I can't remember where I was a few weeks ago when I got this little card. I think it was handed to me along with my receipt at a Christian bookstore. Here's what it looks like:
When I saw it, my first inclination was to scream, but that would not have been appropriate. Instead I smirked like I was better than everyone around me, but then I realized that was not appropriate either. So instead I carried it home with absolutely no expression on my face (I might have coughed--I'm not sure), scanned it into the computer, and waited a long time to write something about it under the pseudonym of Boring Dan.
There are two big problems with what is written on this card. The first is the main quote from Francis of Assisi. It is one of the most popular quotes from Christian history, but it has a serious flaw. Part of the message of this quote is good, which is that we should live out our faith through our actions toward other people. The implication, though, is that it is usually not necessary to use words to preach the gospel. But what is the gospel? By definition it is "good news". How does one learn good news if not through words?
Suppose that all of the violence ended in Iraq, that I did not know about it, and that someone wanted me to know this good news. If they hugged me and smiled, I would not know why. If they brought me to a gas station where the prices had fallen dramatically, I would not know why they had fallen. If they invited me to a party where everyone in the room was celebrating the good news but never brought it up, I would not understand the celebration. They only way I would ever get the message is through words that told it, whether written or spoken. In the same way, the only way anyone can ever comprehend the good news of God's grace is through words. It is always necessary to use words.
The Bible demonstrates this truth beautifully. First of all, there is the fact that the Bible itself is a book of words. Apart from the words of the Bible we might have a vague understanding of God's existence as Creator, but we would never truly know Him. The words of the Bible also tell us explicitly that no one can come to a saving knowledge of God apart from the gospel being given to them through human language. Read this passage from the tenth chapter of Romans, which makes a far better case than I ever could about how necessary words are:
For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." 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 they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
Words are more important than we realize. Jesus is called the Word of God; it was with words that God created the universe out of nothing; God made humans in His image, which is defined in part by the spoken language that sets us apart from all other creatures on earth; God revealed himself for thousands of years through prophets who spoke His words, and it is through a book of these words that He continues to reveal Himself today; Jesus said that "by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned;" and the passage above tells us that it is only through hearing a message of words that sinners like me can have any hope for eternal life. If you are a believer in Jesus as your Savior, I don't need to go any further in proving this point about words than to ask you to consider how you came to believe. No matter what other circumstances were involved, you believed because you heard (or read) words that explained who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
The second big problem with this card is that the word words is crossed out and replaced with a list of various media as though these could actually replace words in the telling of the gospel. Granted, some of these media (chat rooms, blogs, messages, vlogs, ...) are legitimate ways that words could be used to tell the gospel. But how are art and photographs, for example, going to bring someone to faith in Jesus? The answer is that they are not. Perhaps they could play a role of softening the emotions in order that someone would go on to believe the verbal message of the gospel, but without the verbal message they are useless. The same is true for music, videos, and events. If someone understands the gospel through those media it will be because of the words they contain and not because of the media themselves.
I would even go as far as to say that the new trend of emphasizing visual media in Christianity borders on idolatry. An idol is essentially something that can be seen that is honored above or alongside our God, who is unseen. Nearly every time I go to a youth ministry conference or read a recent book on church ministry I'm told that the new generation is a visual generation who cannot adequately understand God apart from visual imagery. To me this seems a little too much like what happened when the Israelites had just come out of Egypt. They knew that a great God had brought them out of Egypt, and they had grown up in a culture of visible gods, so they decided to try to represent God visibly. They fashioned a golden calf and bowed down to it and proclaimed that this was the God who had brought them out of Egypt. God's response to this was not, "Thank you for worshiping me in a way that helps make it so real to you." Instead, He was so angry that He nearly destroyed them on the spot.
Please don't misunderstand me. I don't have a problem with the existence of Christian visual media. I even make my own videos from time to time to help illustrate biblical principles. What I do have a problem with is when worship centers on the visual rather than the verbal and when the spoken gospel message is clouded over by visual media and other distractions. I admit that I am very impressed by the technology and showmanship that I have seen at many worship services, but I'm sure the Israelites were even more impressed by a beautifully crafted calf made of pure, shimmering gold.
We worship a God who is greater than anything this world has to offer, yet we have never seen Him. That's why we are to set our minds "on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth," and why "we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen." Just as Jesus said to Thomas, who had doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." It is for this reason that we are told to "walk by faith, not by sight." And where does this faith come from? Art? Videos? Kind deeds done by strangers? No. Instead, "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ."
UPDATE: As it turns out, the theme of John Piper's Desiring God Conference next month will be The Power of Words and the Wonder of God. It looks like it will be along the same lines as what I've written here, except much better. I probably won't get to go.