Words and actions are like two wings of an airplane, and you won’t catch flight in witness with just one or the other.
Let me start with a question:
What is the best thing that has happened to you over the past three months?
It doesn’t have to be about faith or spirituality, though it might’ve felt close to a religious experience for you! It could be a promotion you received at work that finally validated your efforts. Or maybe it was the chance to relax on a tropical beach, reading the latest page-turner from your favorite author. Or maybe your granddaughter introduced herself to the world with health and vigor.
After you have an answer in mind, move on to the more important question.
Did you tell anyone about it?
Odds are, you did. An old marketing adage says you tell three others when you have a great experience with a brand. A more recent study put it higher—7.44 people to be exact. In sum, “people enjoy speaking of positive news and remember good news clearly” (Trnd.com).
We love sharing good news. In the retelling, we not only re-experience these wonderful moments, but we also spread those good vibrations around, allowing others to step into the same kind of wonder.
In fact, we’re all wired to share good news. God designed us in his image, so we’ve taken on, at least on our better days, some of his characteristics. And God himself loves to share good news. From the beginning of time when he proclaimed that all of creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), to the days he came to earth in the form of Jesus to launch the kingdom of God, our God has always been a bearer of good news.
Like God, we love sharing wonderful news. The Scriptures even speak highly of those who do: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isa. 52:7).
But this brings us to a more puzzling question.
If we’re actually wired to share good news, why do many of us find ourselves hesitant, insecure or just plain resistant when it comes to talking about the very thing we say is the best hope for all of mankind, the greatest expression of love in the universe, the very climax upon which all of history hinges?
What keeps us from sharing the gospel with those who don’t know Jesus?
One of two things must be going on here. One, we don’t think someone else will receive it as good news. We wonder if they’ll turn their backs on the message, and more painfully, on us. Or two, we secretly don’t think it’s actually good news.
Is It Good News Now?
In my 20s, many winds converged into a spiritual storm in my soul. A number of personal setbacks had me wondering if ministry—or even keeping the faith—was worth it.
Among my personal issues, I also struggled through one that would affect my witness. Even though I was a full-time campus minister, a part-time seminarian and a “part-time” church planter, I couldn’t shake this one thought:
I didn’t know if I had good news to share.
I grew up thinking the central thrust of Jesus’ message was about our eternal destinies. As a follow-up phone operator for a televised evangelistic event, I was trained to ask: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” The gospel, as it was taught to me, seemed like it was all about the afterlife.
We had to die to gain any of the benefits.
But Jesus’ life and teachings were also compelling to me—the stuff that’s in the red letters of our Bibles. My unbelieving friends may have slighted Christianity, but they could respect Jesus. He taught about how we’re supposed to live: loving our neighbors, forgiving others, living lives of simplicity and generosity, crossing cultures, empowering others, seeking justice, praying for miracles, connecting with God in our everyday lives. Jesus masterfully painted a captivating vision of what it meant to be a citizen of the kingdom of God.
Yet in the gospel I knew, none of that seemed to matter. Even if you hated your neighbor, acted on your racist prejudices, spent all of your wealth snapping up extra homes and stock portfolios caring nothing for your neighbor, but you prayed a prayer when you were 8 years old, then you’d be with Jesus for all time?
That didn’t feel like good news. It felt like we were setting people up, in the name of Jesus, to live self-centered lives. Shouldn’t the gospel not only tell us how to die, but also how to live? Shouldn’t we have a story that is relevant to those who still breathe, and not just to those who gave up their last?
I know we teach more than that from our pulpits. We do talk about how to live out our faith in practical, relevant ways. But when we start talking about the gospel itself—the core articulation of our faith—it can make the more relevant stuff feel irrelevant. Or at least, like extra credit.
It didn’t feel like a story I wanted to live and die for, much less tell.
In my early 30s, I found myself nestled in the foothills of Sierra Madre, a Los Angeles suburb. Around 30 pastors and leaders had gathered for a doctoral class at a Passionist retreat center under Dallas Willard’s tutelage.
Early in the course, he asked us a question: “What is the gospel Jesus taught?”
All the hands went up in the air. And someone gave a respectable answer: “That Jesus died to pay the penalty of our sins, so that when we die, we get to go to heaven.” All of us looked around in approval.
But Dallas bent down into the microphone and said, “No.”
My mind raced: Was he a Christian?
Then he asked us to open our Bibles to Mark 1:14-15:
“After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe this good news.’”
I had read these verses many times, but they finally clicked for me. In this passage, the word for gospel is repeated twice: “good news.” And for Jesus, this was the core message: the kingdom of God has come near. God is in charge and making wrong things right—now, and in the glorious future. It was a powerful way to put together the already and not-yet-ness of the kingdom of God, and all the stuff in the red letters started to make sense. Jesus’ proclamation, therefore, could pull together the strands of my theology and weave it into one coherent gospel.
There is an eternal future that exists for all of us, and through the cross, we are forgiven. And at the same time, God is serving the hors d’oeuvres of that future banquet in our present day. His kingdom has come, and we’re all invited to be a part of it.
This felt like good news, and I was ready to tell it.
The Big Story
But as a college minister, I couldn’t go on campus and start saying, “The kingdom has come near.” They’d envision me yelling on a megaphone wearing sandwich boards depicting people falling into the flames of hell. It just wouldn’t make sense.
So we came up with a way to share the gospel, through the lens of the entire biblical story. We called it the Big Story. [If interested, you can read more in depth about the Big Story in True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In (InterVarsity Press, 2008).] It would walk through four “circles”—Created for Good, Damaged by Evil, Restored for Better and Sent Together to Heal—to help people understand why the world was created, how it was damaged, how it is being restored and our response to it all.
The first time I taught this at an evangelism conference for college students, the response was amazing. The seminar was full of students from Occidental College, one of the most politically correct campuses in our country. The residence hall leaders there are trained in a list of words they can and cannot use, like “first-year” instead of “freshman,” to be inclusive. It’s not an easy place to proclaim the gospel.
But when students heard about the Big Story, they went out immediately and started sharing their faith. One student went to a fast food restaurant that evening and started telling this story with a stranger. (I’ve known two people who have since gotten tattoos of the Big Story.)
It finally felt like good news.
And they, as the marketers predicted, started to share with others.
Is It Good News to Me?
At this point, we have to ask ourselves the hard question:
Is the gospel good news to us?
Just last Sunday, we had a newcomer at our church whom we’ll call Elise. She’s a successful director in the fashion industry, and she looks the part. But her personal life was in crisis, having gone through a divorce, an unhealthy relationship, shallow friendships and immense stress at her job. She started looking for answers at a Buddhist church, a counselor and even a psychic, who instructed her to meditate over a crystal.
So as she was meditating, she heard a man’s voice telling her to drop the crystal. She heard him say: “Trust me. I will take care of everything.” But when she looked around, no one was there. She asked her boss, a believer who lived in another city, what she should do.
Her boss directed her to someone who goes to our church, and they met up for a meal. They talked, and our church member shared the gospel through the Big Story. She gave her life to Jesus right there.
We ask newcomers to introduce themselves when they show up at our church, and when it was Elise’s turn, she went into her whole story about how she became a Christian, and how much joy she has right now.
It was good news to her, and she couldn’t stop gushing about it.
The Countercultural Task
Evangelism is one of the most countercultural things we can do today. It strikes hard against the relativism of this postmodern age, which rails against us for being arrogant, intolerant or cock-sure, claiming there’s a story above all other stories. It’s a time when being perceived as close-minded is the greatest insult, and it would be easy to retreat into the shadows of culture, so as to not offend.
In a quote that is often misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, we’re told to: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” So it’s tempting to take the easy road and believe that our words are not necessary. Our lives will speak for themselves, right?
Yes, we will have to live out our faith. Without that, we won’t have any credibility or integrity. Actions matter. That’s a given. But our actions aren’t enough.
I remember when a young campus minister told us the story of how he prayed for a homeless man who had been struck by a truck. He was hunched over with broken ribs but didn’t bother going to the hospital. This minister prayed for the man, and as he prayed in the name of Jesus, they both heard cracking sounds coming from his ribs. At the end of the prayer, the homeless man straightened up, stretched out his arms, took a deep breath and smiled. He was healed.
At the end of the story, I asked excitedly, “Did you invite him to follow Jesus?”
He just looked at me, his eyes blinking in bewilderment. “I didn’t even think to ask.”
Actions don’t interpret themselves.
Words and actions are like two wings of an airplane, and you won’t catch flight in witness with just one or the other. Words are needed to explain the actions. It’s the pattern that you see in Jesus’ ministry throughout the gospels: a demonstration of the kingdom of God followed by an explanation of what’s going on.
For Jesus, words always followed deeds.
There’s an old saying: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But that’s not quite right. Stick and stones can break bones, but words can wound a soul. Or lift it up. In fact, from the beginning, all of creation—every breath and shining glory—started with a word.
Words bring life.
The Bible challenges us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). You might be given an opportunity to talk about your faith, and if you want to offer life, your words are always necessary.