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Missionary Street Meetings — How Did They Work?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 30, 2008

My district in Grenoble, France held a street meeting. Once. We didn’t know it was illegal, but were kindly informed of that fact by a passing Jehovah’s Witness. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just had an elder stand up on a planter and start preaching, while the rest of us stood around pretending to be interested bystanders. I have a photo of one of our elders sitting in earnest conversation with a newspaper reporter who happened to come along.

Street meetings are mentioned frequently in reports from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I do not know when they went out of style (except for abortive attempts like ours). They were still being conducted after World War II when Joseph Fielding Smith responded to a missionary son’s mention of a Yakima, Washington street meeting in 1947:

“Tell us about your street meeting, when you write. I held street meetings in England at a time when people were far more unfriendly than they are today, but it was the means of finding some of the people. … We never assigned topics when I was in the field, but we spoke as we were led when we stood before the crowds. I think this is really the better way. However, for beginniers [sic] your way may be better.”

The “advanced senior” (older teens) Sunday School class for 1945 taught prospective missionaries techniques for mission work, including how to conduct a street meeting:

“In the early period of the church, when indoor meeting places were difficult to obtain, the Street Meeting was one of the favored methods of preaching the Gospel. In our own day street meetings have almost disappeared in some of the missions, whole in none has it retained its early importance.”

Reasons given for its disappearance were strict police regulations against them; the unfavorable public image linking Mormons to “some of the evangelical churches. This is not desired”; more effective means of reaching the public; and fear on the part of missionaries.

“The street meeting, however, has certain values,” prospective missionaries learned. “The street meeting is one of the few means of contacting certain classes of people: those who never attend church or read religious literature; those who live in hotels and boarding houses, difficult to reach by tracting; those who are drifting from city to city with no permanent addresses; and the down and outers whose only home is the street, the park bench, or the station house.” In other words, such meetings could reach the demographic that tends to give nightmares to bishops and branch presidents. But, “as the Lord has commanded that the Gospel he preached to all people, there is perhaps a real need for the continuance of the street meeting.”

Missionaries were taught to look for suitable locations: Busy corners adjoining public parks, places where many people would pass, where people could stand to listen without obstructing sidewalks, and places that were “relatively clean.” They were also instructed to see permission of the civil authorities, calling up “some influential friend” if possible to introduce the missionaries to such officials and plead their case.

For the meeting itself, music, prayers, sermons, and questions should be prepared:

“Music is especially vital in attracting and interesting a crowd. Instrumental music has an impelling power when played in the open air and where missionaries have musical ability of this kind it should be utilized. Vocal numbers, if well done, also attract a crowd. Do not invite or expect the bystanders to join in any of the songs. All work at a street meeting is done by the missionaries.

“When good music can be rendered, two or three numbers should be given before any attempt at prayer is made. People will thus have had an opportunity to gather and quiet down. The time to begin preaching is determined by the number of people who have collected together and the mood they seem to be in. Further musical numbers may be needed following the invocation. The invocation should be brief and centered in a petition to God to open the minds of the people to the truth.

“A sermon delivered at a street meeting, to be effective, must be carefully prepared with the particular occasion well in mind. Few of the audience will hear an entire speech. They may hear the beginning but leave before it is ended. They may stop while the missionary is in the middle of his sermon, listen for a few moments, and move on. They may hear only the ending. The ordinary sermon must be heard from the beginning to the end to be understood and appreciated. The speech delivered at a street meeting must be no ordinary sermon. It must be especially constructed so that individuals hearing any part of it will be vitally challenged in their thinking. To accomplish this, the sermon should be constructed out of a number of vital ideas or thoughts, each carrying a distinct message and each being treated in two or three minutes’ time. These ideas should have a logical connection one with another, being part of the same general theme, so that the entire speech has coherence; but actually the sermon should consist of little sermonettes, each within the larger theme.

“Because many of the audience will miss part of what is being said, the speaker at a street meeting should repeat each important idea by clothing it in different words or by using various illustrations. Speeches should be relatively short, as the audience is standing may become restless. short speeches add variety and arouse curiosity as to what will follow – hence tend to hold a crowd.

“The missionary must speak louder than in a hall meeting, but should not make the mistake of shouting. The desired result of having the audience hear can best be obtained by speaking clearly and distinctly, with a slight pause between phrases and sentences. A pause between words or a slow drawling of words is bad practice, as it kills the spirit and possible force of the remarks.”

Remember that fourth reason for the disappearance of street meetings? Missionary fear? Well –

“Missionaries speaking at street meetings must learn to ignore heckling remarks by the bystanders. Above all, they should not lose their temper and yield to the temptation of meeting abuse with abuse. Where insulting remarks by the audience cannot be ignored, they should be turned into humor. In such situations a missionary who can get the audience to laugh has usually saved the meeting.

“Street meetings should be closed where possible with a song or instrumental number, and a short prayer.”

While one missionary is speaking, others circulate among the listeners, distributing tracts and attempting to collect addresses for later visits.

Where questions are entertained, missionaries are cautioned against heated discussions and attempting to answer all questions asked, but should instead invite questioners to meetings or solicit their addresses for personal answers.

“Where a number of missionaries have been joined for the purpose of holding a street meeting, one of them might be planted in the crowd to ask sensible questions for which the missionaries are prepared in advance, and which will help create in the audience a spirit of honest inquiry.”

So – what’s your opinion of these old-time missionary street meetings? Did you ever participate in a modern one?



8 Comments »

  1. I’ve frequently heard street meetings referenced as sort of old-time religion, good-old days, “true” missionary work. The descriptions sound somewhat like the after-it-had-passed descriptions of proselytizing without purse or scrip.

    I am quite relieved that my personal handcart load hasn’t included street meetings as they are very much not my style.

    Comment by Edje — June 30, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Regulations today would make it very difficult to do a street meeting today. I think the closest we could do to doing it today would be to approximate an evangelical tent meeting, where it is on private property, but in a setting that would draw people (a carnival setting?).

    While I can see value in street meetings in areas where tracting is difficult, I also see the problems. It isn’t easy for a person to feel the spirit in a melee of passersby.

    Better is having a booth at a local fair, where the Church can promote ideas such as emergency preparedness, family history, or families. People could gather to the booth who are interested in more information. Addresses can be gathered, and missionaries, members or family history consultants can be sent to the home, as needed.

    Still, I think it would be fascinating to do a street meeting someday.

    Comment by Gerald Smith — June 30, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  3. One entry in my grandfather’s journal reads:

    Rained today. Our street meeting canceled. The Lord does hear and answer prayers.

    He was in Chicago at the time. 1925.

    Comment by Yet Another John — June 30, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  4. YAJ, that’s priceless! I think Edje would be entirely sympathetic to your grandfather. And Gerald, the “fascination” is what made us try it in Grenoble. Even were it legal I’m not sure it would be productive (though no less productive than tracting, perhaps), but it was worth doing once. I know we all felt like Samuel the Lamanite preaching from the city wall, or like any other scriptural missionary lifting up our voices in the midst of Babylon. There aren’t too many occasions on a mission where you actually feel like you assumed you’d feel when you imagined what a mission would be like.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 30, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  5. #3 – I agree with Ardis; that is absolutely hilarious.

    Comment by Ray — June 30, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  6. This is an awesome post. thanks Ardis.

    I always wanted to do a street meeting, but we weren’t allowed to. There was a big emphasis on street contacting in my mission. It seems to me that they would be largely ineffective because they would invite contention nowadays.

    In regards to carnival-like atmosphere: that is what revivalists preachers on Indian reservations do. highly charismatic, very spiritualistic meetings that use food, music and brightly colored tents to draw people. They are quite the sight.

    Comment by TrevorM — June 30, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  7. I think I would have preferred street-preaching to accosting people on the sidewalk, like missionaries currently do.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 30, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  8. I recall doing at least one street meeting in Costa Rica (this would have been in the fall of 1973). The area that Elder Allen and I were working in — Guadalupe (just east of San Jose) — had a small plaza in the town center, a bit elevated (it seems as though there were half a dozen or so steps up on each side of the plaza). We set up an easel near the top of the stairs on one side, put up a large picture of some kind (possibly of the Savior), and did our best to engage and preach people walking by.

    As I recall, we did get a few people to talk with us, but had no great success. On the other hand, I found this less painful than either knocking on doors or ‘street contacting’.

    That street meeting may be the reason we got to know a local American — a retired college professor who had moved to Costa Rica — who often spent his days sitting on a park bench across the street from the plaza. Elder Allen and I would stop and talk with him almost daily. He was soft-spoken and friendly, but would delight in asking us awkward questions, though in a good-natured way. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of college football, including finding out very quickly all the scores from the previous weekend’s games. I’m still not quite sure how he did it. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — July 1, 2008 @ 10:56 am

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