To speak or not to speak?

St Francis of Assisi is often credited with having made one of the most influential comments about evangelism of all time. “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” Although there is no evidence that he actually said this, it has become a popular catch cry and brought relief to those who feel burdened by the call to mission. It sounds nice and makes evangelism less confronting, but is it true?

Read 1 John 3:16-18; John 13:34-35. People often refer to verses like these in support of a ‘wordless’ evangelism, but is that what Jesus and John are talking about in the first instance in these texts?

I think the first letter of St Peter gets closest to this style of evangelism when the Holy Spirit reminds Christians who are being persecuted that they are the holy people of God and encourages them to live out the hope they have in Jesus, refusing to repay evil with evil, always acting with honour and integrity. As they do so they can expect people to ask why they act that way when the world hates them. At that point says Peter, they are “to give the reason for the hope that is in them…with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). But notice they are still called to share their faith, their hope with words. (You might like to spend some time exploring 1 Peter to see how he encourages Christians to be missionaries even in the most hostile environment.)

What does Romans 10:13-17 say about the necessity of words in the task of mission?

It is true that in one sense you and I are billboards for Christ, bearing witness to the hope we have in Him by the way we live our lives. St Paul goes so far as to say that we are ‘the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing’ (2 Cor 2:15-16). I’m sure most of you reading this will have heard people use what they see as the hypocritical behaviour of Christians as an excuse not to believe. But are people solely won over to faith by observing our way of life? It’s true our behaviour can be a stumbling block to faith – just think of the damage recent scandals in the churches have had on our place in society – but does the growth of God’s kingdom depend on the holiness of our lives?

Read Romans 7:7-25. How does Paul’s experience help us here?

What are we called to bear witness to? Ourselves and our transformed lives? Or to Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins? In the midst of his despair over the need to be delivered from this body of death, who and what does Paul proclaim in verse 25?

Think of the great evangelist John the Baptist who saw Jesus and boldly proclaimed, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). Without question he was a righteous man of God but to whom did he point to for hope? See also John 3:30.

People often feel frightened to share the good news of what God has done for them in Christ. We worry that we don’t have the right words. We feel guilty because we haven’t got our lives together and so wonder what sort of witness we would be. And then there’s the ever present fear of rejection, of ridicule, of shame.

I would like to suggest that all too often we (me included!) have focussed on the wrong thing in mission – we have focussed on ourselves and not on Jesus. If I waited until I got my act together to share Jesus’ promises with anyone, I would never do it! But the good news is God loves me in Christ even though I am a mess! And that is precisely the message that has the power to save.

Have you struggled to share your faith in your daily life? Do you feel guilty about not grabbing the opportunities God has provided for you to point others to Jesus? Well here’s the good new – you are forgiven in Jesus’ name for these very failures. His mission was to set you and others free from sin and guilt and shame and give you new life. Your failures have not stifled His mission one bit. So be encouraged and give it a go – even if you’re scared of failing. Just as Jesus lives in you and leads you in living your life as a renewed child of God, so too, he will be with you as you speak with people and share with words the forgiveness, healing and peace he alone gives. It doesn’t have to be complicated or polished but you can be sure that as you share God’s saving plan, the good news of Jesus suffering, death and resurrection with others, the Holy Spirit will be at work calling them to faith in the promises of God and new life in Jesus’ name.