16 March 2006

"Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words."

This is surely Francis' best-known quote... and I'm afraid it's almost always quoted out of context. Usually when I hear somebody quote these words, you would like Francis rarely preached with words, or that we regular laypeople should discourage preaching with words in favor of living Christian lives and letting people "figure out" we're Christians by our example. (yeah... right) On the Catholic Exchange podcast from January 16th I heard this guy named Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio and I believe this hits the nail on the head:

"If you weren't supposed to preach the Gospel except when necessary by words, he thought it was necessary a lot because he trained his guys to preach; and they preached on the street corner, they preached in churches. He was a deacon, so he preached in churches. The importance of that saying is it's not a cop-out from sharing the Gospel with words. It's don't share the Gospel with words without realizing that your actions can really contradict those words and undermine them."

I think the popular temptation these days is to downplay using words because we don't want to be "preachy," but I think we are trying too hard if that happens. Just offering to pray for someone when they're going through a rough time can speak volumes and doesn't require a knowledge of theology or a course on "six steps to effective evangelization." It helps to know that we're all on the same journey, whether you happen to be in church, unchurched, ex-church, overchurched, dechurched, churchaholic, tired, bored, excited, or curious.

One of the many ironies of Christianity is that we cannot become perfect in God's eyes without revealing all our imperfections to other people. Yes, every last imperfection, for whatever little thing we consciously hold back gives praise to Satan rather than Christ. A lot of Christians (myself included) continue putting up that old shell and never let anyone see who they really are. That's a dark, ugly place. We know that dark, ugly place exists inside every person. We know the world is groaning for salvation from that dark, ugly place. But we conceal it, so that the world looks at Christians and sees a bunch of hypocrites: they're sins are obvious, yet they claim to be perfect in Christ. What kind of salvation is that supposed to be?

So there are two options for the Christian: deceive ourselves by continuing to live inside our shell or become transparent and let Christ deal with our imperfections.


Anonymous said...

Right on. . . on both accounts. You cover a couple of things in here and I agree with both. Your insite on who used the phrase "Preach the Gospel...if necessary, use words." was a big help. So thanks on that.

To say that we don't have to use words is only the half of what we should do to share Jesus. It is said that people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care. The ideal example of "Preaching the Gospel" is to know who and when to share it with. To walk up to a total stranger, not knowing if they are an atheist or not and of what religion or not (some religions consider it an insult to be witnessed to about Jesus, go figure) can and has seriously damaged the name of Jesus everywhere. It is about relationships first, knowing who they are and what they need, then making sure that our life and our actions match up with what our big mouths say.

We have to use words to share the Gospel because the Bible clearly states that Faith, in Jesus/God, comes by HEARING the message of the Gospel. Not from seeing others be "righteous" or "sinless". That is not possible. We are human and therefore, messed-up! The point of Preaching the Gospel is not to offend or push anyone away, but to bring an understanding of the ultimate relationship that God desires to have with us. Again, not caring that God is the creator of the universe until we know that the creator of the universe cares about us.

Thanks for letting me respond.

Anonymous said...

yeah .. if we didn't need words to preach the gospel, Jesus would have just come down to earth and kept his mouth shut. :)


This quote, (apparently falsely) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is a common threat to evangelism today. It plays to our fear of speaking about Jesus, and to our sense of weakness and insufficiency to the task. It is however fundamentally flawed at so many levels... let me deal with six things! Whether Francis said it, or whether it contains useful teaching isn't my point. My concern is the way it is applied.

Firstly, why do you need to tell me not to use words?
It is endemic of assumed evangelicalism that we forget that each of us how know about Jesus did once hear about him. People insist on preaching that we need no preaching, this is very like the postmodern wordsmiths who proclaim the meaningless of words - and yet expect their own words to be clearly understood! People complain about indoctrination, but indoctrinating just means teaching - and everyone gets taught, and everyone has doctrines.

Secondly, the Bible makes it clear that Words are always necessary.
The very existence of the Bible indicates God's express intent to communicate with words. But more than that that it is by the speaking of the good news about Jesus that people will come to believe. In a society that still carries a little Christian-Culture we might forget our need to hear - but the fact remains that what we know is only known because we have been told. It is by God's spoken word that we know anything definitive about people. The first thing God did was speak, and his people are told to speak too. Paul's final word to Timothy (2 Tim 4v2) wasn't do the washing up, it was 'preach the word'.

Thirdly, using Words is not an alternative to living the life
Those who prohibit use of words do so in favour of living distinctively. This is a false distinction. It is not an option as to either preach or live, both are required! A related issue is, what does a life look like that is changed by Jesus. My suspicion is that its more than just moral respectability - we are probably more compromised with our western culture than we dare to admit. Without words people will not guess that we are Christian- since they will not know what Christian is. With only words our faith will not carry half the impact - Christians should be at the forefront of making the most of life, living it the way it should be, in the arts, creativity, justice and joy... for the glory of the gospel of Christ. How that works in practice is something we need to wrestle with! If we follow the 'great comission' in Matthew 28 the result will be both preachers and teachers but also those who live in accordance with Jesus' teaching. Live and speak.

Fourthly, Jesus told us to preach, disciple and teach.
All of these things require speaking and using words. The word revealed message of Jesus has to be verball explained. The apostles in Acts prove, persuade and convince people about Jesus, and whilst it takes God to open eyes we are still to argue the case. We should use words with care and seriousness that reflects what we're speaking about. Preaching is not an excuse for excessive confrontation or any rudeness in our explaining about Jesus. We should be clear and respectful, though we will inevitably cause some offence. See for example, 2 Timothy 4v2 (again), or Matthew 28v19-20.

Fifthly, yes, the message is offensive and foolish.
Often we appeal to St. Francis' words because we look at the messages of the world and think they are superior to ours... ultimately God gives us wisdom to confound the world's wisdom, and wisdom which Jesus himself says will not be understood by lots of people. People are blind to Jesus message, blinded by sin and by satan. But when the gospel is spoken God re-creates and heals this blindness. 1 Corinthians 1v18ff shows the folly of the gospel that generations have rejected because it didn't suit their itching ears (2 Timothy 4v4).

Sixthly, even if preaching is illegal we must do it.
The first apostles were banned from speaking about Jesus, they could not comply with this kind of request. Preaching the gospel might mean we end up in prison - that is just part of the deal. That's Acts 4v19-20 for example.

Anonymous said...

After 15 years of trying to swallow evangelical Christian theology, I am forced to go back to what I thought before I was a Christian - that the emphasis in orthodox Christianity on faith in the Word is equivalent to idolatry - that even the writers of the Bible and possibly Jesus fell into the same trap. It is easier to construct an idol out of words than it is to construct one out of gold, wood or stone.

Ric said...

I'm a long time Christian, but my son and his wife reject my (and my wife's) beliefs, we've been cut off from them (and out two grandchildren) for 5 1/2 years now because of our faith, my son called Wednesday January 5, 2011 and set-up a catch-up meeting with his mother, my wife. They met for four hours, and apparently we were cut off from them and our grandchildren for 5 1/2 years because of my preaching to them and the apparent fear of our proselytizing their children (with words, without words, by example, I don't know) what I do know is that I never, to my recollection, mentioned the name of Jesus to either child, at the time 19 months and 3 ½ years old, I did speak words to their mother, my daughter-in-law on two occasions, and have no recollection of conversations with my son about Jesus or my beliefs. I do remember asking my son once if it was OK with him if I talked to his wife and he said if she wanted to listen to it. To me what Saint Francis meant by the quote, especially as applied in today’s world, is the a Christian has many (every) encounter with another person, in any situation, to proselytize Christ Jesus by acting Christ like. The opportunity to proselytize Christ by conduct is infinite (literally, constrained only by our temporal nature), where the opportunity for most of us believers to proselytize Christ with words is miniscule by comparison, unless you’re Billy Graham. After 5 ½ years our son, I don’t know about his wife, would like some sort of family connection with our side of the family, but we (I really) cannot indoctrinate (instruct; learn; teach (impart skills or knowledge to) to them or their children. MY QUESTION: How does a Christian do that? Really what Saint Francis was saying is that if you’re living a Christ like life you are presenting yourself in such a way that you represent Him in everything you do, everything you say (religious or not, example: no crude word should come out of Christian’s mouth under any circumstances that, that Christian is responsible for, or author of, this does not include words of others related as fact in appropriate circumstances). Everywhere I go I try to honor Jesus by my: conduct, word, thought, work, personal interactions (familial or otherwise), if this is the case, how do I interact with my son, his wife and their children without acting Christ like, i. e., not “Preach the Gospel” by my conduct?

NEP said...

You boys miss the whole Idea, Its by our actions that we "can" preach the Gospel, I'm not nor did St Francis say not to use words. I agree words are extreamly usefull and powerful but so too are the actions of a true Christian, which manifests itself in the Love of one another. A good tree produces good fruit a bad well you know.


Anonymous said...

Words are always necessary and St Francis is not saying never use words. However, its peoples lifestyles and discipleship that can bring many into an encounter with the Living Lord; preaching at people is not the most effective tool we have in our theological tool box. And many hearts are touched by learning of the life of St. Francis, rather than the words he used. Many outside the church community as well as believers have been impressed with the actions of the current Pope Francis. St Francis in name and St Francis in nature?