“Preach at all times. Use words if necessary.”
You probably have heard this quote before if you’ve been in churches any length of time. It’s been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but there’s some dispute about whether or not he actually said it. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking a couple of different things:
1. “Wow! How I live in the world really matters. I need to live a life of integrity and love in the world.”
2. “Whew! What a relief! I’m already pretty introverted, so now I’m excused from evangelism. If I’m a good enough person, some people will eventually ask me what makes me so different”
Guess what? The only time that ever really happened to me was when I was around people who knew what I was like before I became a Christian. They wondered why I had changed and it did give me the opportunity to share the gospel with them.
The problem is, I haven’t been around those people for the last 20 years. I have mostly lived a pretty holy life during that time, albeit not perfectly. I can’t recall anyone at any time asking me why I was so different. Maybe that’s on me, but maybe the “use words if necessary” approach is just not biblical.
Why? Words are necessary. Romans 10:14-17 says that “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?… Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
One of the biggest objections to Christianity is that there are so many hypocrites in the church. Saying one thing and living another thing is detrimental to the preaching of the gospel. I totally get it. We have to demonstrate that the gospel really has changed our lives by living a life of generosity, integrity, and love. But the early church clearly did not just live a changed life and wait for their neighbors to come and ask what’s so different about them.
No one had been more radically changed than Paul. He went from being a persecutor of the church of Christ to a bold proclaimer of the gospel. Yet he saw the necessity of opening up his mouth and saying something:
“So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews” (Acts 9:29)
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:2-4)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:3)
“(Paul was) arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
Since then we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” (2 Corinthians 5:11)
Clearly, Paul thought words were important, and you can read through Acts that Peter, James, John, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist and others did also. And as it turns out, Francis himself thought words were pretty important. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of Francis, quotes him as saying:
“The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.”
So yes, the life you live is important. But at some point, you’re going to have to start looking for opportunities to use your words to persuade someone of the truth of what has changed your life so much. It’s gonna take getting out of your comfort zone, but if you are praying and looking for it, it’ll happen.
Say something! Your words are necessary!
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.