As I’m writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the globe, impacting daily life for billions of people. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot predict the future. I can’t imagine what the world may be like by the time this article is published.
What I do know is that among the myriad impacts of COVID-19, my local church has not met in person for weeks, and there is no certain date in the future for when we’ll be able to do so again. We’ve continued to hold weekly worship services with a skeleton crew from our building and broadcasting via Facebook Live to our members, who are all under stay-at-home orders.
Separated and stranded
It’s a strange time. The disconnect we’re all experiencing is taking its toll. Billions of people, accustomed to going out to work, school, exercise, shopping, and recreation, are all stranded at home. Billions who are accustomed to shaking hands with strangers, hugging family, and greeting one another with a holy kiss on Sabbath find themselves unable to touch, unable to reach out, unable to leave their homes.
In North American society we have been gradually sliding toward replacing in-person relationships with digital ones. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of this trend in ways no one predicted. No visits. No shared meals. No human connection without an electronic screen bridging the gap. And now that includes corporate worship. We cannot come together in person to bend our knees and raise our hands and open our mouths toward God. Even this we must do via electronic screens.
If we did not realize it before, we are all facing the reality now: Words alone cannot do justice to relationships. Of course, we’ve heard it all before, but now the proof confronts us every day. Work is not the same when separated from our co-workers. School in a virtual classroom doesn’t compare to being in a physical classroom. We feel cheated at birthdays and weddings and, perhaps especially, funerals. And more than anything else, we sense our disconnect on Sabbath. Content without community is clearly not enough. We need more than to simply hear the words of prayer and song and Scripture; we need to share life with those who share those words. And yet . . .
In the midst of all this, I’ve been looking for opportunities as well as at obstacles. Had COVID-19 come a few months earlier, it would have provided a timely example of how we need physical evidence to support our verbal testimony. This was the topic of my previous article in this series, “A Picture’s Worth.” As ambassadors for Christ, we’re entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and without this ministry — this tangible activity — our message is incomplete.
But as I reflect on the past few weeks, I’m reminded of the importance of our words. I’m reminded of the significance of the message of reconciliation (v. 19) and how our ministry is incomplete without it. It’s true that we must walk the talk, but we must also talk the walk.
Ministry or message
At times the Christian response to Christ’s Great Commission has been to favor either ministry or message over the other. This is painting with too broad a brush, but there is some truth to the stereotypes in North America. On one hand, among some Christians, there has been a tendency to focus on the message of reconciliation: preaching the gospel, teaching the truth, discipling believers with Scripture. This word-based approach to faith has shaped much of conservative Christianity. At times, the result has been a disconnect from the real world of lost people, growing believers, and the church’s mission. The truth, accurate as it is, has often sounded hollow and judgmental to a world longing to see it put into action.
On the other hand, among liberal believers, the pendulum has sometimes swung so far toward the ministry of reconciliation that the message has been left behind. They sometimes excel at enacting the gospel through serving the poor, showing compassion for the broken, and including the marginalized. But the name of Jesus is avoided. The explicit message of the gospel as it relates to personal sin is marginalized, and the truth of Scripture is often compromised.
These two extremes reveal the temptation to separate the ministry and message of reconciliation. One says, “I will boldly proclaim the gospel and truth of Scripture with my mouth, whether or not I prove it with my actions.” The other says, “I will live like a Christian and let my actions do the preaching. No need to say anything unless I am asked.” The first approach yields a person holding a sign, warning strangers of damnation. The second yields a person running a soup kitchen without mentioning Jesus. Both approaches contain half of the mission of God, and thus both fall short of truly joining it.
Word with deed
As followers of Christ, we are called to imitate Christ. And the most striking pattern of Jesus’ life was the way He always combined words with actions. Yes, He preached the gospel with His mouth. But He also fed the poor, healed the sick, and cast out demons. As Jesus commissioned His followers to go out on His behalf, He sent them with this two-pronged approach to being His ambassadors (e.g., Mark 3:14, 15; Luke 10:8, 9; Acts 1:8). Years later, the author of Hebrews would describe the salvation offered by Christ as something that was both announced and confirmed (Hebrews 2:3, 4). One is not complete without the other. As author Scott Jones says in The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor:
To evangelize non-Christian persons without loving them fully is not to evangelize them well. To love non-Christian persons without evangelizing them is not to love them well. Loving God well means loving one’s non-Christian neighbor evangelistically and evangelizing one’s non-Christian neighbor lovingly.
So we must have word and deed, message and ministry. And in the midst of physical separation from the vast majority of my congregation and community, I’m realizing again just how powerful words can be. The power of a text or email. The power of a tele- or video conference. The power of preaching to my congregation via the Internet in an empty sanctuary or calling my unbelieving friends to check on them. Words are powerful. They communicate our love with a clarity and precision that actions cannot. They reinforce our actions with information that simple behavior fails to communicate. God’s Word is powerful, and when we act as His mouthpieces, we yield that power. We proclaim our faith, express our love, and share our message of reconciliation.
Testimony of truth
Paul understood and practiced the two-pronged approach of word and deed in his life as an apostle — indeed, he reminded believers often that words without action are useless. Nevertheless, he placed a premium on the words of the gospel, particularly as they related to people coming to faith in Christ:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14, 15, NIV).
The gospel is good news for everyone, but no one can believe this good news if they do not hear it. It is not enough to simply “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, NIV). Rather, the light must be accompanied by the illumination of speech; good deeds must be paired with good words. Words that convey grace to those who hear them. Words that explicitly communicate the love and mercy and call of Jesus Christ. Words that provide the testimony that proves the truth of the evidence of our lives, just as much as the evidence proves the truth of our testimony.
Redeeming the time
On two occasions, the apostle Paul encourages believers to redeem the time. In Ephesians 5:16 he tells us to do so because the days are evil. COVID-19 has brought evil days upon us. Days of fear, anxiety, separation, poverty, sickness, and death. These evil days are in need of redemption, in need of being bought back from sin and death. Left with little more than our words to reach people with the gospel, we might feel that we do not have enough at our disposal to redeem the time.
But Paul’s other use of this phrase reminds us that our words are a powerful tool in God’s hands: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:5, 6).
Now, more than ever, Paul’s words remind us to talk the walk!