Spread God's word by talk, imitation
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Oct. 23, 2005
Psalms 18:2-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Nothing persuades like word of mouth. You will decide on a movie, a restaurant, a car dealership or a church more by someone's recommendation than by an ad.
Advertisers work hard to create buzz about their product. But they don't just want you buying. They want you talking. If talk is strong, there is less need to advertise. The business succeeds.
Media reports can help or hurt a business. If the business appears in the news, you see it or read it much like an ad. If it's good news, you warm up to the business. If it's bad news, you stay away. The line between news and ads is thin because the media rely on advertisers. They don't necessarily report news that develops a society; they often report news that drives the economy. Fashion news is good for clothing stores. Accident reports are good for the insurance industry. Bad weather is good for snow shovel sales.
Word of mouth is powerful because it breaks through the artificial world of media and ads. An advertiser tells you how great the product is. Sometimes the company hires a spokesperson you recognize - a sports figure, a movie star, or an attractive model. You like the person who speaks, so you listen to the message. But in reality, you don't know the spokesperson, the advertising agency, or the company that makes the product.
You do know your friends. And when one of them says, "I got those shoes," "I went to that play," "I ate their barbecue," or "She cuts my hair," you trust their word. You want the same experience your friend has. Word of mouth is the best advertising a company can get.
Word of mouth is how the Gospel first spread. It was not reported by media outlets. It did not rely on slick ads. It spread first and foremost by one person telling another. The message got through if the spokesperson was trustworthy.
Imagine Saint Paul's pleasure to learn that the Gospel was spreading throughout Greece by the most coveted means imaginable - word of mouth. He bubbles with delight in this weekend's second reading (1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10).
On an early missionary journey Paul and his companions visited Thessalonica. They met a people suffering "great affliction." Amid those sorrows, the Thessalonians heard the word and rejoiced in it. Further, they observed "what sort of people" Paul and his companions were, and they became "imitators" of them "and of the Lord."
That alone should have satisfied Paul. He departed the community, hoping things would develop. Overall they did. There were problems, which Paul would address later in this letter, but in the opening chapter, he gives thanks for the success of the young Christian community.
Paul was hearing good news about the Thessalonians. "You became a model for all the believers," he wrote. "For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth." The word about the Thessalonians was spreading so far, Paul said, "that we have no need to say anything."
That was an incredible accomplishment. Ordinarily the word of the Lord burned so fiercely within Paul that he had to speak about it. He preached far and wide, and often at great length. He corresponded in complex epistles. But one thing left him speechless: the reputation of the Thessalonians. It seemed to Paul that he and his companions had nothing further to do, because their young disciples were doing it all.
People were talking. Specifically, they talked about hospitality and conversion. "They themselves openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols." You can't buy that kind of advertising.
Today Christians have to work even harder. The reports of our work are carried in mainstream media outlets with no more interest in one religion than another. They level the playing field. They report the good and the bad about Christians and non-Christians alike. They do not proselytize. Christians cannot rely on the media nor on ads to spread the good news. It has to happen by word of mouth.
If we are imitators of Christ, people will take notice. If we turn to God from the false idols of selfishness and materialism, the word will spread. If we receive one another generously, then we will serve the living and true God, as we "await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath."
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron.