“Preach the Gospel at all times and use words when necessary.”
Have you ever heard your Sunday School teacher, small group leader or pastor use that phrase? They might even attribute this phrase to St. Francis of Assisi, the famous 12th century Italian monk and preacher. The story of St. Francis is a riches to rags one. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, who was convicted to disavow his worldly lifestyle, identify with the poor by street begging and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ out on the mean streets of Assisi. While it might seem natural to attribute this phrase to St. Francis considering his radical vow of poverty, it’s been fairly well debunked that St. Francis of Assisi never uttered that phrase. Mark Galli, a biographer of St. Francis, gives a strong argument why the impoverished monk never uttered that phrase here.
Regardless of the mythology regarding the origin of this phrase, many Christians will still rally around the essence of this phrase, because it gets to the heart of the central plight of the modern church: Hypocrisy. Here’s the essential argument: “Christians are complete hypocrites because they preach the Gospel but continue heinously sinning. If Christians would just speak less and live out a Biblical lifestyle more, then they would be more effective in winning people to Christ.” After decades of highly publicized ministry failures (think: James Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard), many younger Christians are rightly frustrated and disillusioned with the seemingly never-ending litany of Gospel ministries that end in scandal and disgrace. A more “authentic” faith – if that is possible – is desired that shuns overarching theological precision or any notion of “doctrine” and embraces a meandering personal journey of faith.
So even if St. Francis never uttered this famous phase, is it OK to use this phrase in relation to the church’s evangelistic enterprises? Should the church focus less on door-to-door visitation, handing out tracts and inviting their neighbors to their stuffy traditional worship services? And should the church redouble efforts to end global hunger, to end human trafficking and to build schools and wells in Saharan Africa.
First of all, the notion that the Gospel demands action is thoroughly Biblical. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares to His followers: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ expectation is that His followers will obediently conduct good works. However, good works are not an end unto themselves. Good works also don’t earn God’s favor or improve our standing the Kingdom of Heaven. Out of the overflow of love for Christ and the abundance of concern for God’s creation, believers perform good works to point the world towards the redemptive nature of Christ.
Frankly, Christians performing good works should be expected. It’s a bizarre age that we live in that serving at a homeless shelter or donating money to build a well in a 3rd world country is considered “radical Christian living.” That should be the norm. In this fashion, the critique of the emergent and social justice types is correct: Much of the evangelical church has devolved into hiding behind stain glass windows and barking at the headlines on the local news. To their complement, many younger Christians are swinging the pendulum back again by urging the local church to become engaged in hands on solutions to poverty, homelessness and human trafficking. That’s a good and necessary course correction that shines the love of Christ into the darkened world.
On the other hand, there’s also a certain prideful audacity in assuming that someone is going to ask you about your spiritual life just because you give them a free sandwich. I mean … Isn’t there a hint of arrogance to assume that a crowd will gather to watch you drive a nail and then ask why you drove that nail? If non-believers aren’t “wowed,” mystified, bowled over and/or entertained by the church’s performance, does it mean that they won’t repent of sin and believe in Jesus? Moreover, it’s a surprisingly passive approach to evangelism: Don’t let the “C” word (Christ) slip unless someone gives you the perfect conversational opening. Let the person who doesn’t understand why they need Christ condescend to you to ask you why they need Christ. Some of this approach may stem from watered down relativism and an attempt to politely not offend the delicate religious sensibilities of others. Often, it simply masks a fear of sharing about Christ with others and – particularly – a fear of being flatly rejected.
Here’s the main problem with the whole “actions vs. words” debate in evangelism: It’s a logical fallacy called a “false dilemma.” The false dilemma presents two extreme choices in a debate with no shades of grey in between. Here’s a good example of a false dilemma: “If you’re not for us, then you’re against us.” What is the false dilemma about evangelism current being touted? The world is so turned off by hypocrisy that Christians should stop talking and start walking. The “false dilemma” is that Christians can either present the Gospel through words or actions and not both.
This perceived tension between actions and words in evangelism is extraordinarily contrived. If we examine the missionary works found within the Gospels and Acts, there is no heated debate about whether to focus on healing the sick or proclaiming the Gospel message in the synagogues. Both were freely conducted together to the glory of God. A prime example is Jesus’ sending of the seventy-two in Luke 10. In His commission to the seventy-two disciples that He was sending out to proclaim the Good News, Jesus instructs His followers: “Heal the sick in (the town) and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). Both words and actions living symbiotically together pointing the lost to their Father in Heaven. In Acts 3, Peter heals a man lame from birth through the power of the Holy Spirit and proclaims the Gospel to the masses in Solomon’s portico. Both words and actions drawing the masses to the risen Christ. In Acts 14, Paul heals a lame man and preaches to a truly unreached people group only to get stoned and left for dead. Yet again … no tension between words and actions.
Without the proclamation of Christ, there is no difference in the believer’s works and the good works of the rest of the world. It’s well past time that Christians starting facing the facts: Christians don’t have a monopoly on good works. The Red Cross can more easily and effectively respond to disasters ranging from hurricanes to tornados to tsunamis than any local church, but they certainly are not going to share Christ with every person to which they give food or medical attention. Muslims and atheists are building schools and digging water wells throughout the world, but they are not going to tell the masses much that is positive about Jesus. The modern Christmas holiday experience virtually shames Americans of all spiritual flavors into getting that “warm fuzzy feeling” from helping those in need. The difference that the church has to offer to the world is the spiritual nourishment of Jesus Christ. The church cannot be relegated to another run-of-the-mill social service organization, because Christ is greater than anything the world has to offer. The believer’s good works mean nothing if they don’t point others to the saving power of Christ.
The church cannot be passive about the truth that the strong work of Christ is far greater than the feeble works of man. Jesus Christ has done a work that is completely unreproducible by any man to ever walk the face of the earth. Many men can cook a meal in the church kitchen to feed the poor but only Jesus Christ is the bread of life that feed our souls. Many men can bring a bottle of water to a thirsty man but only Jesus is the fount of living water. Many men have sacrificed their lives for others but only Jesus Christ has sacrificed his life for the sake of all. Many men can exhibit strong leadership skills but only Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd that carries the lost sheep homeward. If Jesus is greater, then let’s start actively sharing about He who is greater.
Paul says it better than I ever could in Romans 10:14-17: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (emphasis mine)” It is not too fine a point to argue that faith comes from hearing the Gospel … not in a non-believer witnessing a believer conducting good works. Driving a nail for the sake of the Gospel does not magically drive the informational content of the Gospel into the brain of a non-believer. The Gospel doesn’t work by osmosis. The Gospel works when believers care enough to move their beautiful feet down to the road to share their testimony in word and deed with their friends, neighbors, family and – even – relative strangers. Believers cannot duct tape their mouths or tie up their hands and expect that God will be magnified.