By Words or Works?
Updated: May 7, 2019
Here’s the question: Is evangelism something that is accomplished primarily by words or works? What I mean by that is do we share the good news with others by verbally telling people about Jesus, or by doing kind things for them?
First of all, my understanding of evangelism is that it isn't something that is an isolated activity – like leaving our house to go do "evangelism". We can do that, but it's something that we should be intentional about doing all day, every day – where it becomes our lifestyle.
As an individual, I don't see any issue with approaching someone simply looking to talk with them about the most important questions of life. I'm not offering them anything physical, except maybe a gospel tract. We are simply exchanging worldviews with one another and sharing our thoughts.
Even if my desire is to get to the gospel with that person and talk about who Jesus is and what He has done, done rightly, I don't think this is offensive to people. The key words there are “done rightly”. It saddens me that too many people who call themselves evangelists, come across in such a way to the world that people would say of them, “They are shoving their religion done my throat.” To be fair, for some people if you simply ask them, “Hey, what do you think about Jesus?” – they get all indignant and reply, “Hey buddy, don’t shove your religion down my throat!” So I do believe that there is an element of hypersensitivity out there for some individuals.
It’s been said by some Christians that we need to earn the right to speak into people's lives. I've never understood that. If we are genuinely kind, and interested in a sincere discussion, people will recognize that, and appreciate our concern. It doesn’t always happen, but quite often I can honestly say that I have received handshakes and hugs from complete strangers because they've enjoyed the brief moments we spent together sharing ideas.
Building relationships is important. I just don't know if it's essential. Obviously a good relationship with someone lends itself well to our goal, but is it necessary? Sometimes building relationships and evangelism are pitted against each other. Shouldn't they go hand-in-hand?
There is a quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." Can it technically be considered evangelism, if all we do is let our actions speak for us? Don't we have to open our mouths, and tell them the good news? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. Romans 10:17 Serving them is not going to convey the message of the gospel.
How will people understand the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, impending judgment, and what God has done in Christ to bridge the gap that exists between a holy God and sinful humanity, if all we’re doing is kind deeds for people? Those concepts are not being conveyed by kindness, charity, or acts of mercy. We must tell them by using words. I believe our works should support what we're saying. They aren't the message themselves, but they under-gird it.
Sadly, I think many Christians have this mindset – evangelism is showing God's love through example. It's true that we can show our faith in God through our kindness to others, but we shouldn't say that we're evangelizing with our kindness.
Here's how I think this plays itself out in the mind of many Christians. They step out in faith into their community and they're thinking two things, in this order:
Serve people and show them the love of Jesus.
If the opportunity arises, tell them about Jesus.
They are more than willing and excited to do something kind for someone, and that's great, but truth be told, I suspect many are extremely reluctant to share the gospel verbally. All I'm suggesting is that we flip the order of priority between #1 and #2. Do both, but be more intentional about engaging them in a meaningful conversation.
What might this look like? Let's say I go with my local church into the community to give away hot dogs, chips and bottled water. I give someone a hot dog, they smile and say "Thank you." At this point I could say "God bless you." or "God loves you." Or I could say, "Would you give me a minute or two so I can share with you why I'm out here doing this?"
By God's grace, I think I'm capable of doing that, and so are other Christians. And no doubt sometimes those few minutes will quickly turn into twenty minutes of extremely meaningful interaction.
If all we are doing is the good work of providing food or a service to people, they will think well of us, but not necessarily think well of Jesus. On top of that, if all we do is the kind deed, it might even be possible that we are conveying a message that we never intended, that salvation is achieved by good works!
It’s faulty thinking to believe that people will come to Christ by our loving action. Sometimes this is called "Lifestyle Evangelism". Which can be defined as people coming to know Christ simply by witnessing the way we live. This perspective would say that we don't even have to go out into the community to talk about Jesus, rather people will witness our exemplary lives and that will convey the message of the gospel. This is false. How does someone know the difference between a Christian showing Christ's love, and a non-Christian simply being "nice”?
Any unsaved person can give blood or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Don't non-Christians do these things? And I don't know about you, but I have to tell people about Jesus because sometimes my life and the things that I say and do look nothing like Jesus.
Not only that, but “Lifestyle Evangelism” is actually a logical impossibility. To say, “I will live like Christ to the world and that will be how I share Jesus with them.” That cannot be done. Why? Because to live like Christ is to speak truth. Jesus was a preacher. He was about proclaiming truth to the people who walked in darkness. He came to seek and save that which is lost, and not by exemplary behavior but with words.
If your desire is to live like Jesus, yet you are always quiet about Him, are you really acting like Him?
The reality is this: the biggest problem people face is the issue of their sin. Whatever their physical need is at the time, it doesn't compare with the possibility that they could die in their sins. Sometimes I think the Church is just making this world a better place from which to go to hell.
Their only hope is Christ! And He's given us the words to speak! Do we spend all our time and effort meeting all sorts of physical needs, yet neglect people’s most important need which is spiritual reconciliation? I don't know; I'm just asking.
Here's a quote to chew on, "Oh my friends, we are loaded with countless church activities, while the real work of the church, that of evangelizing and winning the lost, is almost entirely neglected." - Oswald J. Smith.
Charles Spurgeon said regarding reaching the lost, "Do something, do something, do something!" Most people interpret that as him speaking with a sense of urgency. That may be true. Since we can't go to iTunes and hear how he said it, I think he might have said like this, "Do something, do something, do something." Basically saying - Do anything! Find something you can do, and then do it! Find a way! Talk to someone, if you can't do that, hand them a tract, if you can't do that, throw one on the ground so someone will pick it up, if you can't do that, support missionaries, if you can't do that, pray. Pray like crazy! Do something!
So the answer to the question: is it by words, or works? The answer is – it’s both! My point here is that, as a whole, I think the Christian church in America is doing a decent job of meeting the physical needs of the people, but where are all of the evangelists? Let’s be balanced! Let’s feed the hungry and satisfy their stomachs, but let’s not forget to tell them about the One who can satisfy and deliver their soul from sure death.
I think John Stott summed up this issue quite well when he said, "This does not mean that words and works, evangelism and social action, are such inseparable partners that all of us must engage in both all the time. Situations vary, and so do Christian callings. As for situations, there will be times when a person's eternal destiny is the most urgent consideration, for we must not forget that men without Christ are perishing. But there will certainly be other times when a person's material need is so pressing that he would not be able to hear the gospel if we shared it with him. The man who fell among robbers needed above all else at that moment oil and bandages for his wounds, not evangelistic tracts in his pockets! Similarly, in the words of a missionary in Nairobi quoted by Bishop John Taylor, 'a hungry man has no ears'. If our enemy is hungry, our biblical mandate is not to evangelize him but to feed him (Romans 12:20)! Then too there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling."