6A Preach the gospel – since it is necessary use words!

This important message started life as an article published in the ecumenical journal for ministers, Ministry Today UK.

There is a striking saying you may have read on the internet or on a poster. It is widely quoted and attributed to St Francis of Assisi. It says, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” The saying has become popular because it rides on the reputation of St Francis. It also seems to fit the mood of Christians who are disaffected with evangelism as it had been practised in the Twentieth Century. What I want to say this morning is that slogan is not just fatally flawed. It is simply wrong.
Evangelist Pete Gilberts commented that the phrase, “If necessary use words,” is used by some Christians as a “get-out clause”, as if somehow that saying allows them to stay silent about their faith. Roman Catholic blogger Emily Stimpson explains the problem very clearly. “Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.”
Some writers even use the saying, “if necessary use words” to suggest that Christians have somehow failed in their witness if their daily lives are so inadequate that they need to articulate the gospel in words. This can unhelpfully leave some Christians feeling guilty when they do talk about Jesus! In fact the opposite is true. Any idea that our actions should be sufficient and that words shouldn’t be necessary in evangelism is gravely mistaken. We will always need to talk about Jesus. The first thing to say is that
St Francis never said that!
Francis of Assisi never said “if necessary use words”. Mark Galli wrote a biography of Francis and he wrote in Christianity Today that no early sources contain the quote or anything like it. Nor in his view is it the kind of thing Francis would have been likely to say. “In his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle. … He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors … He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests”
Emily Stimpson makes the same point. “Every chance Francis got, he proclaimed the Gospel. He proclaimed it to the wolves in the forest. He proclaimed it to the Sultan in Egypt. He wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. He couldn’t. Any more than a woman in love can stop talking about her beloved. The thought of not speaking about his love, about Christ, to the world, would have horrified the little Poverello.” “He knew what the Church has always known. There is no “if” about the necessity of words in evangelization, just as there is no “if” about the necessity of actions. They are both necessary. They are both essential.” “Preach the gospel. Since it is necessary, use words.” So says Emily Stimpson. I am sure she is right. Let’s think more about
Evangelism in the New Testament
In the Bible, the gospel, the Good News, is the announcement that the Kingly Rule of God has begun in the historical events of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. All the verbs used for the ways the first Christians passed on that message are aspects of speech: preaching; proclaiming; teaching; testifying and more and I will come back to those in a few minutes. The book of Acts is very interested in the way “the word” spread (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20). The apostle Paul argues that people can only be saved if somebody preaches to them “the word of faith” (Romans 10:8-15). Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-21) and that role certainly includes delivering their Sovereign’s messages. The historical fact that the first Christians all experienced fierce persecution is evidence enough that they were indeed proclaiming the good news with boldness, in words and not just in actions.
The church has always understood evangelism that way. In 1974 His Holiness Pope Paul VI pronounced,
“Nevertheless [witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified…and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.”
In his landmark book, The logic of evangelism, William Abraham is equally clear.
“We need to emphasise that by ‘proclamation of the gospel’ we mean the verbal (his italics) proclamation, in order to prevent evangelism from sliding into a thoroughly vague notion that stands for everything and anything that the church does in witness and service.”
Actions are not enough. We have to use words. In some corners of the church it seems as if the heralds have been struck dumb – some messengers have forgotten the message.
So how should we preach the gospel?
“Preach the gospel and if necessary use words” became popular in part because it offers a valuable reminder that our deeds must match our words. Our lives must back up our message. It is undeniable that “they won’t care what we know until they know that we care” Thankfully most strands of the church have recognised this fact and moved increasingly towards what is called “integral mission”, proclamations and demonstrations of the gospel side by side. We should always be loving our neighbours by serving our communities and by striving for compassion, justice and peace. Love in actions should always go hand in hand with delivering the Good News of Jesus in words. But at the same time, as Tim Chester observes, “It is not enough merely to address people’s felt needs. As well as their temporal needs we must also address their eternal need of Christ.” We have to tell people about Jesus.
Another reason the phrase “if necessary use words” seems to resonate is that the image of evangelism has been tarnished by outdated and embarrassing methods, poor literature, approaches which appear manipulative or insensitive to other cultures and the greed of disgraced televangelists. Additionally, many Christians have been discouraged by experiences of evangelistic programmes and events which have appeared to fail. Stuart Murray wrote that, “Rehabilitating and reconfiguring evangelism are crucial but attainable tasks on the threshold of post-Christendom.” But the idea that it is possible to “preach the gospel” without using words is completely mistaken. Changes in the world around us will challenge the church to reflect on the words we use, our attitudes and the stance we should take in evangelism and on the forms of communication we use to share the gospel. But we will still always need to talk about Jesus.
Sociologists tell us that society has become multi-faith and multicultural, Post-Modern and Post-Christendom. Many people have rejected not only Christian values but also any concept of absolute truth. Truth is not regarded as objective, rooted in fact, but as subjective, rooted in experience and consequently understood to be different for each person. Nowadays we are told that the only thing we can be certain of is that we aren’t allowed to be certain about anything anymore. It is seen as politically incorrect to challenge somebody else’s opinion. As a result, proclaiming that Jesus Christ is unique, the only way to God (John 14:6) and the only source of salvation (Acts 4:12) can seem ill-mannered and even arrogant. I’m going to say much more about these things next week.
But however unpopular our message may appear, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin emphasised that our authority for mission comes “in the Name of Jesus” (Matthew 28:18-19) as Christ sends us out with a life-or-death message. We must not compromise and we dare not be silent. Andrew Kirk defines evangelism as “the process of communicating the most crucial piece of knowledge possible about real life in such a way that the recipient has the maximum opportunity to understand and act upon it.” Fundamentally the mandate for preaching the gospel is found within that most important message – so vital that it deserves and demands to be passed on. As Walter Brueggemann wrote, it is “the simple ‘news’ of the gospel itself that provides a missionary impetus for sharing the news with our ‘news starved’ society. Finally, the ground of evangelism is found in the gospel itself, and not in any church condition or societal need.” The gospel of Jesus Christ contains within itself our authority for proclaiming it.
When we talk about Jesus, Christians are not claiming to be superior to other people. What Christians believe is that we have an understanding of life which is missing in other faiths but that reaching that truth is not an achievement worthy of praise. Rather it is a revelation, a gift from God. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9). So it is not arrogant or conceited or self-righteousness to claim to have discovered that truth. It is offered equally to everyone as a free gift.
That said, Christians need to recognise that the church is not the centre of society any more. We are speaking “from the edge.” Most folk have very little knowledge of the Bible or of the life and teaching of Jesus, things which were presupposed in the evangelistic approach of Billy Graham and to some extent in courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored. More than that, many people have rejected Christianity as old fashioned, irrelevant, patriarchal, homophobic, authoritarian, judgmental and hypocritical and expressing an outdated morality, causing wars, persecuting opponents and abusing the planet. We must be sensitive to the attitudes many people have towards Christians and the church.
We live in a consumer society. As Graham Cray put it, “Tesco ergo Sum, I shop therefore I am”. People demand freedom of choice and satisfaction guaranteed. In this Post-Modern supermarket of beliefs, many people think that any preacher is “just another dodgy salesperson almost certainly out to con you.” For all these reasons, Christians need to change our attitudes and our stance in our evangelism. Stuart Murray suggests this will require “renouncing imperialist language and cultural imposition, making truth claims with humility and respecting other viewpoints.” We must remember that we are only ever “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We must recognise how alien church and Christian things can appear. We need to express the Good News in words and metaphors which our neighbours can actually understand.
The very word “preaching” carries negative connotations. “Don’t preach at me!” But even in Acts public preaching and proclamation were not the only ways that the gospel was communicated. The patterns of evangelism we see in Acts were written to give us examples of what we could, and probably often should, be doing. 17 times the gospel was preached (17 times) and 10 times it was proclaimed to large groups. But there was also debate (twice) and teaching (10 times) both in public and in private homes (Acts 20:28). Sometimes we see small groups and even one-to-one conversations (for example Philip with the Ethiopian Official in Acts 8:26ff). 5 times Christians explained the gospel and 4 times they attempted to persuade or convince other people. Often they did not even need to initiate the conversations. On 10 occasions we find Christians simply answering or replying to questions. Sometimes they pointed to Scripture. In other situations occasions they simply testified (6 times) or acted as witnesses (9 times) regarding their personal experiences. And that word testifying or being a witness appears 69 times across the New Testament. In passing, this gives us just in Acts a list of at least 74 instances of verbal communication when the first Christians evidently found it necessary to use words to communicate the gospel. But less than one third of those occasions were public preaching or proclaiming.
Back in the 1990s I came up with a slogan: “Dialogue teaches the parts monologue can’t teach.” I used it in the first book I wrote on Christian education which was published by the Baptist Union. In evangelism I would phrase it slightly differently. “Dialogue reaches the hearts monologue can’t reach.” Often the best way to convey the gospel message today will be through dialogue, by engaging in conversations which explore spirituality and share faith, by teaching and explaining, persuading, convincing, sharing Scripture, and frequently just by answering questions.
Stuart Murray has written that evangelism should become “Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation – evangelism alongside others, not declaiming from an authoritative height, through dialogue instead of monologue,” “Gentle questioning must supersede domineering assertions. Bold humility must replace arrogant insecurity. The images of fellow travellers and conversation partners must usurp memories of inquisitors and crusaders.” We can share the gospel humbly and simply in conversations about Jesus.
You will still read and hear the saying we started with: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” I hope you can now see why I really, really don’t like it. Christians can’t hide behind it. Of course, we are allowed to talk about Jesus. More than that, the Bible makes clear that out of gratitude to God it will always be appropriate for every Christian to express the life-saving Good News of Jesus in words as well as in actions. No trendy slogan will ever give us permission to be silent. The evangelist Michael Green said this. “It is not until church members have the enthusiasm to speak to their friends and acquaintances about Jesus that anybody will really believe we have got good news to share.” We should show God’s love in our actions, but people will only be saved if we also tell them about Jesus in words. We all need to make the best of every opportunity to talk about Jesus. We need to be prepared to give an answer for the hope which is in us. Preach the gospel – since it is necessary, use words!

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