“Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words,” Saint Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said.
The aphorism, often quoted, expresses a well-meaning viewpoint of many Christians today. They are concerned that we’ve been too loud, demanding and angry. Now, they say, we need to show the gospel by our lives.
It’s a good sentiment, and I certainly agree that we need to demonstrate the gospel change in our lives by caring for others. But there are two problems with the Assisi quote.
First, he never said it.
Second, it’s really bad theology.
You see, using that statement is a bit like saying, “Feed the hungry at all times; if necessary, use food.” For Christians, the gospel is good news — it’s what the word literally means. For evangelicals, our name speaks of the commitment to evangelism that defines us. The good news needs to be told.
Yet, Christians, evangelicals included, seem to love evangelism, as long as someone else is doing it. It’s time for all of us to start preaching our good news again.
Christianity is a missionary faith
It’s essential to understand that, regardless of our personal comfort level, we are called to share our faith because Christianity is a missionary faith. Despite the change in our culture and the way our faith is regarded, Christians are commanded to tell people about Jesus. In Matthew 4:19, Jesus called fishermen as his first disciples and told them he would make them “fishers of men.”
His disciples are still called to be fishers of men.
Even in our multi-faith environment, this calling should not be offensive to those of other faiths or no faith at all. Evangelism does not mean coercion. We can and should respect each other and strive for tolerance across varying beliefs, but that does not require pretending those differences do not exist. One of the core beliefs of Christianity is that Christianity should be propagated.
It isn’t necessary for every Christian to rent a stadium to proclaim the gospel to thousands. Most Christians can gain a hearing for the gospel while exchanging life stories at the coffee shop, taking a meal to a hurting family or standing for justice in an unjust world.
What evangelism requires is that when we care for a friend or speak out for a cause, we tell others that our faith is the reason. We tell them the good news that was told to us.
People are more open than we think
When speaking to his disciples about sharing his message, Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). The problem then and now has always been about the lack of workers, people who tell the news. It has never been about the harvest — those who do not know Christ. They are often more open to listening than we expect.
Famous magician and outspoken atheist Penn Jillette once talked on his video blog about an encounter with a Christian who gave him a Bible as a gift. Rather than be offended by it, Jillette recognized the gesture for what it was — concern for him. “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” Jillette asked. “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
That’s a good question for many Christians to answer today.
LifeWay Research, the Christian polling outlet that I lead, found that 78 percent of those who do not attend church said they, like Jillette, would be willing to listen “if someone wanted to tell me what she or he believed about Christianity.” Younger people were even more likely to say they would be willing to listen.
The harvest at least seems ready to hear, while the workers don’t seem as willing to talk. That’s a missed opportunity.
Christians are timid
A 2012 LifeWay Research study found that 80 percent of churchgoing Protestants believe they have a responsibility to share their faith, but only 39 percent have actually shared with someone how to become a Christian in the past six months. In other words, a lot of people think they should share their faith, but they don’t often do so.
As I head to Wheaton College to take a newly created endowed chair, I’m aware of the man it is named after — Billy Graham. He was known for many things that should be part of our reputation as well. He cared for the hurting, sought to bring peace to tumultuous times and partnered with others for the greater good. Ultimately, however, he was mostly known for one thing: sharing the gospel.
And we should do the same today.
In Jesus’ last words before he ascended, he said we are to “make disciples of all nations.”
Evangelism isn’t just one part of our calling. It is central to our calling. Jesus’ last words should be our first priority.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research and the incoming Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College.