I like and respect Ed Stetzer. He is one of the few evangelicals/Southern Baptists who understands and addresses the short-comings and failures of his own tribe. He’s been willing to take some heat over the years for doing so, and I respect him for that. He is thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful. I believe he loves the Lord and wants the best for evangelicals.
However (you knew that was coming…), I came across this essay in the online edition of Christianity Today and was troubled by some of the ideas and lines of thought contained therein. From his perspective inside the evangelical world, and from their theological understandings and emphasis, I can of course see why he believes what he does here and why it is important to him. I just want to point out, from my perspective, why I think this line of emphasis is both unhelpful and on shaky theological ground.
First, he writes of creating a culture of accountability as to evangelism:
“I’ll often ask the staff to tell our team who they’ve shared the gospel with most recently—it’s a form of accountability that I’ve found to be most effective in organizational settings…Individuals who are truly passionate about building thriving church communities will be willing to push the envelope on their comfort level in order to create disciples…Does this approach sound forced? Maybe it does. But the point is that after a few times of being asked, ‘Who did you share the gospel with this week?’ our team members and colleagues won’t need to fumble for words. Sharing Jesus after a while will become something all of us do automatically—not because we have to, but because we want to. It will be something that happens naturally, flowing out of a love for Christ and a desire to build his kingdom in this world.”
When I read this, I actually laughed out loud. Yes, it does sound “forced” and there’s good reason: it is! Think about it Ed: These are people who work for you. You are their boss. Whether they are paid staff or not, you can have a profound effect upon their future prospects. If you don’t think that isn’t going to factor in to their motivation for “sharing,” I think you are being naive at best.
No one wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers and the reason they were fumbling for words, is because they were. I’m sure they won’t let that happen again, even if they have to invent someone, I’m sure they will have a story of who they shared with next time they are asked.
Talk about destroying any sense that evangelism or sharing one’s faith should be organic and natural. This goes to the worst type of evangelistic sensibility, which is that of meeting a sales quota or the bosses’ (pastor’s) expectations. How in the world does something become “natural” and done because we “want to” when we are being singled out by our boss, in front of our co-workers, to see if we are doing what was supposed to be natural and not coerced? The logic here escapes me.
Perhaps Ed meant if they are coerced, or shamed into doing it, it will then become natural, self-motivating, and done out of love for Jesus. Right, life experience tells us that shame and embarrassment produce all those wonderful motives and results. Not.
If a person were sharing out of shame or embarrassment, would Ed claim such a person as a success or proof his method works? I would certainly hope not, but who knows, maybe Ed would rather have a person shamed into sharing (because at least they are then sharing) rather than the person who rarely if ever shares, but when they do, it is completely honest, genuine, and authentic.
Second, he tells us verbal sharing is king or privileged:
“Some have attributed the quote ‘Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary’ to St. Francis of Assisi. To set the record straight, St. Francis never said that. But nevertheless, I believe it’s misguided a lot of Christians, giving them the impression that actions are holier or of higher value than words.”
Well, that “impression” is correct. Actions are of higher value and holier than words. Just ask any woman in an abusive relationship—like the woman Paige Patterson “counseled” to stay with her abusive husband, who then returned to him with two black eyes. This isn’t an “apples and oranges” comparison. It is a relational truth, whether applied to evangelism or any relation between two people. Actions speak louder than words.
Imparting information about God or the gospel through spoken words is not as holy or of more value than living, in action, the gospel. We all know this to be true. If we want to know someone, if we want to know if they and what they are telling us is trustworthy, we watch what they do, not what they say. I could verbally share the gospel every day with someone but if that sharing wasn’t backed up by actions, a life of love, then those words are emptied of value and any holiness.
Ed goes on:
“Don’t get me wrong, the things we do for God—the acts of self-sacrificial service and obedience—matter. But chances are, serving at a soup kitchen or volunteering at an animal shelter are not in and of themselves going to bring anyone into a relationship with God. The gospel is certainly demonstrated in deeds, but it is primarily proclaimed in words.”
Putting aside what a mute Christian must feel when reading that, this is just factually and theologically false. Many have encountered God through those very acts. Ever heard of Mother Teresa? Ever heard of these questions:
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25)
Notice what’s not in that list? “I was lacking information about the gospel and you never verbally shared it with me.”
Further, nowhere did Paul tell us that faith, hope, and verbal sharing remain but the greatest of these is verbal sharing. Love remains, and love is something that is done, is an action; it is not something we simply speak. Words about love are never the same as loving action. God demonstrated his love, he didn’t simply write it in the sky or voice it. He embodied love, the gospel, in the Word, which was Christ. A life lived, not just a word spoken.
Ed is rightfully not trying to create an either/or dichotomy. We need faith and works, we need to share in both word and deed. Unfortunately, he is (like most modern Protestants), trying to privilege verbal information, verbalizing, speaking, over loving action, regardless of words or verbalizing. Here he is completely modern, and, I would suggest, wrong.
Finally, we have this command:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13)
Notice the “as I have loved you” was embodied first in actions, not words. Any words about serving and love, would have no meaning without the context of actions. As he was washing their feet, nothing needed to be said. When one hangs, lifeless, on a cross—there are no words. Further, it is this type of love that will allow people to “know” what it means to follow Christ. That love will tell them much more about Christ than words ever could.
I am not saying we should never or rarely verbally share the gospel. I am saying verbally sharing is far, far below the importance of loving actions, a loving life. Without that, words are, well, just words. Blah, blah, blah…I can’t hear you—your actions are too loud—they drown out your words.
Only love (in silent action) allows us to “hear” the gospel.
I don’t care who said it, whoever said, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words,” said something Biblical, theologically sound, profoundly insightful, and true. I can’t say the same for Ed’s piece.