For those uncomfortable with speaking about the gospel, St Francis of Assisi's quote provides reassurance. "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words" is commonly interpreted as a reason to not talk. After all, we can reveal the gospel purely by our actions. It's great news for those who feel ill-equipped to speak gospel truth.
But there are problems. Firstly, St Francis of Assisi never said this. The quote doesn't appear in any of his writings, and none of his biographers use it either.
The second, much bigger, problem is this phrase constitutes very bad advice. When it comes to the gospel, words are always necessary. Here's why.
Why actions aren't enough
A friend of mine is a Salvation Army officer. Watching the members of her corps working with the homeless is truly inspiring. There is no question in my mind that selfless love is Christ-like and deeply attractive to others. But what kind of "gospel" would I take from actions alone? If you've ever observed people playing a game of charades, you'll know there can be wild variations in the guesses team members make in response to a person's actions. In the same way, non Christians might make all sorts of guesses and assumptions about what we believe when we do good works. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone seeing our good works and immediately jumping to believing the gospel which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15, for example.
Of course, the Holy Spirit can use any media - pictures, films, stained glass windows, music. But showing people who Christ is through our actions does not itself reveal the gospel; it may reveal in part the nature of Christ and how he can and does change us, but if actions were sufficient we would have no need for the Bible and Paul would have wasted his time writing letters to churches.
Words are essential to our faith. God spoke the universe into being, and John tells us that the one through whom the universe was brought into existence was and is the Word (John 1:3). At Jesus's baptism and transfiguration those present were told not to observe but to "listen" to Jesus (Mark 1:11, Luke 9:35). Although words may ultimately fail us when we try to speak of the goodness and greatness of God, it is words infused with the Holy Spirit that teach us the truth of the gospel as we read scripture.
Not only do we need words, but we need specific words. It matters that we are clear about what the gospel is. Often today we hear people challenge the necessity of getting bogged down in the detail. Theology - the study of God - is almost a dirty word; leave that to the academics in their ivory towers! As Ethan Renoe writes, "Ask most Christians today any question deeper than “Does God love everyone?” and you’re bound to get some sort of response suggesting that that sort of discourse should be reserved for theological universities."
Some are raising concerns that the Church increasingly reflects, rather than challenges, our dumbed-down-30-second-attention-span society. Keep the sermons short, we preachers hear. Focus on the practical aspects of right living. Don't go into complex theology. All we need to know is that we love Jesus and he loves us. Keep it simple, stupid. Instead of being counter-cultural, challenging the world to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, we offer Christianity-lite for a consumerist generation.
This is the reason why so many talk-down the Reformation. It wasn't necessary, it was all a misunderstanding, let's focus on the bigger picture not on the things that divide us. If we just preach the gospel by our actions and stop fighting over the fine detail the world will have a much better view of Christians.
I am sure that most of us long to see a unified Church. Public disunity does undermine the standing of the Church and has done so since the Church began but the Church Fathers and the Reformers insisted that there are some things about which it is worth having a public argument.
Nothing but the truth
The Bible stresses the importance of passing on the true gospel. Paul says in Galatians 1:8-9, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (ESV)
The words that Paul (the greatest ever evangelist of the Christian faith) used, point to essential truth. The words don't save us but the truth to which they point, by the Holy Spirit - that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone through the grace of God alone - does. If we are careless about the words we use, we run the risk that we are pointing to something - or someone - else altogether.
Of course, we are called to enact and embody the gospel as Christians. Works do not save us but they reveal the fact that we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17) in the way that we live our lives; by our fruit are we known to be disciples of Christ. No one would be drawn to a church full of angry, selfish people who did nothing for their community. We must preach with our whole selves to show that the words are true.
The truth that sets us free is not different for each of us, contrary to what some in the Church might say. We need to know what that truth is, and that means using our minds and our hearts and our souls and our strength. And then, when we begin to know it, we must offer it to others, so they in turn can be set free. We offer it in our words and we enact it in our lives. Preach the gospel at all times, yes. Of necessity, use words.
Sarah Hall is a preacher and teacher in her local church and churches across West London. She is passionate to see more people come to Christ. In her working life she runs her own consultancy company.