Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Preach the gospel and if necessary use words??"

This quote, (apparently falsely) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi - who was a preacher - 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.

I believe in showing mercy and loving people and helping the poor, widow, orphan, immigrant. I do. Giving someone a meal isn't evangelism and giving them a Bible isn't filling their stomach. They are different things. Both are important. Both are necessary.

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.

Let us use words to tell of Jesus, and let us live lives of gospel-shaped love - for the church and for those currently outside of the church.