In a few days, my wife and I will be loading up the kids into a minivan and heading to Eastern Kentucky to celebrate Christmas with family. Not far from our holiday destination, however, there runs a little piece of history known as U.S. Highway 23, a stretch of road that has been officially dubbed “The Country Music Highway” due to the extraordinary number of Country Music artists who cut their first teeth and tuned their first guitars along its borders. In fact, the 50 mile radius surrounding my hometown contains the birthplaces and stomping grounds of such Country Music greats as: Loretta Lynn, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, and, yes, even Billy Ray Cyrus (aka. Mr. Montana). One of my personal favorites among these artists born and bred in the bluegrass, however, is a well-known singer/songwriter from Sandy Hook, KY named Jackie Whitley (you know him as Keith). Whitley’s brief career in mainstream Country Music landed him such hits as “Miami, My Amy”, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, and “I’m No Stranger To The Rain.” Due to a recent re-popularization by Bluegrass artists Alison Krauss and Union Station, though, perhaps the best Whitley song known to you is his chart-topping single “When You Say Nothing At All.”
A few days ago, I found myself driving in the rain (to which I’m no stranger) and crooning along with Whitley (as I’m sure many of you are right now) about the “…the smile on your face”, “…the truth in your eyes”, and “…the touch of your hand”, all of which are apparently capable of communicating more effectively than words. As I listened to this message blaring through my stereo speakers, I was reminded of a story I recently heard about an SBC missionary who has spent years in the Middle-East and admits he has only verbally shared his faith a handful of times. Lack of opportunity you say? Not according to the missionary. Instead, he politely informs his missionary compatriots that he doesn’t see the verbal proclamation of the Gospel as “central to the Christian life.” Instead, the task of the Christian (and apparently an IMB-funded missionary) is to “live the Gospel in front of them.” While this story represents a sad (but true) caricature of the issue at hand, the conversation surrounding “verbal” versus “lifestyle” evangelism is creating an increasing amount of noise, not just on the international missions front, but also on those of church-planting methodology and church-growth strategy for the 21st century. Does King Jesus really say it best…when He says nothing at all?
To be quite honest, I have a good deal of sympathy for this common urge to shy away from some of the pre-published, pre-polished, and pre-packaged evangelism methodologies so prevalent in many of our evangelical “outreach” ministries. The hyper-individualized environment in which we minister has grown increasingly averse to any type of “cold call” intrusion into the lives of other individuals, and even more so when such intrusions come off as impersonal and shrink-wrapped (hence, the death of the door-to-door salesman). To shy away from hokey and mechanistic evangelism strategies, then, seems in many cases to be the more effective methodology in our ministry contexts. My fear is, however, that in the name of “effectiveness” we may very easily find ourselves subtly subverting the biblical mandate and Kingdom priority on a word-based mission for another option which seems best (and easiest) to us and which in fact hides our sinful rebellion behind the amorphous terminology of “just being missional”. Is there a way to overcome the cultural stigmas and negative connotations associated with our “bible thumping” forebears and yet still maintain a thoroughly verbal witness? Is there still room in our culture and our convention in the 21st century for a word-based mission in which priority is placed on the fact that faith “comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17)?
Of course, the clichés abound: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”, “You must feed their hands and hunger before you can feed their heads and hearts”, etc., and of course such clichés bring a modicum of truth. One cannot seek to emphasize one of these elements to the exclusion of the other and still expect to be found faithful to Christ’s command of “making disciples” (Matt 28:19). A verbal Christian witness, even if it is highly informed and theologically accurate, if it is accompanied by the debauchery of Elmer Gantry or the cold cynicsm of Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady”, is no more fulfilling of Christ’s Great Commission than is the “missional” effort which immerses oneself in a culture for the sake of “living Christ in front of them”, but which never comes to the point of verbally “preaching Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The BF&M 2000 clearly delineates the mandate to “win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle” (Article XI). The question is not which of these elements is necessary, as both are crucial. The question is whether or not there is a clear priority in Scripture on one of these elements over the other and, if so, what does it look like for a “Christian lifestyle” to “undergird” the verbal proclamation of the Gospel?
My proposition here is not for the publishing of yet another pre-packaged evangelism strategy (although I think some of them are great). Neither is my proposition to do away with attempts at being “missional” so that more time can be spent preaching “which is what really matters”. My proposition, instead, is for Southern Baptists in the 21st century to make sober evaluations of the culture (without getting carried away by it) and to formulate strategies for genuine relationships which serve as conduits for the verbal proclamation of Christ. If we are not pursuing the mission with unbelievers of “making the most of every opportunity” through speech that is “always gracious and seasoned with salt” (Col 4:5-6), I fear that our preaching may be found in vain and our relationships and opportunities found wasted.
In the next couple of weeks, the time will come for many of us to put our money where our mouths are. As we encounter lost family members, neighbors, loved ones, and co-workers before whom we have the opportunity to “live Christ” regularly, and we encounter them in holiday settings which are saturated with nuances of Christ, we will all face the choice between the option which seems best (and easiest) to us of just “living Christ” and “letting our light shine”, and the other, more challenging, option which will seem a bit more invasive and uncomfortable. When those moments come, the challenge for you and for me will be to see those individuals as Jesus sees them, as a generation headed for destruction and Judgment, and with smiles on our faces, with truth in our eyes, and with the touch of a hand, to cry out with Him, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I would have gathered you” (Matt 23:37). Maybe then we’ll have a better idea of what it means to “live Christ”, weeping, pleading, and saying something, after all.