When followers of Christ become socially conscious about global issues, one of the first things that becomes discussed is the role or necessity of a verbal proclamation of the gospel. There are typically two camps: One believes that the good deeds required to respond to social issues is more or less sufficient; the other emphasizes a verbal proclamation over any type of “physical” service.
These tensions have become highlighted with two recent publications. The first is an article by Mark Galli of Christianity Today entitled “Speak the Gospel Use deeds when necessary”.
The second is The Hole in Our Gospel a book by World Vision USA President Richard Stearns.
Galli is writing from a perspective that demonstrates concern that a verbal proclamation of the Gospel is undermined when deeds are emphasized. He points to the quote, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” which is commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
Galli shows two important things:
1) There is a good chance that St. Francis never said this since it does not emerge until two centuries after his death. It is unlikely that his followers would not have cited such a pithy phrase.
2) St. Francis regularly preached or verbally proclaimed the gospel, thus demonstrating that he had a high view of such activity.
Before we return to Galli, let’s look at one of Stearns’ stories in his new book. Stearns tells the wonderful story of a collaborative project that World Vision did with Habitat for Humanity in rural India. During a ceremony dedicating the project to the community, a local World Vision worker overhears the local people speaking in their dialect asking each other questions about why Christians would come from so far away to help them. Stearns concludes, “We had not spoken a word in their local language, but the village elders had already ‘heard’ the gospel” (p. 23).
While one could not say that Stearns reflects an opposite viewpoint of Galli, he is emphasizing that the good deeds done either replace or are the functional equivalent of verbally speaking the gospel.
I have read Stearns and Galli on numerous occasions and they are both thought provoking, faithful followers of Christ and strong leaders. If I could be privileged enough to sit down with them, I think we would all come to very similar conclusions regarding the relationship of word and deeds to the Christian faith. However, both of their viewpoints in these recent publications fall short of articulating the fullness of word/deed ministry.
First, let’s return to Galli. I empathize with what he is saying. Personally, I have heard people on a frequent basis invoke the St. Francis of Assisi quote and their clear purpose is to try to say that deeds are sufficient and that a verbal proclamation is unnecessary and in some ways could even be damaging.
However, his argument that we should preach the gospel always and use deeds when necessary unfortunately implies two erroneous things:
1) The purpose of deeds is to enhance a verbal proclamation.
2) Verbal proclamation is superior to deeds.
Similarly, I emotionally connect with what Stearns is saying. I have seen people often underemphasize or even dismiss serving the poor as somehow inferior to an evangelistic sermon. He is pushing back on this point and I feel where he is coming from. But in doing so, he also commits two erroneous implications:
1) Asking questions is the same as ‘hearing’ the gospel.
2) Actions can replace words.
The purpose of good deeds is not to enhance a verbal proclamation as Galli’s article suggests. The purpose of good deeds is to love God and neighbor. That’s it. However, a potential benefit
of good deeds is that people will ask questions and become receptive to a verbal explanation of the gospel. This is the point of the Stearns’ story.
But Stearns’ story falls short because he unfortunately equates the asking of questions with ‘hearing’ the gospel. These actions cannot replace words. Words are still necessary and this is an often missed, yet powerful point to the St. Francis of Assisi quote. “When necessary, use words” means that words are often necessary.
Imagine someone asking you a question, then you stare at them in silence. Who knows what they would interpret from your silence. For better or worse, words are required to explain concepts and provide answers.
There should be an appropriate distinction between verbal proclamation (word) and social service (deed) as they are different from one another. Yet there is no inherent superiority or inferiority to either. They seamlessly integrate together to equal effective ministry. Good deeds prompt questions. This is why Peter instructed his readers to do good and then followed by saying, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).” If we do good deeds then we need to be ready to say why we do them. The questions will come. And if not, we have to ask ourselves what is wrong when no one asks questions to which the gospel is the answer.