An expanded version of this article with the full Bibliography will be published in a forthcoming edition of Ministry Today

Sometime in the 1990s a striking saying became popular. “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.” Attributed to Francis of Assisi and riding on his reputation, and widely quoted by people who should have known better, it seemed to fit the mood of Christians who were disaffected with evangelism as it had been practised in the Twentieth Century. Some Christians use the saying as a “get-out clause” as if it gives them permission to stay silent about their faith. Some writers even use the saying to suggest that Christians have somehow failed in their witness if they need to share Jesus using words. But the slogan is fatally flawed.

Francis never said that!

In “Speak the Gospel  Use deeds when necessary.” (Christianity Today May 21, 2009)  Mark Galli points out that Francis of Assisi never said “if necessary use words” nor would he have been likely to. Roman Catholic blogger Emily Stimpson agrees (see “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. Anymore 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.”

Evangelism in the New Testament and in the Church

Biblically 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 discussed below. 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.

Karl Barth wrote, “The church exists to preach the gospel. The life of the one holy Universal Church is determined by the fact that it is the fulfilment of the service as ambassador enjoined upon it. … The “Christ-believing group” … is sent out: “Go and preach the gospel!” … In it all the one thing must prevail: “Proclaim the gospel to every creature!” The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the “claim of publicity” has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. (Dogmatics in Outline Harper and Rowe 1959 147)

His Holiness Pope Paul VI pronounced similarly. “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.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi encyclical on evangelization 1974.)

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” has become 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 “integral mission”, proclamations and demonstrations of the gospel side by side.

Another reason why the saying 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 suggests, “Rehabilitating and reconfiguring evangelism are crucial but attainable tasks on the threshold of post-Christendom.” (Post-Christendom Paternoster 2004 226)

British society is now multi-faith and multicultural, Post-Modern and Post-Christendom. 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. Done inappropriately, proclaiming that 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.

Nevertheless Christians are commissioned to preach the gospel in the Name of Jesus and in His authority.  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.” (Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism Abingdon Press 1993) The gospel in itself gives us our authority for proclaiming it.

That said, Christians need to recognise that the church is not the centre of society any more. We are speaking “from the edge.” We live in a consumer society, “Tesco ergo Sum, I shop therefore I am” (Graham Cray) which demands freedom of choice and satisfaction guaranteed. In this Post-Modern supermarket of beliefs, “the preacher can become another dodgy salesperson almost certainly out to con you.” (Steve Hollinghurst Mission Shaped Evangelism  Canterbury Press 2010 161) So we Christians must 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.”  (Post-Christendom 229}  We must remember that we are only ever “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

Dialogue reaches the hearts monologue can’t reach.

In Acts sometimes the gospel was preached (17 times) or proclaimed (10 times) to large groups. Then there was 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 (Philip in Acts 8:26ff). Christians explained (5 times) the gospel and attempted to persuade or convince (4 times). Often they did not even need to initiate the conversations. 10 times we find them answering or replying to questions. Sometimes they pointed to Scripture and on other occasions they simply testified (6 times) or acted as witnesses (9 times with 69 times across the New Testament) regarding their personal experiences. In passing, this gives us 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.

A long time ago I came up with a slogan for Christian education. “Dialogue teaches the parts monologue can’t teach.” In evangelism I would phrase it slightly differently. “Dialogue reaches the hearts monologue can’t reach.” Often the best wat 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 in Post-Christendom says evangelism should become “Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation – evangelism alongside others, not declaiming from an authoritative height, through dialogue instead of monologue,” (230) (230) “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.”  (231)

WHO shares the gospel?

In Acts it was not only the apostles or the church leaders. A great deal of the witness of the Early Church was accomplished by countless nameless believers who spread the Word of God with boldness, in particular those who were scattered following the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19-21). They all went about chatting the good news and gossiping the gospel in synagogues and marketplaces with strangers and with their friends in their own homes. As Michael Green sums up, “every man and woman saw it as his task to bear witness to Jesus Christ by every means at his or her disposal.” (Evangelism Now and Then IVP 1979 9)

In recent times Christians have increasingly left evangelism to the ‘professionals’: clergy, visiting specialists and big events. Michael Green comments “Witness-bearing in some shape or form is the responsibility of all Christians.” (36)  The Bishop of Chelmsford evangelist Stephen Cottrell wrote, “According to our different personalities, gifts and circumstances each of us has a part to play in God’s work of evangelism.” (From the Abundance of the Heart DLT 2006 20}

So “preaching the gospel” will necessarily use words. But we should never “preach at” people. The message can be conveyed through dialogue rather than monologue and every Christian should be involved in sharing the gospel wherever they may be and whoever they are with simply by talking opportunities to talk about Jesus. Michael Green is well known as an evangelist in public meetings and missions, yet he believes, “Personal conversation is the best way of evangelism. It is natural, it can be done anywhere, it can be done by anyone.” (134)

1 Peter 3:15 says, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” It is both appropriate and spiritual to think and pray through the kind of answers we might want to give to questions of faith and spirituality. As Michael Green says, “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.” 35)

I fervently hope never to hear or read again the saying we began with. None of us can hide behind it. The Bible makes clear that out of gratitude to God it will always be necessary for every Christian to express the life-saving Good News of Jesus in words. No trendy slogan will ever give us permission to be silent. We all need to make the best of every opportunity for conversations about Jesus.

“Taking Every Opportunity – Conversations about Jesus” works through the practicalities of this theme.

 “Prepared to Answer” is a programme of sermons and activities designed to help every Christian to initiate and develop conversations about Jesus wisely and effectively, confidently and boldly.

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