Preach the Gospel
- June 05, 2017
- Sage Blalock
“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
If you have ever been involved with a youth group, you’ve probably heard someone, maybe even the youth pastor, say this. I know I did. This quote has often been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian friar who lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Over the last couple of decades, many American churches and youth groups have taken this phrase as gospel (sorry, couldn’t resist). In my opinion, this phrase has done damage to Christian culture in America. Before I explain why I think this way, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine this phrase.
Francis of Assisi?:
There is a big problem with attributing this to Francis: we have absolutely no historical evidence that he said it. According to Glenn T. Stanton’s article on the subject at the TGC.com, the closest Francis came to saying this was in Rule of 1221, Chapter XII when, referring to Franciscan preaching practices, he says:
“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister … All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.”
So, it’s important to note from the outset that we don’t really know who said this. Francis, who many hold as a beloved figure in church history, did not say this in any sources that we have.
Why I think it’s harmful:
From my experience, this phrase was intended to do two things: 1) to encourage youth to act more Christ-like outside of the church and 2) to give those who are uncomfortable in sharing the gospel some relief. Reason 1) seems like a good thing. But, for some of us, we were drowning in hypocrisy during those days. We went every Wednesday, answering questions and talking about all the kind things we had done that week. But outside the church we acted in ways that, frankly, were about as un-Christian as possible. For some of us it was because we were young and still figuring things out. For kids like me, we weren’t even really Christians.
I, like far too many people in the church today, knew the language I needed to coast by. The problem was I hadn’t experienced God’s saving grace. Because this kind of message was often taught in my youth group, I hadn’t been exposed to the authentic Christ. As a result, I didn’t actually understand the gospel. Instead, I could just be really nice to people, fulfilling my Christian-y quota for salvation. Having this view of the gospel is dangerous for the church. Without articulating the gospel and bringing it to our neighbors we aren’t doing the last thing Jesus told us to do before he ascended to heaven:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (NIV, Matt. 28:18-20).
This is the crux of the Christian life: structuring our lives in such a way as to spread the gospel whether by directly presenting the gospel or facilitating the presentation of the gospel.
Reason 2) is where it gets extremely personal for me. As it did for me, this phrase has pushed Christians farther away from the gospel message. I have never been very good at talking to people I don’t know. So talking about something so important that has a 50-50 chance to make the other person uncomfortable or militantly angry is even harder. I have always felt God pushing me to fight through this and, when I have, it’s been an empowering experience. But during my pre-conversion involvement in youth, this phrase gave me license to avoid those conversations and just be nice to people.
This may shock you, but I don’t think this is consistent with the life that God has called us to live in Christ. Going where we are uncomfortable is basically step one. As I explained earlier, I’m not good at this. But I wrestle with that and take notice, striving to be more Christ-like. I think that is what we’re supposed to do: recognize our faults and strive to be better in those areas by seeking Christ.
While I think this phrase is well-intentioned, I believe it misses the point. Belief and trust are the foundations of Christian conversion. Without communicating the truth claims of Christianity, there is no way for someone to come to faith in Christ. In Romans 10:14, Paul put it like this: “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?” I don’t say all this to excuse us from loving our neighbors. Christ-like action is incredibly important in giving our gospel presentations legitimacy to non-Christians. Without true love behind our gospel presentations, they have no value (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). We have to find balance between our words and our actions.
The best way for us to improve is to remember Jesus. He spoke boldly to everyone about who he was and why he came to this world. At the same time, he was feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and welcoming the outcast into the fold of God. Christ is many things for us. In the context of this blog post, we need to remember that Christ is our moral example. Thankfully, even though we constantly fail in both word and deed, Jesus still loves us and gives us the strength to go on and grow in him.