Preaching Without Words

Not too long ago, a preacher stood in front of his congregation and gave the following quote attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

He followed this with saying it was the dumbest quote he ever heard. He went on to say that it is by our words that we are known as Christians, and it is by our words that people know what we believe. He then exhorted his small congregation to preach with words, and to preach often.

I understand why he said it. To be a preacher is to be known for one’s words above all else. Many are critiqued based on the speeches they deliver each Sunday. If a pastor or preacher is not ready, both in and out of season, to serve words that encourage, teach, admonish, rebuke, edify, etc, then (s)he is not being true to his/her calling. Writers are often in the same situation, struggling to find the precise words benefiting as many people as possible. 

Nevertheless, I disagreed. Many of us are not preachers, just as many of us are not called to be writers, myself included (if you like what I write, it’s my second best talent; my best is doing what I write about). 

How are we supposed to communicate what we believe and what we stand for if we have neither the words or the opportunity to say it? 

Francis not only expressed a pearl of wisdom, he demonstrated it by using as few words as possible. 

And in many situations, words only get in the way. 

What are you known for?

Several years ago, I started a new job in a fine-dining establishment as a server. Being a newcomer is always uncomfortable. You can feel the eyes of others upon you, sizing you up as to whether you will fit in or not, let alone whether you should be welcomed into the business family. Not only was I new to the restaurant, but I was also new to this niche in the industry. I had a lot to prove, and I needed to prove myself quickly.

Every rookie has his or her own way of dealing with this awkwardness. My way has always been to keep my silence, speaking only when necessary as I focus on my performance. I always liked this approach for two reasons. First, it leveled the playing field a bit – I am as much a mystery to them as they are to me. Second (and more importantly), it allowed me to be known first for what I do, rather than what I say. If you can’t get the job done, nobody cares who you are anyway.

It never occurred to me that what I did had just as much (or more) impact than anything I could ever say.  

It took a few weeks to prove I could do the job. During this time, I had a few congenial conversations with my coworkers as we got to know each other. What happened next caught me by surprise. My coworkers began to watch what they said around me. An employee would begin to tell a dirty joke, only to stop while casting a nervous glance back at me. Other times, a coworker would utter a curse word before quickly turning around and apologizing to me. 

I repeatedly waved off their apologies because no offense was taken. I was raised by a former Navy chief; nothing they could say was nothing I haven’t heard before. Still, I was perplexed by their behavior. I never shared my personal beliefs with them (I’m here to do a job). I didn’t know any of them long enough for someone to ask me about my beliefs (a rarity, even when they do know you). In short, there was no reason for them to behave like they did around me. 

So why was I singled out?    

One day, I stopped someone from apologizing to ask them this same question. My co-worker smiled in embarrassment before saying, “I didn’t want to offend your beliefs.”

“My beliefs?” I asked, slightly bewildered. “What beliefs are those?”

“You know, that you’re a Christian.”

“How did you know that?”

“By how you treat people,” she replied. It was her turn to look slightly bewildered. “We see how you treat the customers, and how you help us out. It was kind of obvious.”

It was one of those moments when reality hits you like a thunderbolt. For years before this moment, I struggled and failed with trying to find a way to share my beliefs with others when such conversations were considered taboo. It never occurred to me that what I did had just as much (or more) impact than anything I could ever say. 

People notice, whether you notice them or not. Although being religious is not necessary for providing good service, it was the extra things I did each day which made me stand out, even though I never said a word. 

What are you preaching?

The opposite is also true. 

Many seem to think that the Great Commission is a matter of preaching. This explains why so many, when hearing the call of God in their lives, go to seminary and become preachers. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with this, such an education will never make you a preacher, no matter how much you study. 

You can go to seminary, read volumes of theological and philosophical works, and even take classes in speech. None of that will matter when your words don’t match your actions. Confusion sets in with those who hear one message but observe another. “Hypocrite” they will often say to themselves before your message is discarded. Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees…(Mt 5:20)

The opportunity to deliver a speech or sermon may never be available to you. In many situations, we only have sparse minutes to make an impression, often without the capacity to utter a word. 

That’s okay: what you do will be all the speech you will need, a message broadcast loud and clear to those with ears to hear. By their fruit you will know them (Mt 7:16).

Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Men emit their vice or virtue with every breath.” This is true whether you are a preacher or not. 

Francis knew that we are all preachers, even when nobody is listening. 

Make sure you are preaching the right message. 

One thought on “Preaching Without Words

  1. Amen! This reminded me of a brother I was involved in prison ministry with. His demonstration of the gospel as well as the discernable anointing that was palpable he seemed to carry always fueled my fire of desire for knowing Jesus. We are living epistles known and read by all men and my prayer is to really know Christ and the power of His resurrection so that I might be a semblance of His love in this world.TY for sharing brother Don.


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