while God gives me breath and enables, I will seek to preach and reach these forgotten elect.
*In this way, I am a little more Whitefield than Wesley, I get that.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.