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Preaching the Gospel - Using Words!

By Peter Thomas.

Sometime in the 1990s, a striking saying became popular. “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.” Attributed to Francis of Assisi, riding on his reputation and widely quoted by people who should have known better, it seemed to fit the mood of Christians who were disaffected with evangelism as it had been practised in the Twentieth Century. However, the slogan is fatally flawed.

“If necessary use words” is used by some Christians as a ‘get-out clause’,[1] as if somehow it allows them to stay silent about their faith. Roman Catholic blogger, Emily Stimpson, explains the problem very clearly: “Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.” [2]

Some writers even use the saying to suggest that Christians have somehow failed in their witness if their daily lives are so inadequate that they need to articulate the gospel in words. Unhelpfully, this can leave some Christians feeling guilty when they do talk about Jesus! Any idea that our actions should be sufficient and that words should not be necessary in evangelism is gravely mistaken.

Francis never said that!

Before addressing broader issues, this point needs to be made: Saint Francis never said “if necessary use words”. Drawing on his own biography of Francis, Mark Galli notes that no early sources contain the quote or anything like it. Nor in his view is it the kind of thing Francis would have been likely to say: “In his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle. … He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors …  He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests”[3]

Emily Stimpson says the same: “Every chance Francis got, he proclaimed the Gospel. He proclaimed it to the wolves in the forest. He proclaimed it to the Sultan in Egypt. He wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. He couldn’t… The thought of not speaking about his love, about Christ, to the world, would have horrified the little Poverello”[4]

Evangelism in the New Testament

Biblically, the gospel, the Good News, is the announcement that the Kingly Rule of God has begun in the historical events of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. All the verbs used for the ways the first Christians passed on that message are aspects of speech: preaching; proclaiming; teaching; testifying; and more discussed below. Acts is very interested in the way “the word” spread (Acts 6.7; 12.24; 13.49; 19.20). Paul argues that people can only be saved if somebody preaches to them “the word of faith” (Romans 10.8-15). Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5.18-21) and that role certainly includes delivering their Sovereign’s messages. Michael Gorman argues convincingly[5] that Paul assumed that his communities would follow his example (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7.16ff) and joyfully share the gospel of salvation. The historical fact that those Christians were experiencing fierce persecution is evidence enough that they were indeed proclaiming the good news with boldness.

The church has always understood ‘preaching the gospel’ in that way. Karl Barth wrote, “The church exists to preach the gospel. The life of the one holy Universal Church is determined by the fact that it is the fulfilment of the service as ambassador enjoined upon it. … The ‘Christ-believing group’ … is sent out: ‘Go and preach the gospel!’ … In it all the one thing must prevail: ‘Proclaim the gospel to every creature!’ … the Church lives by its commission as herald.”[6]

His Holiness Pope Paul VI pronounced: “Nevertheless [witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified…and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.”[7]

William Abraham is equally clear: “We need to emphasise that by ‘proclamation of the gospel’ we mean the verbal (his italics) proclamation, in order to prevent evangelism from sliding into a thoroughly vague notion that stands for everything and anything that the church does in witness and service.”[8]

In some corners of the church it seems as if the heralds have been struck dumb.

So how should we preach the gospel?

“Preach the gospel and if necessary use words” has become popular in part because it offers a valuable reminder that our deeds must match our words. It is undeniable that ‘they won’t care what we know until they know that we care’. Thankfully, most strands of the church have recognised this fact and moved increasingly towards ‘integral mission’, proclamations and demonstrations of the gospel side by side. Loving our neighbours by serving our communities and by striving for compassion, justice and peace should always go hand in hand with delivering the Good News of Jesus in words. At the same time, as Tim Chester observes: “It is not enough merely to address people’s felt needs. As well as their temporal needs we must also address their eternal need of Christ.”  [9]

Another reason the phrase, ‘if necessary use words’, seems to resonate is that the image of evangelism has been tarnished by outdated and embarrassing methods, poor literature,  approaches which appear manipulative or insensitive to other cultures, and the greed of disgraced televangelists. Additionally, many Christians have been discouraged by experiences of evangelistic programmes and events which have appeared to fail. Stuart Murray suggests that “rehabilitating and reconfiguring evangelism are crucial, but attainable, tasks on the threshold of post-Christendom.”[10]

Changes in the world around us challenge the church to reflect on the words we use, our attitudes and the stance we should take in evangelism, on the forms of communication we use.

Our stance in evangelism

Sociologists tell us that society has become multi-faith and multicultural, Post-Modern and Post-Christendom. Many people have rejected not only Christian values, but also any concept of absolute truth. Truth is not regarded as objective, rooted in fact, but as subjective, rooted in experience and consequently understood to be different for each person. It is seen as politically incorrect to challenge somebody else’s opinion. Done inappropriately, proclaiming that that Jesus Christ is unique, the only way to God (John 14.6) and the only source of salvation (Acts 4.12) can seem ill-mannered and even arrogant.

Lesslie Newbigin emphasised that we cannot judge and should not attempt to defend the gospel by the plausibility structures of society because the gospel challenges those very structures. We do not start from some supposedly neutral foundations, but from God’s revelation in Christ. Our authority for mission comes ‘in the Name of Jesus’ (Matthew 28.18-19) as Christ sends us out with a life-or-death message. We are not obliged to be able to prove to a certainty that our religious claims are true. Good reasons are sufficient. So we must not compromise and we dare not be silent.

Andrew Kirk defines evangelism as “the process of communicating the most crucial piece of knowledge possible about real life in such a way that the recipient has the maximum opportunity to understand and act upon it.”[11] Fundamentally, the mandate for preaching the gospel is found within that most important message – so vital that it deserves and demands to be passed on. As Walter Brueggemann wrote, it is “the simple ‘news’ of the gospel itself that provides a missionary impetus for sharing the news with our ‘news starved’ society. Finally, the ground of evangelism is found in the gospel itself, and not in any church condition or societal need.”[12] The gospel in itself gives us our authority for proclaiming it.

Andrew Kirk discusses the objection some make to evangelism[13] that it assumes that the faith of a non-Christian is incomplete or in error and that it implies superiority. We need to distinguish between the message of Jesus (which is superior) and the church (which is not superior) which expresses it . All living makes truth claims, and Christianity does believe it has access to an understanding of life which is missing from other faiths (and none). However, that truth is not an achievement worthy of praise, but rather a revelation, a gift from God (Ephesians 2.8-9), so it is not conceit or self-righteousness to claim to have discovered that truth. It is offered to everyone as a free gift.

That said, Christians need to recognise that the church is not the centre of society any more. We are speaking ‘from the edge.’ Most folk have very little knowledge of the Bible or of the life and teaching of Jesus, which were presupposed in the evangelism of Billy Graham and to some extent in courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored. More than that, Christianity has for many been tried and rejected as old fashioned, irrelevant, patriarchal, homophobic, authoritarian, judgemental and hypocritical and expressing an outdated morality, causing wars, persecuting opponents and abusing the planet.[14]

We live in a consumer society (“Tesco ergo sum” – I shop therefore I am: Graham Cray) which demands freedom of choice and satisfaction guaranteed. In this postmodern supermarket of beliefs, “the preacher can become another dodgy salesperson almost certainly out to con you.”[15] For all the reasons above, we Christians must change our attitudes and our stance in our evangelism. Stuart Murray suggests this will require “renouncing imperialist language and cultural imposition, making truth claims with humility and respecting other viewpoints.”[16] We must remember that we are only ever “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We must recognise how alien church and Christian things can appear, avoid ‘the language of Zion’, and express the Good News in words and metaphors which our neighbours can actually understand.

Our methods of communicating the gospel

The very word ‘preaching’ carries negative connotations: “Don’t preach at me!” But even in Acts, public preaching and proclamation were not the only ways that the gospel was communicated. The patterns of evangelism we see in Acts are neither normative nor limiting for Christians today, but they were written to give us examples of what we could, and probably often should, be doing. Sometimes the gospel was preached (17 times) or proclaimed (10 times) to large groups. Then there was debate (twice) and teaching (10 times), both in public and in private homes (Acts 20.28). Sometimes we see small groups and even one-to-one conversations (e.g. Philip in Acts 8.26ff). Christians explained (5 times) the gospel and attempted to persuade or convince (4 times). Often they did not even need to initiate the conversations. On ten occasions we find them answering or replying to questions. Sometimes they pointed to Scripture, and on other occasions they simply testified (6 times) or acted as witnesses (9 times with 69 times across the New Testament) regarding their personal experiences. In passing, this gives us in Acts a list of at least 74 instances of verbal communication when the first Christians evidently found it necessary to use words to communicate the gospel. But less than one third of those occasions were preaching or proclaiming.

A long time ago, I came up with a slogan for Christian education: “Dialogue teaches the parts monologue can’t teach.” In evangelism I would phrase it slightly differently. “Dialogue reaches the hearts monologue can’t reach.” Often the best way to convey the gospel message today will be through dialogue, by engaging in conversations which explore spirituality and share faith, by teaching and explaining, persuading, convincing, sharing Scripture, and frequently just by answering questions.

Stuart Murray says evangelism should become “engaging in conversation rather than confrontation – evangelism alongside others, not declaiming from an authoritative height, through dialogue instead of monologue.”[17] He advises that “gentle questioning must supersede domineering assertions. Bold humility must replace arrogant insecurity. The images of fellow travellers and conversation partners must usurp memories of inquisitors and crusaders.”[18]

Some might object that dialogue is not an appropriate method since Christians have already decided the message they want to convey and the conclusions they want others to reach. Elmer Thiessen argues that dialogue will often involve elements of persuasion, and that it is as legitimate in proselytising as anywhere else. Thiessen quotes R L Johannesen talking about the ethics of discussion: “The attitudes and behaviour of each communication participant are characterised by such qualities as mutuality, open-heartedness, directness, honesty, spontaneity, frankness, lack of pretence, non-manipulative intent, communion, intensity, and love in the sense of responsibility of one human for another.”[19] It is entirely ethical as well as appropriate to share the gospel using dialogue.

Who shares the gospel?

In Acts it was not only the apostles or the church leaders. A great deal of the witness of the Early Church was accomplished by countless nameless believers who spread the Word of God with boldness, in particular those who were scattered following the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8.1,4; 11.19-21). They all went about chatting the good news and gossiping the gospel in synagogues and marketplaces with strangers and with their friends in their own homes. As Michael Green sums up, “every man and woman saw it as his task to bear witness to Jesus Christ by every means at his or her disposal.”[20]

In Post-Modernity, people mistrust the idea of finding ‘authority’ in the Bible and have abandoned any confidence they once had in grand narratives, so-called ‘experts’ and ‘up-front speakers’, so open-air preaching and stadium missions are less effective. However, people are open to sharing ‘their story’ and listening to individual Christians they know and trust as we tell ‘our story’.

In recent times Christians have increasingly left evangelism to the ‘professionals’: clergy, visiting specialists and big events. Michael Green, well known as an evangelist in public meetings and missions, comments that the good news “is too good to leave to the professionals”[21]! “Witness-bearing in some shape or form is the responsibility of all Christians.”[22] The Bishop of Chelmsford, evangelist Stephen Cottrell, wrote: “According to our different personalities, gifts and circumstances, each of us has a part to play in God’s work of evangelism.”[23]

So ‘preaching the gospel’ will necessarily use words. However, we should never ‘preach at’ people. The message can be conveyed through dialogue rather than monologue and every Christian should be involved in sharing the gospel wherever they may be and whoever they are with, simply by taking opportunities to talk about Jesus.

Evangelist Pete Gilbert puts it this way: “Every good conversation that you have, every opportunity recognised and taken is a part of effective evangelism.”[24] This is not talking at people, but having conversations about Jesus; sharing words of personal testimony or of Scripture; explaining aspects of faith and answering friends’ questions. Michael Green is believes that “Personal conversation is the best way of evangelism. It is natural, it can be done anywhere, it can be done by anyone.”[25] He adds that “one of the greatest tragedies in the ossifying Western church is that people do not, by and large, talk about Jesus. That is extremely foolish. Jesus is the supremely attractive one. If we exclude from our conversations the only really winning card that we have, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[26] More on this theme is available in a companion online article: Taking Every Opportunity – Conversations about Jesus(Please visit: www.takingeveryopportunity.org)

Prepared to Answer

Those with the gifts of being pastor-teachers and evangelists have the task of equipping and encouraging the whole church in this mission of talking about Jesus (Ephesians 4.11-13). 1 Peter 3.15 urges us to ”always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”It is both appropriate and spiritual to think and pray through the kind of answers we might want to give to questions of faith and spirituality. Through the summer of Sabbatical study which has generated this article, I have also developed a programme of sermons and activities for my church entitled “Prepared to Answer”also available online.[27] Our aim is to help every Christian to initiate and develop conversations about Jesus wisely and effectively, confidently and boldly.

I fervently hope never to hear or read again the saying we began with. None of us can hide behind it. The Bible makes clear that, out of gratitude to God, it will always be necessary for every Christian to express the life-saving Good News of Jesus in words. As Michael Green says, “It is not until church members have the enthusiasm to speak to their friends and acquaintances about Jesus that anybody will really believe we have got good news to share.”[28] We all need to make the best of every opportunity for conversations about Jesus.

Bibliography

William Abraham The Logic of Evangelism Hodder 1989

Karl Barth  Dogmatics in Outline  Harper and Rowe 1959

Mike Booker and Mark Ireland Evangelism Which Way Now Church House 2003

Walter Brueggemann Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism Abingdon Press 1993

Tim Chester Mission Matters  IVP 2015

Stephen Cottrell From the Abundance of the Heart DLT 2006

Stephen Croft (editor) Evangelism in a Spiritual Age Church House Publishing 2005

Mark Galli “Speak the Gospel  Use deeds when necessary.” Christianity Today May 21, 2009

Pete Gilbert Kiss and Tell Evangelism as a Lifestyle CWR 2003

Michael Gorman Becoming the Gospel Paul, Participation and Mission Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2015

Michael Green Evangelism now and then IVP 1979

Michael Green Evangelism Through the Local Church Hodder 1990

Steve Hollinghurst, Mission shaped Evangelism Canterbury Press 2010

Andrew Kirk Mission Under Scrutiny DLT 2006

Stuart Murray Post-Christendom Peternoster 2004

Elmer Thiessen The Ethics of Evangelism Peternoster 2011

[1] Pete Gilbert Kiss and Tell 111

[2] Emily Stimpson http://www.catholicvote.org/pope-francis-and-st-francis-preach-the-gospel-always-and-for-the-love-of-god-use-words/

[3]  Mark Galli “Speak the Gospel  Use deeds when necessary.” Christianity Today May 21, 2009

[4] Emily Stimpson as above

[5] Michael Gorman Becoming the Gospel  37ff

[6] K Barth  Dogmatics in Outline  147

[7] Pope Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi (encyclical on evangelization) 1974

[8] William Abraham The Logic of Evangelism 44

[9] Tim Chester Mission Matters  100

[10] Stuart Murray Post-Christendom 226

[11] Andrew Kirk Mission Under Scrutiny  103

[12] Walter Brueggemann Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism

[13] Andrew Kirk Mission Under Scrutiny 96f

[14] Steve Hollinghurst, Mission shaped Evangelism  190

[15]  Steve Hollinghurst Mission Shaped Evangelism  161)

[16] Stuart Murray Post-Christendom 229

[17] Stuart Murray Post-Christendom 230.

[18] Stuart Murray Post-Christendom 231.

[19] Elmer Thiessen The Ethics of Evangelism 218.

[20] Michael Green Evangelism now and Then 9.

[21] Michael Green Evangelism now and then 15.

[22] Michael Green Evangelism now and then IVP 36.

[23] Stephen Cottrell From the Abundance of the Heart 20.

[24] Pete Gilbert Kiss and Tell 59.

[25] Michael Green Evangelism now and then 134.

[26] Michael Green Evangelism Through the Local Church 88.

[27] Visit www.takingeveryopportunity.org

[28] Michael Green Evangelism now and Then 35.

Peter Thomas

Minister of North Springfield Baptist Church, Chelmsford

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You are reading Preaching the Gospel - Using Words! by Peter Thomas, part of Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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