A recent development in the new syncretic New Age Contemplative Christianity movement is to use a saying which St Francis of Assisi used:

Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.

Many Catholics and Protestants are adopting this approach to evangelisation.

There’s a problem with that. According to St Francis’s biographer Mark Galli, he never said such a thing.

In a 2009 article for Christianity Today, ‘Speak the Gospel‘, Galli tells us (emphases mine):

Francis of Assisi is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

… The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.

In fact:

no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It’s not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples.

And:

Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.

Galli’s book reveals that Francis began preaching early in his ministry, in the Church of St George, the church of his childhood and adolescence. He went on to preach regularly in the Cathedral of St Rufinus:

He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.

He then became an itinerant preacher, openly proclaiming the Gospel to rich and poor alike:

sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests—any who gathered

It’s time we put away the romantic, ethereal ideal we have of St Francis. No doubt the millions of statues, beautiful though they are, portraying him with a bird in his hand have gone some length over the past several decades to reinforce a notion that he was a mystical, silent, holy man who cared more for nature than preaching.

However, we would be mistaken. He loved an active ministry — as well as all of God’s creation.

So, let’s ensure that we put away false ideas of St Francis’s ministry. He was very much oriented to people and to preaching. Instead, we would do better to imitate what he actually did — spread the Gospel message in words to rich and poor!

Ed Stetzer has a good article, also in Christianity Today, on how to do this: ‘Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words’. In short, use words people can understand, be sincere, evangelise outside of church as well as inside it! He says:

The gospel requires, demands even, words. So, let’s preach the gospel, and let’s use words, since they’re necessary. May they be clear and bold words that call those inside and outside the church to follow Jesus.

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