Words OR actions… what’s the priority in evangelism? HOPE’s Roy Crowne points to Jesus, who used both words AND actions. We need to do likewise.
Evangelism has been changing; 50 years ago evangelicals preached the gospel, and testified to transformed lives. Words were everything. The Bible was supreme. Some things don’t change – and shouldn’t. God’s word is still central in evangelism. But 40 years ago a shift began, which has rippled through four decades, changing the way Christianity is communicated, particularly by evangelicals.
At the Lausanne Congress of 1974, the First Congress for World Evangelization, leading evangelical John Stott highlighted John 17:18 and John 20:21, pointing out:
Jesus did more than draw a vague parallel between his mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely he made his mission the model of ours, saying ‘…as the Father has sent me, even so do I send you’. Therefore, our understanding of the church’s mission must be deduced from our understanding of the son’s.
He served in deed as well as in word, and it would be impossible in the ministry of Jesus to separate his works from his words. He fed hungry mouths and washed dirty feet, he healed the sick, comforted the sad and even restored the dead to life. Now he sends us, he says, as the Father had sent him. Therefore our mission, like his, is to be one of service.
Words and actions can’t be separated when we are proclaiming the gospel. Jesus lived out the life he talked about. For us, as his followers, telling people God loves them, goes alongside showing God’s love through practical, compassionate care.
HOPE’s work of bringing churches together in mission means we have seen that practical service for communities has become natural for churches of every size and denomination. Churches run winter night shelters, parent and toddler groups, senior citizens’ clubs, youth groups and more. Most cities have Foodbanks and Street Pastors run by groups of churches working together. The volunteer hours of thousands of church-goers are worth hundreds of millions of pounds and make a difference to millions of lives.
But it is easy to serve people without ever mentioning Jesus. The Apostle Peter challenges us to “live such good lives among the pagans that… they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” (1 Peter 2:12) and: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).
Our Christian lives are to be visible and to prompt positive comment. Our challenge is to be ready to put our faith into words.
But just as action without words falls short of Jesus’ example, so too words without action are empty and useless.
Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for religious people who “do not practise what they preach” (Matthew 23:3), calling them “hypocrites”.
Fruitful evangelism brings together words and actions. We need to be intentional about giving people the opportunity to respond to Jesus.
For example, churches in Sidcup, Kent, have been running a summer festival called Lark in the Park for 20 years. Over the two-week event each year, thousands of families enjoy an action-packed programme with music, competitions, dancing and activities for all ages, alongside the offer of prayer, evangelistic talks and an opportunity to see the Church in action.
At the other end of the country, churches in Cumbria received national recognition for their work helping homeowners to recover from flood damage. HOPE practitioner Jonny Gios, one of the local clergy, says:
“Churches in our town responded immediately to the flooding that so badly affected Kendal in December. Some churches responded with practical help out in the community like Sandylands Methodist Church, others like St George’s, Holy Trinity and St Thomas’ responded with hospitality through meals and drop in sessions. The leader of the council at the time Councilor Peter Thornton said: ‘Without the churches involvement in flood recovery there I’m not sure where the town would be.’
To be honest it’s been a real strain on the church, however our involvement in the community has provided much favour and people’s attitude towards the Church has changed. People have started to attend the church because of the support they have received from us.
One family, Clare and Jack, started coming in January and it was very moving when they came forward for their first communion. There are about four new people who are totally unchurched… many would say they are on a faith journey.”
Evangelism that combines words and action is not a hit-and-run exercise. To be authentic, it needs commitment and a willingness to serve long-term. Which is why local church partnerships can be so effective. Together, in word and action, we can make a difference as communities and see lives transformed.