About ten years ago, everyone around me quoted the phrase that was allegedly (though unlikely) uttered by Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Many of the Christians I was around loved it, because it illustrated a faddish sentiment: evangelism was passé, and the best approach was to live missionally and do acts of social justice that would show people the love of Christ. (I don’t think missional living and traditional evangelism are at odds, but it was common ten years ago to assume they were.)
Now, however, the statement from Francis of Assisi is quoted just as often as ten years ago, but it is usually followed by a refutation of the idea that one could preach the gospel without words. I’ll leave it up to people more informed about the changes in contemporary Christianity to explain that shift.
Despite all this, I think traditional evangelism is important, but equally important is the need for Christians to have lives that display the teachings of Christianity. Any attempt to share the gospel with someone will be meaningless if he doesn’t see that my live has been changed by Jesus.
I’m not convinced that most Christians have lives that are noticeably changed by their faith in Jesus. This weakens our outreach to the world, but it also weakens our discipleship within our churches. Paul says in Philippians 3:17: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (ESV). Paul was comfortable telling Christians that his life could serve as a model of the Christian life to them, but notice that he also thought there were Christians in their congregation who could serve for the others as models of the Christian life.
One of my favorite illustrations of this comes from D. A. Carson in his book on Philippians. I quote it in full:
“When I was an undergraduate at McGill University thirty years ago, studying chemistry and mathematics, another Christian student and I began an evangelistic Bible study in the men’s dorm where we were living. We were both a little nervous and didn’t want to be outnumbered, so we invited only three unbelievers, expecting that not more than one or two would show up. It was rather distressing when all three put in an appearance. I had never done anything like this before. Within a few weeks, sixteen students squeezed into my little dorm room, and still only two of us were believers. Doubtless some Christian observers thought it was going exceedingly well; as for me, I was exceedingly frightened. The Bible study engendered all kinds of private discussions, and I soon discovered that I was out of my depth.
“Mercifully, there was a chap on campus called Dave, a rather brusque graduate student who was known to be wonderfully effective in talking to students about his faith and about elementary biblical Christianity. I was not the only one who on occasion brought friends and contacts for a little chat with Dave.
“On the particular occasion I have in mind, I brought two of the undergraduates from the Bible study down the mountain to Dave’s rooms. He was pressed for time and, as usual, a bit abrupt, but he offered us coffee and promptly turned to the first student.
“‘Why have you come to see me?’ he asked.
“The student replied along these lines: ‘Well, you know, I’ve been going to this Bible study and I realize I should probably learn a bit more about Christianity. I’d also like to learn something of Buddhism, Islam, and other world religions. I’m sure I should broaden my perspectives, and this period while I am a university student seems like a good time to explore religion a little. If you can help me with some of it, I’d be grateful.’
“Dave stared at him for a few seconds and then said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time for you.’
“My jaw dropped. The student thus addressed was equally nonplussed and blurted out, ‘I beg your pardon?’
“Dave replied, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I only have so much time. I’m a graduate student with a heavy program myself. If you have a dilettante’s interest in Christianity, I’m sure there are people around who could spend a lot of time and energy showing you the ropes. I can introduce you to some of them and give you some books. When you’re really interested in Christ, come and see me again. But under the present circumstances, I don’t have time.’
“He turned to the second student. ‘Why did you come?’
“After listening to the rebuff administered to the first student, the second may have been a bit cowed. But gamely he plowed on. ‘I come from what you people would call a liberal home. We don’t believe the way you do. But it’s a good home, a happy home. My parents loved their children; disciplined us; set a good example; and encouraged us to be courteous, honorable, and hardworking. And for the life of me I can’t see that you people who think of yourselves as Christians are any better. Apart from a whole lot of abstract theology, what have you got that I haven’t?’
“This time I held my breath to see what Dave would say. Once again he stared at his interlocutor for a few seconds, and then he simply said, ‘Watch me.’
“I suppose my mouth dropped open again. The student, whose name was Rick, said something like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
“Dave answered, ‘Watch me. Come and live with me for a month, if you like. Be my guest. Watch what I do when I get up, what I do when I’m on my own, how I work, how I use my time, how I talk with people, and what my values are. Come with me wherever I go. And at the end of the month, you tell me if there is any difference.'” (Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Kindle Locations 812-839).)
How many Christians feel confident telling a non-Christian to observe his or her daily life and see the difference Christianity makes? How many Christians would feel confident saying something similar to a younger Christian, inviting that Christian to watch his or her life to see how the Christian faith is lived out?
Aim to be such a Christian. Pray for God to work in you to make you such a Christian. And pray that God raises up scores of people in every congregation who are such models of the faith.
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