Words alone are not enough, but neither are actions. Here's why.
Can we simply live out our faith and hope that people find Christ through our demonstration of His love? Or does evangelism in today’s world still require us to speak? A justice evangelist offers his take on the controversial questions.
“Love is what justice looks like in public,” Princeton scholar and activist Cornel West says in Call + Response, the film about the human trafficking industry. The demonstration of love in action against injustice is not only the central thrust of the star-laden film’s message, but also could easily be the bumper sticker philosophy of this emerging American generation. With a hope and passion to change the world, today’s young adults demonstrate God’s heart for issues like Darfur, child sex slaves, AIDS orphans, urban poverty, Myanmar, climate change and bonded labor.
For this group—often referred to as the “Justice Generation”—acts of service and justice put flesh on the far too elusive concept of love for all to see, opening the door to millions of young adults who would never entertain Christianity or give Jesus Christ a fresh and, perhaps, first-time look.
And as social action and responsibility have come squarely into mainstream America, the age-old debate in the Church has re-emerged with great vigor—to verbally proclaim the Gospel or to merely demonstrate our faith through action?
On blogs and websites or at church conferences—you name it—somewhere someone is championing a side, offering his or her take and responding to the controversial questions: Do people still need to hear the Gospel, or is it just as well, perhaps better, for them to merely see the Gospel and its power played out by the church? Are we still sharing Christ by simply “being the church?” Can we simply “live out our faith” and hope that people “get it”?
A Question I Couldn’t Answer
As one who came to Christ at age 20 as an angry atheistic philosophy student at the University of Michigan, I didn’t really give credence to these questions. Back then I had a hard time understanding why actions were important at all. “The only thing people need to believe is the truth of the Word of God,” I would say. I thought that if I could just help people understand the Gospel, they would get it. But all that changed at Urbana 2000, where I was reconverted to Christ. Though I was one of thousands of delegates there, I sat alone in the dark, high up in the rafters, weeping as International Justice Mission Founder Gary Haugen told us that each week 20,000 children are sold into forced prostitution. He continued, “Can the Christian faith be relevant in a world of suffering, injustice and pain?”
My polished, high-modern apologetic arsenal had met a question it could not answer. I returned from Urbana determined to change my life—my giving, pastimes, even my job description—and began to pursue a career in what I now refer to as “justice evangelism.”
Making the Justice-Jesus Connection
I’ve come to realize that justice is indeed what love looks like in public. This was God’s idea portrayed on the cross—that in Jesus, we have the ultimate and perfect expression of skin-on-love justice. However, as I talk with young people who are so passionate about global equality, it’s clear to me that making the connection between justice and the cross requires verbal explanation. I can’t expect them to “get it” through my or anyone else’s actions alone. And in today’s culture of compassion and social justice, when it seems everyone has taken up a cause, I don’t believe we can expect anyone—regardless of age—to make the justice-Jesus connection unless we share the Gospel via the spoken word.
Words may not always be sufficient, but they are always necessary. Proclaiming the Gospel in the face of the fact that 6,000 children are orphaned each day by AIDS is not sufficient, but it is necessary. Talking about the cross in the face of 27 million modern-day slaves is not sufficient, but it is necessary.
Moreover, a Gospel without words ignores the truth that our ultimate need is a spiritual one. Above all else, people need salvation, as Jesus said: “It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:45).
As an evangelist who has had the privilege of leading thousands of people to Christ, I’ve seen how speaking the Gospel unleashes a spiritual power, a magic, if you will, that alone can redeem not only a person’s humanity, but also his or her soul. We can clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, free the prisoners and heal the sick, but if we deny them the eternal glory of knowing Christ, we make no lasting impact on their lives. Without words, we cannot impart the only power that can transform the soul and society.
Not Simply With Words
While words are necessary, to think we can love the world around us the way it needs to be loved by words alone is delusional—and unbiblical.
The proclamation of the Gospel has always been through both word and deed. Jesus preached and healed (Matt. 4:23), and in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says that the Gospel came to them “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” Serving others and being a voice for those who have no voice have always been foundational to spreading the Gospel.
But particularly in today’s milieu, demonstrating the power of the Gospel—as well as speaking it—is absolutely necessary. Without the presence and power of a Christian witness, we have no flesh-on-love demonstration of our words. Often, the Gospel can only break forth when it is demonstrated through our care for others. When we care for the poor, the sick and the oppressed, we demonstrate the life-changing power of the Gospel.
By bringing together these two forces—words and actions—we offer the hope of Christ in an exponentially more powerful way. When the Gospel is simultaneously seen and heard, this union produces a transformative dynamism—a power that is able to transform the soul, as well as society. Talking to young adults throughout the country, I’ve experienced that power firsthand.
I had the privilege of leading Maria, a Los Angeles Latino lesbian, to Christ. As I spoke to the packed auditorium at UCLA, Maria’s heart burned. I shared about Jyoti, a 7-year-old prostitute: “She lies on her dirty bed, a child sex slave since age 5. She has learned to watch the crack below her bolted door for the shoes of the next man who will rape her for pay.”
Attempting to connect the spiritual solutions offered through Jesus to the horror of child prostitution, I told the crowd, “Jesus has everything to do with modern-day slavery. Jesus died for that 7-year-old child, and He died for us who need Him too. Jesus is both personally and globally relevant, able to transform our lives and the world we live in.”
Afterward, Maria approached me, her lips quivering as she shared: “Tonight, you made God accessible to me for the first time. I always knew He was out there somewhere. I know that the God you spoke about tonight is the God I hear in my heart, and that I am His daughter.”
That night, Maria and many others made first-time decisions for Christ. They saw and heard the Gospel in their native tongue—this new language of justice. Without the bloody message of the cross, there is no ultimate skin-on-love justice; without the power of the resurrection, there is no power to transform souls or society.
Our world needs a Gospel that is seen and heard.
As a national evangelist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, R. York Moore speaks to young adults at conferences and hundreds of college campuses nationwide. He trains Christians for personal evangelism through the seminar, Tell the Story! and he is the author of Growing Your Faith By Giving It Away (InterVarsity Press).
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