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Preach the Gospel Always: When Necessary, Use Words

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.

Comments

Mark,

Great post--this conversation is an important one. You caught my attention with the title as this quote is used often in this discussion. I was reminded of a section from Ron Sider's book, "Churches that Make a Difference." Sider says, "A prevalent myth in many churches is that if you give non-Christians a chance to rub shoulders with Christians, they'll catch a dose of the gospel."

He articulates his opinion, in-line with what you shared and with what I believe, earlier in the book, "Flowing out of the mission Jesus modeled and taught, guided by a Spirit-led vision for outreach...holistic community development integrates concerns for people's social and spiritual well-being."

Thanks again.

Chris

Business web hosting is very important for many people. Sider says, "A prevalent myth in many churches is that if you give non-Christians a chance to rub shoulders with Christians, they'll catch a dose of the gospel."

I totally agree with you :)

Me too, it's a very interesting article

Laura - Grattage

Mark,

Great blog.

I think that this point underscores how important it is that the caseworkers who work with the poor abroad are always ready to share the reason for the hope that they have, and to do it with gentleness and respect......so caseworkers need to be trained to do just that.

I am concerned with organizations are Christian at the top, but employ people of other faiths to deliver the service as I don't think that the deed ministry is enough to save souls.......for when the questions are asked they will be to the caseworkers and not to the Board of Directors.

hk

hey mark,
this is a wonderful thought provoking discussion, and of course both word and deed are important. i'd like to get real practicle about how this may play out for US churches trying to make a difference in the 3d world.
one of the frustrations i have had leading short term mission groups is that when you work with a local church, they generally want you to do projects that build the local church infrastructure, and keep your group isolated from the non-believers in the community. this work typically benefits the church more than the larger community. the end result is often that the visiting church gets to know and interact with those who are already christians, and has little or no contact with non believers in the area. we can't share the gospel directly because we're only talking to people who are believers. the visiting US church doesn't want to come in and tell the local people which projects they should do, so we end up asking local church leaders which projects will be most important to the community. more often than not the local church leaders end up asking for a new church building, or a driveway, or some project that helps the church most directly. their idea is that these projects will help them reach their local community more, but when you come back year after year, there has been no evangelistic growth in the congregation.
i am not sure what the way forward is here... i am beginning to wonder if it isn't better to bypass the local church, work directly with the community based on the most pressing needs, work on the project with non-believers, share the word verbally, then at the end of the week, direct them to the local church.

I think Mark Trayor's last comment is very poignant. Local churches can run the gamut in agenda and without a known connection beforehand much effort and good could be misdirected as you indicate. Perhaps as big a problem though is trying to connect with the local community as many local agencies and officials also have agendas.

Could we be a more effective witness by coming alongside and working with existing NGO's who serve the common good and do not object that the Gospel may be shared?

Great post! Very thoughtful and substantive. We Christians would do well to have more thoughtful pieces like this one on this topic.

If you look at the quote carefully, you'll notice the word "always." If you overlook that adverb, then word vs. deed becomes an issue. Tell me, do you "always" preach the gospel, that is every second of everyday? Do we pray unceasingly? To me, "preach the gospel always" is equivalent to saying "live the gospel

While you make some important points, you should consider that Galli is not representing St. Francis with complete accuracy. Check out this article I found helpful:

http://www.missional.ca/2009/06/preach-the-gospel-at-all-times/

If you look at the quote carefully, you'll notice the word "always." If you overlook that adverb, then word vs. deed becomes an issue. Tell me, do you "always" preach the gospel, that is every second of everyday? Do we pray unceasingly? To me, "preach the gospel always" is equivalent to saying "live the gospel."

I regret that I only today discovered this website and in particular this conversation. It is a great post and a necessary conversation. I offer a third view of this quote and posit that this view is a significant detriment to the practice of many Christians.
It is my experience that this quote is all to frequently invoked by those who use it as a shield to their needing to verbally proclaim the Gospel. They use it as a defense to only 'proclaim' the Gospel by actions. Of course this is clearly insufficient but out of fear of embarrassment, or being labeled, or lack of confidence, or perhaps even innocent ignorance, many Christians hide behind how they live as a substitute for confessing the Gospel.

What about 1 John 3:18? I agree that we need to preach for certain. However, this is all most Christians do and never just love someone for the simple fact that they are created in the image of God. The love of Christ will reach people more than our words. If we love and preach, we then stand a chance at presenting Christ to them all.

I am concerned with organizations are Christian at the top, but employ people of other faiths to deliver the service as I don't think that the deed ministry is enough to save souls. For when the questions are asked they will be to the caseworkers and not to the Board of Directors. games | car games

I think Mark Trayor's last comment is very poignant. Local churches can run the gamut in agenda and without a known connection beforehand much effort and good could be misdirected as you indicate. Perhaps as big a problem though is trying to connect with the local community as many local agencies and officials also have agendas.

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What about 1 John 3:18? I agree that we need to preach for certain. However, this is all most Christians do and never just love someone for the simple fact that they are created in the image of God. The love of Christ will reach people more than our words. If we love and preach, we then stand a chance at presenting Christ to them all.

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