A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a student who asked me two really good questions, “Why can’t I just let the good I do for people be enough for them to understand God’s love? Do I really need to evangelize whenever I serve others?” I think a lot of Christians find themselves asking questions like this
when it comes to serving others. Many of us have heard the saying, “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” You may have seen this as a text overlay on an artistic picture, maybe it’s embossed on a leather journal, or maybe you’ve heard it quoted in a sermon...maybe even attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
So, can our serving, share the Gospel even without us giving a verbal witness to Jesus? This is what I used to clarify & recap that student’s questions to me about the internal struggle he was having. And I used one of Jesus’ great teaching tools...I asked a couple questions in return.
“How does a person you serve, know that you are a Christian, & not a really nice atheist, a very helpful Mormon, or a good, kind & considerate Muslim?”
“How does a person you serve, know that your deeds were done on behalf of the One True God of the Universe, in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ & through the power of the Holy Spirit living inside you?”
37 He [Jesus] said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
If we are followers of Jesus, we have been asked to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the second greatest commandment (v. 39). But the reason that we have the second commandment is only because of the greatest commandment (v. 37-38). Jesus told us that we need to love others because that is an outworking of experiencing God’s love for us. As we see God’s love manifested in our lives, & knowing it in our minds, we begin to understand the Gospel. The Gospel is where knowledge (God’s truth) & action (God’s grace) intersect in the life of Jesus...who is the only means by which we can be connected to God (John 14:6).
As we serve in our community mission field, or in an
overseas mission field...we have an abundance of needs where we can engage others by serving them & then sharing why we are serving them. Jesus said that our works are to point past ourselves & to our Father in Heaven (Matthew 5:14-16). We have to be intentional pointers & we point with our words. Serving others is many times what gets their attention. It’s like yelling, “Heads up!” or “Watch out!” It draws people’s focus from what it is they are concentrating on up...but to where? If I don’t want my friend to get hit by a foul ball at a baseball game, I’m going to follow my, “Watch out!” with a point to where the ball is coming from. That is how our good works on behalf of God should operate. Our acts of service draw attention away from the regular pace of life & point past the work we are doing, to the One on whose behalf we are doing the work.
As we began cleanup after Irma, we had the chance to do this a number of times here in Gainesville. Some of our senior adults & college students have taken the opportunity to travel to affected areas to assist in disaster relief efforts in South Florida or Jacksonville. It’s amazing the attention a half-dozen semi-trucks that move into a church parking lot to serve thousands of meals a day will attract. The conversations that happen in a neighborhood begin to shift when they see a couple dozen college students ripping out drywall, carpet & tile as a family prepares to rebuild. Serving draws their attention & opens doors to share the Gospel.
Let me encourage you with two ways to be intentional with your service & the Gospel.
Ask God for – & respond to – opportunities to serve & love your neighbors. A person in need can give you a tangible way to demonstrate & share the Gospel. As Christians, we should set the example in our communities of what selflessness & service look like, knowing we do it to give praise to God. “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Colossians 3:17
Be ready to respond as you serve with the Gospel. Not all the time, but many times, someone will ask, “What organization are you with?” or “Why did you come here to serve?” as you are serving. Questions like these are open doors for sharing the Gospel, even if it is only a partial explanation of the why behind the what, in the work you are doing.
It’s very doubtful that, “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words,” was voiced by St. Francis. He in fact was known for his preaching & on some days would teach up to five times a day. We probably have at least five opportunities a day where we can serve others & give a witness for the Gospel. And as we are faithful to share & serve, I believe we will see more people follow Jesus. We have the words that they need to hear.
How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? Romans 10:14