Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.
Most believers are probably familiar with the above quote, which is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Though it does present a good sentiment about our actions being Christ-like, many of today’s evangelical preachers have had a field day with the quote, shouting that “you have to use words!”
I agree. So does Paul, in Romans 10:14:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
In fact, if St. Francis were here today, I think that he would agree that words are necessary. There are a couple of things to note about St. Francis that could help explain what he meant.
First off, St. Francis himself used words a lot. He was a friar, but it’s not like he had taken a vow of silence; he gained his following as a traveling street preacher. He was even in the middle of giving a sermon when he died, which means that he literally spent his last breath preaching.
You see, Francis really did “preach the gospel at all times,” which is the part of the quote that people are more likely to overlook. We should be sharing the gospel everywhere we go. There is a quote that I think about when it comes to sharing my faith: 99% is a b*tch, 100% is a breeze. Let me put that in more sanctified terms: doing something all of the time is much simpler than trying to do it part of the time. For example, let’s say I make a commitment to cut down on the number of Cokes I drink. That means I can still drink Coke part of the time, which leaves me constantly facing a decision: is now one of the times I drink a Coke, or not? However, if I say I am going to stop drinking Cokes altogether, then it becomes much simpler. There is no dilemma about whether or not I have a Coke today; the answer to that question is always “no.”
Similarly, if we say we are going to share our faith more, there is always a decision. Should I share my faith with this co-worker, with this barista, with this neighbor? We are always trying to hear some prompting from the Holy Spirit, as if God might be jumping up and down in the corner, waving His arms and shouting, “NO, DON’T TELL THIS GUY ABOUT ME!”
My point is this: if you commit to sharing your faith wherever you go, with whomever you talk to, then there is no decision to be made. It also gets easier, and you will get better at it with practice.
The other thing to remember about St. Francis is that everyone would have known he was a follower of Jesus, whether he said anything or not. In every rendition I have ever seen of him, he is wearing a friar’s habit. So, his actions or good works would have clearly been seen as the works of a Christ-follower. You can imagine how your actions might preach if you were wearing a shirt that says “I follow Jesus.” Suddenly, everything you did would make a difference in what people thought about Christianity: how you speak, how you tip, how you work hard, how you treat others, and how you care for the needy in your path would all be seen as sermons without words.
Are we hiding behind the fact that people don’t know we follow Jesus? For some of us, sadly, it is probably better that most people don’t know. If others observed your life, would they label you a Jesus-follower? Moreover, would that label be a positive reflection of how you loved them, or would it be a label of bigotry, laziness, or hypocrisy?
So, in sharing my faith should I rely on my works or my words? The answer would be “both.” “Both,” and “it depends.” It depends on the relationship. For short-term interactions with people who don’t know us—a server, or barista, or anyone we may meet just once—we need to lean more on words. For others, like our neighbors, they should see it in our deeds; but even then, we have to use words to explain the reason behind our actions, as the Bible says in 1 Peter 3:15.
Preach the gospel without words. And with words. Or with sign language, or iPhone apps, or cave drawings, or interpretive dance. Share the gospel using whatever is necessary. But share the gospel.