It wasn’t long ago that I mentioned the phenomenon about hearing something that seems like BRAND NEW INFORMATION one day and within 24 hours it’s the subject of discussion everywhere I turn.
It wasn’t that long ago that everyone I knew was quoting that favorite line of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The sentiment was so empowering, so missional, so dignifying to our mundane tasks.
I heard this quote debunked when I attended the Together for the Gospel conference in April. Since then, it’s been in my magazine reading, my Twitter feed, in conversation: Everyone knows this quote cannot have originated with the historical St. Francis, which is lucky for him because no one believes it anymore anyway.
You can communicate a lot of things without using words: compassion, service, grace, charity, mercy (also boredom, neediness, and overall creepiness, if you’re not careful with those nonverbal cues). But if you’re not speaking words, you’re actually not preaching the gospel, because God gave it to us through words and that is the only possible medium we have for sharing it with others.
Well, this made good sense to me and I immediately scratched the St. Francis quote (or, as I now know, the “St. Francis” quote) from my repertoire. This has led to a renewed sense of conviction…if I’m only really sharing the gospel when I’m using words, well, that’s not very often.
When I worked in a classical school, we were once asked if we could come up with a two-minute answer to the question, “What is classical education?” The challenge was to summarize all of the various facets of a rather complex educational philosophy in a way that was actually usable in a conversation, without resorting to jargon and code-words that would be meaningless to a casual inquirer. (To my knowledge, no one did this successfully.)
I think the same challenge is worth considering when it comes to the question, “What is the gospel?” Because of course there’s a long answer. (One version I’ve recently appreciated is The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler.) But if you don’t have 200 pages to cover your bases, and if you’re just trying to have a conversation with your neighbor at the mailbox, it’s good to have thought through which details are most crucial to include. Part of the challenge, at least in my context, is to present the truth in a way that avoids cliche and captures the seriousness and urgency of the gospel. When I say, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins,” almost everyone I know would nod along in agreement, but no one would understand that as a call to action. The other part of the challenge is coming up with words that I would actually say. I know a lot of “techniques,” but when it comes down to it, I feel corny using the bridge illustration or the Romans Road in an everyday conversation.
I’ve been mulling this over for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
Curious bystander: “You mentioned this word, ‘gospel.’ What exactly do you mean by that?”
Me: “The ‘gospel’ is the truth from the Bible about God and man. It says that God is completely powerful over everything in this world. He is also the source of everything that is good, true, and beautiful. He created man to bear his image, but because of sin, each person is now broken, wicked to the core. The Bible says that in our hearts we know what is true (about God and about ourselves), but we choose not to believe it because we want to be in charge of our lives, we don’t want to be told what to do, we want to believe that we’re okay just the way we are. But we’re not okay; the Bible tells us that sin (ignoring or breaking any part of God’s standards of perfection) alienates us from God and ultimately leads to death.
“But God came to earth as Jesus Christ, he lived for 33 years and never gave into selfishness, meanness, cruelty, or disobedience. Then he was killed on the cross, and he died willingly because he knew that he could take the punishment for our sin so that we would not have to. It was a double trade: Jesus took our punishment, and gave us his perfection. The Bible says that ‘He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.’ Because I have accepted this trade, God doesn’t hold my sins against me. When you become a Christian, God gives you the Holy Spirit, who begins to make you into a new person, a person more and more like God. It’s a process of becoming un-broken…the parts of me that are ugly and mean and selfish are slowly being changed into what they were meant to be all along: loving, gracious, forgiving. It’s the person I know that I want to be, but I can’t be all by myself.
“Believing these things to be true is literally what gets me through each day. When I’m frustrated because I can’t measure up as a mom, when I ache for my child who died, when I’m afraid for the child I’m carrying…just these three things would make me despair. But I believe that God is working every day in my life and in the world to make things right again, and this gives me hope.”
That’s right at two minutes. And as I read it, I realize it’s still too long for a conversation over the hedges. But it’s a start! I’d love to hear your version of a two-minute Gospel. How would yours be different from mine? And if you have a good 30-second version, share it as well!