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St. Francis of Assisi said we should preach the gospel and, if necessary, with words. Or did he?
The online source called Wikiquotes has a dozen or more variations of the “preach the gospel; if necessary, use words” line. But they say there is no indication St. Francis ever said anything of the sort.
I suspect the reason that line appeals to many of us is that we tire of all the wordiness of God’s people, frequently used as a substitute for action. The danger is we may react too far in the opposite direction.
Words are a big, big deal to the Lord God—the One who spoke the world into being!—as well as to believers. We hold in our hands a book we call the Word, and the pastor brings God’s message from it every Sunday.
“Take with you words and turn to the Lord,” the prophet Hosea told Israel (Hos. 14:2, ESV).
Words are so important that the Lord Jesus Himself is called the Word (John 1:1ff). And yet there are times when words get in the way and quietness is called for.
Fewer words, please, Christian.
For those of us who tend to be wordy—present company included—that is an important lesson to learn.
Where fewer words are more powerful than the many would be where words have multiplied ad infinitum and are in danger of losing their significance. Then God’s people do their work with hardly a word, and to the thoughtful and observant their deeds carry more power than otherwise.
I stumbled onto this as a young pastor in my first church after seminary. When a church member gave me a sizeable check to establish a radio ministry, I began working with the program director of the country music station in our Mississippi town to find the most effective way to make an impact. I had learned from earlier ventures into radio ads that shorter is better than longer. (A station manager said each weekday they lost half their audience at 9 a.m. That’s when his station gave the various ministers in town time for a 15-minute devotional. He said to me, “If I were a preacher, I’d buy 1-minute or even 30-second ads. People will listen to anything for a minute—even a test signal—without getting up to change the dial.”)
Because our town had plenty of preachers on radio and television, I decided to put my little 5-minute program out there without identifying myself other than by name. The recorded intro played a musical lead-in, and the announcer said, “Here is an important message from Joe McKeever.”
It was inspirational, not confrontational, and encouraging rather than combative. Gradually, as the listenership increased (by a number of measurements), I began dropping in lines like “A funny thing happened yesterday at the church where I serve,” and eventually, “Let me tell you what someone said to me yesterday at Emmanuel Baptist Church.”
Before long, our little church was having first-timers every Sunday as a result of the radio program. We reached a lot of people from that program, and yet I never once did a promo of the church, told where our church was located or gave the schedule of services.
These days, when I hear a radio preacher spend half his time telling where his church is located and the times of their services, I want to say, “Friend, tell something interesting that takes place out there and we’ll figure out where you are and when to come.”
We preachers can get so wordy. (Tonight, as I write, I attended church with a relative. My observation was that the pastor gave us a pretty good 25-minute sermon. The problem is he took 45 minutes to deliver it.)
The writer of Ecclesiastes felt that fewer words in a time of worship would also be in order. He wrote, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools; for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God; for God is in Heaven, and thou upon earth; therefore, let thy words be few” (Eccl. 5:1-2).
What if we each followed that in our worship services? Nothing would ever be the same.
In sketching people, I’m aware that once they find out I’m a preacher, they expect a sales spiel at any moment.
Most of the sketching I do is at events where I’ve been invited. However, much of it is impromptu. Yesterday, for instance, one day after Thanksgiving, I sketched a dozen people in the breakfast room at our hotel next to the interstate. Later, I sketched a half dozen or more in a restaurant 200 miles up the highway and then another six or eight in a restaurant at our destination city where we had dinner.
The next morning, Saturday, while my wife slept late, I grabbed a sketchbook and spent an hour or more in the breakfast room of the hotel sketching children and a number of parents, maybe 25 or 30 in all.
Often, the scenario goes something like this:
Me: “So, where are you folks from?” (Today, it was Maryland and Wake Forest, N.C., and several other places. After answering, they will add that they’re in town to visit family or their son is running in a local race, that sort of thing.)
Them: “So, is this what you do? You’re a professional artist?”
Me: “In a way. But actually, I’m a Baptist preacher. But I draw people wherever I go.”
At this point, some expect they’ve figured it out, that I’m in here evangelizing, and they start watching for the come on. I am evangelizing, but not in the way they might expect.
I’m doing it without words.
They’ll see my signature—"joemckeever.com"—and often will ask about that.
So, the discussion may turn in any of a number of directions—website, church, God, family, sketching. From time to time, I’ll get an email from someone I sketched or have a note on Facebook from them.
But in any case, hundreds of people every month—and often hundreds each week—will walk away with a gift from a Baptist preacher that made them smile and feel better about themselves.
And that’s a good thing to do.
Our Lord Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Preach the gospel with words. But if word inflation has undermined their value, do your good works and leave it all with the Lord.
Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.
For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.
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