There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” Despite how often people quote this, it’s stupid.
It’s attributed to St Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Sounds good and obvious, right?
However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, points out that ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.
But that’s not the Gospel.
The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do.
The Gospel’s a message about what we could /can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.
The Gospel requires preaching or, rather, proclamation. As scripture says, salvation comes by ‘hearing.’ Good works are the fruit of hearing the Gospel; they are not the Gospel.
Part of me fears Francis’ quote is so popular in the Methodist world because we’ve lost the ability and the boldness to proclaim, in pulpits and in every day speech, the Gospel. The cliche has become, for us, an excuse. (And part of me wonders if our denominational inability to communicate the Gospel is what has led to us being behind the curve in communicating via social media.)
But with all due respect to Francis, the message about the Word become flesh very definitely and even primarily requires words.