Don’t Forget the Words

What Citygate Network means
by a “spoken gospel message” 

Not long ago, I re-read Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, who penned the book in 1956. If you’re not familiar with the work, it’s the true story of five missionaries—including her husband—who were slain by the Auca Indians of Ecuador earlier that decade. I was completely pulled into a post-World-War-II frame of mind as the author described the upbringing, scholastic achievements, conversion, and courting years of each of the martyrs.

I was taken by their copious references in their diaries to their faith, and their ongoing recitation of Scripture, spiritual poems, and hymns. Other than a few preachers on Sunday morning, very few people I know talk like that today—and I live in Colorado Springs were there are nearly 200 Christian ministries headquartered! 

Indeed, it was their burning desire to stand before and preach the gospel to the lost that drove Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully together. And it drove them to that fateful encounter on the Rió Curaray in the South American jungle.

Not long after re-reading the book, I came across a piece by Brad Greenberg in The Wall Street Journal’s “Houses of Worship” section. Called “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire,” it describes the significant swing in Christian missionary culture since the Eisenhower era. 

Greenberg talks about how evangelistic fervor has diminished and how the emphasis in missions has changed. He suggests that missionaries used to go overseas to preach about Jesus and make converts. 

“Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel,” he writes. 

He suggests that the vast majority of them go to nations where Christianity is already known to work for social justice, and to expand their horizons or strengthen their spirituality. 

In the article, David Livermore, executive director of Cornerstone University’s Global Learning Center, explains this paradigm shift: “In a postmodern context it goes against the grain hard-core proselytizing. To Millennials, it really feels like al-Qaeda in Christian wineskins.”

Scott Moreau of the missions department at Wheaton College adds that two decades ago, half of his graduate students believed that building churches abroad was their leading objective. Fighting human trafficking, caring for AIDS orphans, and ending poverty are now the popular priorities. And while these are indeed very worthy concerns, the switch has evoked some to question whether the message of the cross has become secondary to serving a cause.

As I talk to people around our continent about the ministry taking place at missions and similar ministries today, I often hear things like this: “I, too, want to preach the gospel by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.” It’s as if the very acts of hospitality are the essence of the gospel. Hospitality demonstrates the character of Christ, but without the words of Christ, the gospel is speculative rather than substantive (see Rom. 10:17).

The fact is, with society paying so much attention to the hungry, homeless, abused, and addicted…and with so many groups stepping forward to address the symptoms of sin and neglect…it’s easier than ever to marginalize the words we are called to proclaim. 

Greenberg concludes his article by saying, “Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.’ But research suggests that non-Christians often miss the message without the words.” 

Said another way, these days, people should not be expected to connect dots they may not even know exist. Fewer and fewer of the folks who go to Christian social service agencies and social justice ministries for services have any sacred history. The “old, old story” needs to be told anew. (I am not advocating that a homily must precede the hominy or vice versa; I am simply saying that in the course of your ministry, a literal message is critical, whether from the pulpit during a chapel service, across the desk in a counseling session, or on the sofa in the lounge during causal conversation.)

In a culture becoming paranoid of any proselytization, these words from the Apostle Paul to Timothy can be pretty intimidating, but they are, nevertheless, our continuing mandate: “Preach the Word! Keep your sense of urgency…Whether it is convenient or inconvenient, whether it is welcome or unwelcome, you as preacher of the Word are to show people in what way their lives are wrong. And convince them, rebuking and correcting, warning and urging and encouraging them, being unflagging and inexhaustible in patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2, Amplified Bible).

We don’t have to talk like Nate Saint or Jim Elliot did—but we do have to talk.


Adapted from Invisible Neighbors by John Ashmen (Cross Section Publishing, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2017)