St. Francis of Assisi was wrong when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Well, at least sort of wrong or, at the very least, shortsighted. The statement seems to place a primacy on the acts of service themselves as visible indicators of faith rather than the verbalization of what motivates the service in the first place. But what if your general acts of service are just that—general? How is the person you’re helping supposed to discern that you represent the One True Living God of the Bible and not some form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or even Lord Xenu of Scientology?
Despite this barrier, Evangelical culture seems to operate according to St. Francis’ principle. Service is something the majority of Christians know should happen. Even as I write this, Christian organizations are digging wells in Africa, churches are building orphanages in Mexico, high school ministries are serving in soup kitchens, and people are planting Christian schools in Africa. I remember being in college and talking to a pastor of a church plant in Los Angeles about a weekend mission trip down to Tijuana. He told me about the houses they were going to be building and the supplies they were going to bring to the people there. When I asked if he was speaking or if there would be any Gospel-sharing opportunities, he essentially replied, “No. We’re showing them the gospel just by being there and loving on them.” Cue head scratching.
Now, don’t get me wrong; some Christians are truly passionate about the above projects and are absolutely and convincingly preaching the Gospel (the person and work of Jesus Christ in his righteous life, atoning death, justifying resurrection, and ascension to Lordship at God the Father’s right hand). The truth is, I’m thinking of my own experience and cowardice in this regard. My own failures to be bold for Jesus sometimes haunt me. Serving others is an indispensable part of following Jesus.
But what if the Gospel isn’t shared? What if, as I do these things, I’m never encouraged or given an opportunity to share the good news of Christ?
Well, for my flesh, it’s really quite convenient. I mean, I get the “warm fuzzies” of “loving thy neighbor” and I don’t even have to potentially embarrass myself by risking my neck or reputation by mentioning Jesus. Heck, I don’t even have to learn doctrine! And really, if Francis is right, then shouldn’t the object of my service be asking me questions about why I’m doing these acts of love? Why I am different? Because it’s so obvious, right?
If I search my heart, I find that I’m really only doing this for me. I want to feel validated. I want people to see me serve. I don’t actually want to risk offending anyone. It seems that there are two equal but opposite errors regarding Christian service: an ideological Gospel with no serving (James’ warning: “Faith without works is dead.”) and ideological serving with no Gospel (which is much less talked about in modern Christianity).
Like all paradoxes and seeming contradictions in scripture, the answer is found in the person of Christ. Did he solely go around healing and serving the poor? No, he did more. He had a message to proclaim: that salvation is found in Him, and only Him. We have the same message. The gospel is the priority.
Mark 4:23 shows the perfect balance of ministry that Christ performed: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” The disciples followed his same example and “went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere” (Luke 9:6). The act of Christian service only has its power when coupled with the gracious news of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Christians, we need to both serve and proclaim His Kingdom. Jesus held both of these in tension. Both emphases are true. We need to serve, but the church must boldly, shamelessly, and specifically preach the Gospel of Jesus. Anything less is a band-aid on a fatal bullet wound. It’s a quick fix on the present life, but possible condemnation in the eternal perspective.
Look, there is certainly a place and definitely a biblical mandate for helping the “common good.” Christians should be leading the charge of cultural renewal, doing justice, and easing the burdens of our neighbors. Our actions back up and validate our witness, but that only works if we actually present a witness that needs backing up.
Why must we proclaim the Gospel so boldly? The Bible gives us a bold answer:
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:13-15).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Recent scholarship has expressed doubt that this famous quote can accurately be attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.