They liked each other and were happy to be friends. But the three of them could just never agree. Every time they spoke about how to communicate Jesus on campus, they all had radically different ideas.
Jessica felt that too many words get expended by Christians. She wanted to shift the emphasis from speaking to acting. The gospel, after all, is about love. We need to preach less and love more. She wanted her chapter to focus on physically embodying the love of Jesus by serving people around them and acting on issues of social justice.
Patel was comfortable with Jessica’s desire to do good. But his own journey to faith had been triggered by seeing his brother’s serious back ailment healed when a Christian friend prayed for him. Shortly afterwards, as a teenager, he attended church for the first time and had been amazed by the sense of the presence of God. Over the years, since this happened, he’d come to see that the Holy Spirit—and his presence and works—were the key to successful evangelism. Anybody could be kind or good to others. Only the Spirit could do signs and wonders.
Liam also believed in the Holy Spirit. Who didn’t? And of course we should do good to others. But our pressing need, he always insisted, is to tell people about Jesus. It’s not that he didn’t care about social engagement or believe in God’s power. But if we don’t communicate Jesus clearly to everybody on campus, he reasoned, how could they possibly respond to him?
The three friends enjoyed one another’s company and found their debates stimulating. But it seemed like they all had completely different philosophies of how to engage their campuses. Jessica wanted to love people. Patel preferred the Holy Spirit stuff. Liam thought communicating about Jesus should trump all else.
The False Trichotomy
Maybe you’ve experienced similar debates on a leadership team or between friends. Perhaps, like me, it’s also a conundrum you mull over in your own mind.
The strange thing about such conflicts is that they’re entirely unnecessary. Jessica, Patel, and Liam think they are emphasizing different things. But deeds (favoured by Jessica), signs (emphasized by Patel), and words (the priority of Liam) actually all have the same three things in common:
1. They are all loving gestures.
Serving others and working on justice issues like human trafficking and racial reconciliation are wonderful ways to express the love of Christ. But (assuming we believe that knowing and following Jesus is a good thing) it’s also loving to converse with someone about Jesus and invite them to follow him. Praying for a person’s healing or sharing words of knowledge can also be a way to lovingly demonstrate to people the reality of God. Love, then, is not something which can only be expressed through our good works. Words and signs can also be loving acts.
2. They are all works of the Holy Spirit.
It takes the Holy Spirit to give us a dream for someone or to heal a person. But it also requires the Spirit to transform our hearts and move us to love and serve others physically. And let’s not forget that the Spirit is also the source of the words we speak to people about Jesus. All scripture, after all, is God breathed, and when we relay its message to another person, we are conveying the Spirit’s voice to them. The Holy Spirit is the source of our words, the power for our signs, and the motivator of our deeds.
3. They all communicate something about Jesus.
It’s easy to think that only words communicate. Everything we do, though, actually speaks to others. When a Christian community strives for racial reconciliation and interethnic harmony, for example, it says something powerful about the unifying power of the gospel. It also communicates to others the possibility of forgiveness and grace between estranged communities. When a person is unexpectedly healed this also conveys something about God; namely, his reality and power. Actions and signs, just as much as words, are a means of communication.
Deeds, words, and signs. It is unhelpful to designate only one of them as “loving,” “Holy Spirit stuff,” or “communicative.” All three are manifestations of the same phenomenon: The Holy Spirit communicating the love of Christ through us to others.
Jesus practiced all three. Sometimes in close succession. Luke 9:10-17 is a great example of this combination: Jesus teaches people about the Kingdom of God (word), heals their illnesses (sign), and then miraculously feeds them all (deed & sign). He doesn’t feel the need to opt for just one.
Signs, words, and works all hung together seamlessly in Jesus’ earthly life. In the debate between Jessica, Patel, and Liam, Jesus wouldn’t have taken a side. He would have been more likely to warn them against choosing one over the other.
The first Christians certainly seemed to believe this was the pattern handed to them by Jesus. In Acts 2, the early believers on Pentecost all spoke in tongues (sign), Peter then preached to the gathered crowd (word), and those who became believers joined a community where it was normal to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor (deeds). There was no division between the three back then. Nor should there be such a split today.
When One Gets Lost
Andrew Givens, InterVarsity staff at UNC Wilmington, recently shared with me how his chapter incorporates all three emphases into their evangelism.
At invitational meetings, for example, they sometimes have space for everyone present to pray and ask if God has a word or a picture for them to share with someone else in the room. Newcomers are frequently surprised to then be approached by someone who has received something very accurate and personal to share with them. Their assumption that God is not alive and active is shaken from its moorings.
The next stage of the meeting involves a short presentation or talk explaining more about the God they experienced and what he has done through Christ. It all culminates in an invitation to open their lives to Jesus themselves.
Andrew told me that 35 people have come to Christ this year through these kinds of events in his chapter. A huge number for a group that barely existed until a few years ago.
The sign-word combination is key to this success. Imagine if the chapter at UNC Wilmington had skipped the time of listening to God and sharing what they received. Students would have been much less open when it came to hearing about the God they had just experienced.
What, on the other hand, if they had simply stopped their event after sharing their words and pictures with one another? Newcomers would have gone home impressed with the cool stuff they’d experienced. But their understanding of Christ and the need to respond to him would have been sketchy at best. It took words to paint in the detail necessary for an informed decision.
It’s the same with the relationship between words and deeds. The chapter at UNC Wilmington puts a major emphasis on racial reconciliation. It’s an issue everywhere in the U.S., but especially in their context. So they strive to forge healthy cross-cultural relationships on campus and they also organize a race panel each year in which faculty (and others) can address issues of ethnicity and racism. This focus on reconciliation is inspired by group study of biblical texts relating to the issue. If the chapter removed this study of the Bible and its words, then it would become difficult for them to explain to freshmen the Jesus-inspired underpinnings of their drive for racial harmony. But if they simply studied the Biblical texts and failed to act upon the contents therein, then it would be an empty intellectual exercise that impacted nobody. Word and deed need one another.
Jessica, Patel, and Liam were weakening their chapter when they assumed that their evangelism should either be word-based, deed-focused or sign-rich. All three need to be there. It is in harness with one another that each emphasis realizes its own potential. The trick is to bring them together.
How has your fellowship brought together word, sign, and deed? Share your ideas and experiences in a comment below.