Words “Are” Necessary

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

(Commonly misattributed to Francis of Assisi)


I’ve heard this quote my whole life, and if I’m being honest, I’ve probably used it myself a few times. It’s so engrained in evangelical subculture, that I took no special notice when the guest speaker at church asked who had heard it. What got my attention was when he called it “wickedness.”

Here’s what he said:

“That’s like saying feed the hungry at all times, use food if necessary. You cannot share the Gospel without using words, because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. You cannot live a good enough life to win someone for the kingdom of heaven. You can provide a context and opportunity, but salvation comes when the Gospel is proclaimed, and received and believed in. And we must recapture the sense of the church proclaiming and speaking the Gospel at all times in all sorts of places.” ­- Jacob Ley, the Chapel, Wadsworth, OH

It’s not possible. Not for me. I’m a worldview fanatic, who’s been accused of over-thinking everything. How did this one stay under my radar for so long? Maybe because it hits close to home? We may presume to know what the pseudo Assisi quote means – that a person’s life needs to match the message he preaches and that the way that we live our lives speaks louder than the words that we say. While these observations are true, there is hiding here in plain sight, an error (dare I agree with the pastor and call it wickedness?), that threatens to dilute the great commission with modern sensibilities.

First, can we all agree that there are a lot of people within Evangelical Christendom, that don’t back up words with actions? As 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, without the foundation of love, all that we say is a bunch of obnoxious noise. Matthew 5:16 affirms in the context of the beatitudes, that our righteous lives should point the people around us to the one true God. As a pastor’s kid (and many times since), I have had a front row seat to the horror show of nominal Christians on Sunday morning self-righteously proclaiming their love for Jesus in front of a congregation of witnesses to their lives of defiance to the entirety of God’s law. I’ve seen people commit the most egregious acts of maliciousness and spite through a saccharine smile, saying “God bless you!” while they twist the knife in your back deeper. It is in the midst of such transgressions that we want to proclaim the necessity of endeavoring (with all our imperfections) to live a life that proclaims through actions the Gospel we preach with our words.

However, the faux Assisi quote does something more. It assumes that the primary method for preaching the Gospel message is living well, while we speak up only once in a while as needed. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is a decidedly active mission, with going, baptizing, and teaching to make disciples. God’s people were sent out in Acts 1:8 as witnesses, and we see in their lives a willingness to continually speak up, spreading the Gospel message at the cost of great persecution and martyrdom. So, how do we get from risking martyrdom to share the Gospel to passively waiting, hoping for a socially “appropriate” moment to speak up?

We’ve confused “loving” with “passive.” There was nothing passive about Christ. He was gentle and patient when appropriate, yes, but he spoke with authority, pointing out both the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the immorality of the woman at the well. However, in a culture where simply making a truth claim that excludes opposing views is considered hateful and “-phobic,” many Christians’ version of evangelism has come to take on a very post-modern, or even post-truth flavor for the very simple reason that it allows us to fit in as much as possible with our surroundings, without rocking the boat too much.

It is the path of least resistance. It doesn’t take a PhD in Theology to share the gospel. In fact, the woman at the well was an effective witness mere minutes from hearing the Gospel. That doesn’t mean that average Christians should get a pass from learning the basics of evangelism. Clearly, we need to understand the Gospel message, and we need to be able to meaningfully communicate it to others. We also need to understand how to have spiritual conversations that help us discover where others are in the path to becoming a believer. Finally, every believer should know at least a little bit of apologetics to be able to answer honest questions about Christian belief. That takes effort, and it’s a whole lot easier just to let the “experts” handle it.

It avoids social awkwardness. One of the things that I heard repeatedly as a young adult, is that you should never discuss politics or religion with your friends. That doesn’t fit well with the Great Commission. As a naturally introverted person, I have struggled my whole life to make Spiritual conversations a natural part of my life, and to be honest, I still have much room for improvement. Clearly, Christians shouldn’t use this as a license to be rude, but consider the tragedy of a person who would risk the everlasting soul of a fellow human, just to avoid a little bit of social awkwardness.

It keeps us from being a target. Any Christian who speaks up risks being a target of criticism. For Christians that aren’t living right, this means answering for their own hypocrisy. It’s much easier to fly under the radar, living and letting live. However, even sincere Christians face uncomfortable accusations of hypocrisy both from non-believers, and from those nominal Christians who are looking for a chance to prove that they are the cool, tolerant types, unlike some Christians. Personal accusations are the go to attack in today’s culture, precisely because they hit where it hurts most. However, the Spirit-filled Christian isn’t going it alone, and is empowered both to grow when needed, and to deflect those attacks that are meant only to tear down.

I wish that I could present my own life as the perfect model for others to follow, but I am still a work in progress. What I know for sure is that to be a Biblical Christian, I must have a life that testifies to the truth, coupled with a willingness to testify personally to the gospel message even when it comes at a personal price. Whatever that cost, it is a mere pittance in comparison to the value of sharing the love of our Savior with a desperate soul drowning in sin.

–Thomas Hersman