There is power in words. God spoke the universe into creation. The word of the Lord came to prophets, priests, and kings throughout the Bible. The Word of God became incarnate through a virgin and lived with us. Jesus made his disciples through a regular cadence of deeds and preaching the gospel. And, between his ascension and second coming, he commissioned us to proclaim this gospel (Matthew 28:19–20). Evangelism is a conversation and we must use our words wisely.
Preaching the gospel, the euangelion (“good news”), is part and parcel of evangelism. And because the gospel is news, what better way to communicate its truth than through words? Yet, there is a trend among well-meaning Christians that treats the gospel as if it were truth expressed through actions alone. It is unnecessary to tell people the gospel when they can just as easily be shown it. Our kindness should take the center stage in evangelism. Words, we’re told, should be used only as supporting actors when absolutely needed.
Evangelism is a Conversation
Most of us encounter this idea through a misattributed quote from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” It’s an attractive thought, one that seems correct, but there is a great irony to it. This quote that champions a word-less gospel is itself conveyed through words. You would not have learned it otherwise. And here lies the problem with a word-less gospel. News does not spread through actions but through words. (There is a good reason we don’t get our evening news from mimes.)
It’s not that kindness is irrelevant to the gospel. However, looking at the example of Jesus, we see that our gospel-driven kindness is only half the equation. Yes, kindness to unbelievers is important, but, as a presentation of the gospel, it is incomplete. Evangelism requires us to emulate the deeds-words cadence of Christ. Rejecting words in favor of deeds warrants a tweak to the Apostle James’ tongue-in-cheek rebuke, “You have words and I have deeds” (James 2:18). But don’t we know that when it comes to evangelism, deeds without words are dead?
Three Things Words Do in Evangelism
If words are so important to evangelism, what role do they play? Here are three things to consider.
1. Words clarify truth in a chaotic world.
Our culture constantly preaches rival gospels (which, in truth, are not really good news at all) through words. People are constantly bombarded with narratives and lyrics from talking heads and cultural icons that point them in any direction but the cross. In our age of information—a mixture of raw data, competing voices vying for power, and fake news—the spoken truth of the word of God acts like a beacon of hope. We can evangelize through conversations and careful words about hope and truth.
2. Words highlight our weaknesses.
This may sound strange, but it’s a very important part of evangelism. The greatest compliment to our presentation of the gospel is our testimony of how it changed our life. Sharing our testimony means that we admit our shortcomings and flaws and revisit the sin from our past, both sin that we’ve done and sin done to us. It is a display of our weakness. Yet, in that weakness, the gospel is strong. The Apostle Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The more we boast about our weakness, the more the strength of Christ is displayed. It’s a difficult thing to boast about our weakness with mere kindness alone. Evangelism is a conversation about our weaknesses.
3. Words (of the gospel) are the power of God that brings salvation.
It is a message that we share in words and show in deeds. Displaying the power of the gospel in kindness is the frame in which the message hangs. People need to hear what God has done and is doing now. After all, the apostle Paul reminds us, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
Jesus did not come only to show his faithfulness to the Father in terms of His deeds. The incarnate Word of God was also the ultimate herald of the gospel. Jesus came to preach and proclaim the good news. If we truly desire to take his commission seriously, then we must always remember to represent him in word and deed. As Francis of Assisi (actually) said, “I am the herald of the great King of Heaven.” The most effective heralds represent their king well in both word and deed.