There’s a favorite expression making its rounds in the church today. It is a resurrection of St. Francis of Assisi’s quote (Founder of the Franciscan order, 1181-1226), which goes like this:
Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.
The reason it’s soared in popularity and practice is because many Christians would rather simply be “nice” and “do good” while remaining silent about why they’re being nice and doing good. It is a good, moral life lived well among neighbors, coworkers and family, but it is a life absent of the proclamation of faith and God’s glory as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Scott McKnight, in his commentary on 1 Peter says, “We have been easily led astray into following socially significant ministries rather than following the path of salvation as the road Christians should travel.”
In other words, it’s the age-old tension between balancing social ministry and preaching the gospel. In our country, conservative Evangelicals have tended to do well on the latter and poor on the former, while it’s the opposite for liberal Protestantism.
Many churches, including mine, emphasize the importance of serving others as an outlet and proof of our faith. After all, if Jesus washed His own disciples feet, then ought we not to serve one another? However, when serving others becomes an end rather than the means of gospel proclamation, disciples of Christ have gotten off track. The foot washing incident and other instances of Jesus’ physical ministry (healing, raising from the dead, feeding multitudes, etc.) all came in the overall context of His goal in ministry: to seek and save the lost.
Scripture reveals that signs, wonders, miracles, even when done by the apostles after Jesus’ ascension were done as proof of the Gospel message. They were never performed simply to relieve an isolated need. They were done with the Gospel in mind, with a view toward all the earth knowing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that only through faith in Him can one have ultimate salvation in God.
McKnight says, “The history of the church proves dramatically that when Christians get out of balance here, it is always the message of salvation that gets lost.”
It’s not that churches ought to do less social work or service (some are doing none). Rather, it’s that we do serve wholeheartedly, without losing sight of the very reason we serve. It’s to communicate the glorious, liberating truth of salvation in Christ alone. Service without proclamation of Jesus’ love does indeed meet needs, but a filled stomach without hope is a tragic paradox.
Perhaps one of the best books to urge a balance between service and proclamation is Lifestyle Evangelism by Joe Aldrich. At the heart of it all though, seems to be an unfortunate reality… if someone has to tell you to tell others about the joy and hope of your salvation, then most likely you’re not currently living in it.
Maybe the most important thing is to continue to be burdened by the real needs of those around you. Continue to mobilize yourself, others and resources to meet those needs. And continue to dedicate yourself to communicating the life-transforming content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Elton had a post the other day looking at Romans 10.17:
So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.
Essentially, one cannot have faith in what one never hears about. Preach the Gospel at all times using words. Period.