Word and Deed
by Rob Weingartner
At last week’s Fellowship Community gathering in San Diego, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop examining the language that we use to talk about mission and our participation in it. One of the things that I observed is that many of the false dichotomies that have weakened our understanding of God’s mission may be overcome simply by paying attention to the life and teaching of Jesus, to his ministry and to his model of what it means to be on mission with God.
An example of the problem is the all too frequent dichotomy made between sharing the love of Jesus and showing the love of Jesus. This dichotomy is framed differently, sometimes as a debate over the priority of evangelism or compassion, over the priority of words or deeds. Which is more important? Don’t actions speak louder than words? Didn’t St. Francis say to “preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words”? (Actually, he probably didn’t say that, but that’s for another blog). What we see in Jesus’ ministry is him bearing witness to the Kingdom as he preached and taught, healed and fed, delivered and confronted – his words and his actions in powerful symmetry.
When I was in high school, I was active in Young Life, a ministry focused on discipling kids who were not in the church. I remember in subsequent years, as I learned more about that ministry, hearing leaders talk about earning the “right” to be heard. I like that, how it brought together words and deeds. What that taught me is that we must treat people in ways that reinforce the words that we speak about a God who loves and saves. Understood in that way, words and actions fit together with an essential integrity. And treating others graciously becomes not a strategy but a Jesus-infused way of living the good news.
But there is, too often, this divide in the church. The stereotype, of course, is that evangelical churches focus on evangelism and progressive churches focus on social action. But in my experience that often breaks down. I’ve been in very conservative churches that talk a lot about the gospel but don’t encourage and equip people to share the love of Jesus Christ with their neighbors and friends. And I’ve been in liberal churches (please pardon my use of labels) that care a lot for each other but don’t do very well in caring for others beyond the congregation. In neither case do the congregations do a very good job of living for the sake of others.
It is in Jesus’s life and teaching that these tensions are resolved, rather, that we see that there is no real tension there. Remember John 1:14? I love how Eugene Peterson renders it The –Word “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” God’s love and promise of abundant life and everlasting life come to us in the concrete realities of this broken world. I am encouraged that more churches’ today affirm that our work of bearing witness to the gospel includes evangelism, social action, and advocacy and work for justice. Each of these is an important expression of the good news of Jesus Christ.
I love how that wise missionary and professor, the late Sam Moffett, put the essential connection between actions and words: “Without deeds the good news is scarcely credible. Without the word the news is not even comprehensible.” Our proclamation of the Gospel must be in word and deed. The way we serve others must reflect the love we proclaim, and our service must not go unexplained.
Given that the body of Christ is made up of many members, parts of the body who have different giftedness and different callings, it should come as no surprise that people are drawn to different dimensions of Christian mission. And in our witness to the gospel, we are called not to advocate for our giftedness over that of another, but celebrate how through a variety of expressions of discipleship and involvement in the life of the world God’s people bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
One of the things that I shared during the workshop last week was my “hit list” of words and phrases that are often used in discussions about mission that I believe take us in unhelpful directions. A friend suggested that unpacking the “hit list” might make a good blog series. I think he’s right, and I hope that you’ll be back reading again soon.