“Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” is an overused and often abused quote from the Christian ghetto. In fact, if had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone quote the phrase or use some version of it in a sermon, I’d certainly be driving a nicer car.
The saying is usually misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who apparently never uttered or wrote such a thing. In fact, our boy Francis was actually quite the preacher. He preached that one’s lifestyle as a Christian matters greatly and the way a Christ-follower lives, loves and interacts in this broken world preaches the gospel with great volume. But Francis also knew that the sermon one’s life preaches also requires words.
“Francis’s” quote has often been hijacked and used as an excuse for Christians to live a safe, risk-free lifestyle in “being good.” The well-meaning but misled thought is that people far from God will somehow be impressed enough by the goodness of godly people that they turn to Jesus.
Others misuse the quote when they doubt the gospel’s power and relevance. Not wanting to be offensive or uncool to 21st Century listeners, the quote gets pulled from the back pockets of all kinds of speakers, preachers and gospel reps as evidence that Christians shouldn’t be too “preachy.”
Proponents of this quieter, action-figure gospel do their best to be good, blend in and thank God that their spiritual gift is something not related to evangelism. Yet, as they quietly go about life, their neighbors remain spiritually deaf and blind. No one dialogs with them, invites them to church, shares “good news” with them, addresses their hard questions or engages with them in real life (John 10:10). Neighbors may see “good people,” but who will connect the dots for them that such goodness only comes from being in relationship with Jesus? A wordless gospel is but half a gospel. It neither represents Jesus nor His Word. To say it plainly, it’s spiritually lazy and cowardice.
Passionate Kingdom laborers understand that at some point words will be necessary.
God’s gospel-sharing method has always involved the use of words. God spoke things into existence in Genesis. He called preachers, teachers and prophets to speak on God’s behalf to the children of Israel. Jesus “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35). When Jesus’ earthly ministry concluded, he commissioned the first Christians to go preach and teach all over the world (Matthew 28, Acts 1:8). To the very end, Jesus’ inviting words extend to anyone who will listen, “Come! Let those who are thirsty come” (Revelation 22:17).
It’s true that the first Christians lived good lives. We should as well. We can’t deeply love Jesus and not have His love overflow with a goodness others can see. Neither can we be so moved by His love that we are not compelled, at one point or another, to speak.
Jesus went about preaching, teaching and healing, restoring. He loved in word and deed. To love as He loves, we must do the same.
Maybe the misattributed and misrepresented quote needs a little revision: “Preach the gospel at all times… and at some point, words will be necessary.”
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