By Charlie Clauss
“Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
—Attributed to St. Francis
If there is one thing that unites people across many different faith traditions — a kind of ecumenical via negativa — it is an aversion to evangelism. Evangelism is a good topic to plan for your adult forum on Super Bowl Sunday, or Memorial Day weekend, when there won’t be many people present anyway. The remark attributed to St. Francis is often pulled out as a ward against anyone who might try to press a case for sharing your faith with neighbors, coworkers, strangers in the grocery store, or any other random people you might meet.
“When necessary, use words” is a nice sentiment, and it contains an important truth. A proclamation of the gospel without a corresponding lifestyle can be, at best, hypocritical, and at worst, counter-productive, pushing people away rather than drawing them in. We do well to examine our lives and work at making our words and our actions compatible.
The problem is, St. Francis never said it.
In fact, St Francis is known for his preaching. His order of friars was dedicated to preaching and teaching. It appears that he believed words were necessary!
In building a foundation to understand evangelism, the answer to the question “When is it necessary to use words?” is fundamental. The quote has as an implicit assumption that sometimes words are not necessary, and it can be argued that people use the quote to imply that words are seldom necessary. This makes it vital to understand the purpose of evangelism, and further, what the “good news” is that lies at the heart of evangelism. To put a sharp point on it, we should ask, “What if evangelism doesn’t happen?”
God can certainly manage without us! Jesus once said that if the people were silent, the rocks and stones would cry out. And there is the famous story of God using an ass to get his point across (you might say this is paradigmatic). So while God doesn’t need us, he has chosen to put us in the mix. It is entirely possible that if God’s people refused to preach the gospel, he would intervene in more direct ways (and there are stories throughout history and around the globe of exactly that). It is at this point that we again face the question “Why evangelism?”
We are dancing around the place that makes modern people uncomfortable. Does it make any difference if people hear the gospel? Now the nature of the gospel becomes the fulcrum around which evangelism turns. This good news that stands at the center of the question must be clearly stated. Is it merely some mushy sentimental notion that “God loves you”? For many this would indeed be good news. Here our actions stand as an important component of our proclamation. We are called to embody God’s love.
Episcopalians are (sort of) comfortable with talk of God’s mission and our part to play in that mission. By mission they have in mind thing like fighting for justice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless. There is no question these are things God is about!
“God loves you” as the sum total of the gospel is a convenient message for those who want to avoid speaking about Jesus! And works of mercy are certainly a part of Christian discipleship. But if you are willing to dig deeper, putting Jesus together with God’s love opens up a vast vista of good news.
The verse that clearly puts God’s love together with Jesus is Romans 5:8:
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Paul adds in verse 10:
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
We can argue (and many have) the mechanics of this. This is clear: (1) we were enemies of God; (2) Jesus’ death reconciled us to God; and (3) there remains some future end.
This is what people need to hear!
Then we can argue if God’s love will not leave out anyone, all in the end reconciled to God through Jesus’ death. This does not seem to be the state we are left with. We see very clearly in the liturgy for baptism:
Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.
The gospel is a good news that makes a difference. Let’s not shy away from preaching it, even with words.
The answer to the question of why we preach as a part of evangelism is because the news that we have been reconciled to God in Jesus’ death and that we need to make a response to this news (particularly in baptism) needs to be heard, if possible by every person in the world. The fact that some who are enemies of God might remain that way is too terrible to contemplate.