... Use Words if Necessary
My church just finished a short series on evangelism. It had some helpful points and encouraging reminders, one of them being that not every encounter with someone has to become a full fledged gospel presentation. It's okay if the first conversation doesn't end in conversion. That being said, when my study group held a conversation about what we had learned, I noticed there was a heavy emphasis on relationship building rather than gospel preaching. Of course preaching the gospel was the end goal in our discussion, but the relationship building was viewed as the primary if not single correct version of evangelism. There's no doubt that some of my opportunities to evangelize would not have happened if it were not for the close bonds I had, but for us to believe that we have to check 'establish relationship' off our list prior to our preaching of the gospel, we have put a huge handicap on the advancement of the kingdom.
The battle cry of today's generation is "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary". Credited to St. Francis of Assisi, this saying teaches that gospel preaching is possible/preferable through example and antagonistically implies those who verbally preach are in danger of hypocrisy, and should stay in their lane. Oddly enough, St. Francis never actually said this. In fact St. Francis was an avid street preacher, standing on elevated platforms in public places and preaching the gospel to anyone within earshot. "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?"(Romans 10:14). If faith comes by hearing (v.17), then it follows that behavior and relationships, while important, are not substitutes for preaching. They're not prerequisites either. Friendships are more likely to start because the gospel was received, not the other way around. So Francis turns out to be more like those self-righteous street preachers; those bigoted megaphone-toting guys with the signs that say "repent and believe", and handing out tracts warning about the fate of those who do not. So unChrist-like, right? Not necessarily.
Now there are those 'evangelists' who may not grasp the message they believe to be preaching, seeing fit to protest funerals with "God hates fags" and "Pray for more dead soldiers" signs. This is another message entirely, but many actual street preachers like Todd Friel, Ray Comfort, and Tony Miano get lumped in with this kind of hateful rhetoric. Why are street preachers viewed as so offensive? Is it the messenger, or perhaps it's the message?
- "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18)
- “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” (1 Peter 2:4)
- “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (John 15:18-21)
The list could go on, but the point is our message is a stumbling block to the intellectuals, the pragmatists, the religious, the miracle-chasers, the self-sufficient, the basically good, the pluralists; anyone who hears the gospel hears an attack on self-autonomy. The messenger shouldn't be offensive, the message already is. We hope the gospel moves from offending to convicting, but this is the Spirit's work. This is a safeguard to keep us from believing conversion lies in our hands so we don't pervert the message by making it palatable to our audience. If you've ever preached the gospel to a stranger as kindly as possible and found yourself the recipient of a severe tongue-lashing, understand that this is nothing new. Many Old Testament prophets were murdered in a gruesome way, John the Baptist beheaded, Christ crucified, the apostles executed, Stephen stoned. All they did was preach the truth. Peter, Paul, and Stephen were beaten, flogged, and stoned within moments of preaching in market places, synagogues, and courts to people they didn't even know. Why? Because that's how the gospel is spread, not through carefully crafted friendships (which by the way are no guarantee that they'll be converted), but through public declaration of Christ crucified. This was the standard, and it should still be the norm. Read through Acts and see for yourself the evangelistic encounters and witness the results of each endeavor. Some end well, others do not- but the same message is preached.
A message for Christians who condemn those brave enough to take the reproach of Christ head on, realize that the friendships you establish will make your friends more receptive of you, not what you preach to them. Don't discredit the street preacher when in the end you will both be preaching the same gospel.. I hope.