Ordinary witnesses

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Why we shouldn't hesitate to speak of Jesus

By Andrew Dyck

 

 

Why is it that when some Christians share the gospel, a carpet of verdant growth emerges in their trail? Yet nothing seems to happen when others, who are just as devoted to Jesus, speak about the gospel. Why can some longstanding believers easily talk about Jesus with their children and congregation but struggle to do so with unbelieving neighbors and relatives?

What makes the difference? What’s really happening? More importantly: What does God expect Jesus’ followers to do with the good news of Jesus Christ?

 

What the Bible says

Jesus instructs his disciples to make apprentices of every ethnicity, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to keep all of Jesus’ commands (Matt. 28:18-20). Once the apostles are empowered by the Holy Spirit, they are to be Jesus’ witnesses everywhere (Acts 1:8).

But what does God expect of all believers? Those who aren’t gifted to be apostles, evangelists, apologists or teachers? What does God expect of people who are tongue-tied or shy?

Very few passages in the epistles explicitly teach believers how to speak about the good news of Jesus—how to witness. Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Pet. 3:15-16).

Paul offers similar words: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6, NRSV).  

John introduces Jesus with just such respect and graciousness: “We’re announcing what we heard, saw with our eyes, looked at, and touched with our hands, so that we will all have fellowship with each other and with God, and so that we can have complete joy” (1 John 1:1-4, paraphrased).

 

Biblical witnessing

From these Scriptures, there are several things we can say about witnessing.

Witnessing is letting others know how we experience Jesus. Like John, we tell our own experiences and those of our faith community, rather than the experiences of others.

Both Peter and Paul emphasize responding to what other people are actually asking. In other words, witnessing is a genuine conversation, not a one-sided sales pitch that pushes for a deal.

We salt every conversation with gentleness, kindness and wisdom without a hint of anxiety or stridency. We respect the other person’s convictions, customs, and community—even religion—by listening carefully and seeking to understand him or her. We can be this patient because God is (2 Pet. 3:9).  

We always couple our conversations about Jesus with living as Jesus teaches. And we witness with the expectation of discovering joy.

We don’t need to know everything about the gospel—in fact, we can’t. Even if we could know the entire Bible, we would never finish searching and tracing out God’s wise and wonderful ways (Rom. 11:33). We need other believers, churches and denominations to communicate the gospel’s fullness, so that every household on earth can truly grasp how broad and high and long and deep is Christ’s love (Eph. 3:18-19).  

By sharing our own experiences of the risen Jesus, we renounce two temptations. We avoid the temptation to distill what God has revealed about the gospel into a pre-packaged or lowest-common-denominator summary. That’s like offering people a dry, empty nutshell instead of a living seed. Rather, we are to be as lively as God’s birthing Spirit, who comes and goes like the wind (John 3:8).

Also, we refuse the temptation to feel that “it’s all up to me.” God stitches each individual’s witness —however incomplete—with the witness of the church in every place, creating a multicolored tapestry that reveals Jesus with ever-increasing beauty to our neighbors and our enemies, to the world and even the cosmos (Eph. 3:10).

 

Bearing witness

Journalists speak about a moral obligation to “bear witness” to the extreme poverty, atrocities of war or devastating effects of human trafficking they have seen firsthand. Having discovered people and events hidden from their viewers, these communicators feel compelled to respond to the world’s pain by letting their audiences know “the rest of the story.”

As Jesus’ apprentices, we are to be spiritual journalists, bearing witness to what we have experienced. We’re not spiritual detectives who sniff out evil, spiritual police who collar sinners, prosecuting attorneys, parole officers who ensure consequences or judges who assign eternal punishment. We’re also not God’s sheriffs, bailiffs or prison guards. Instead, we are his witnesses.

Like the first believers, we aren’t content to tell only the facts of the gospel. We want others to know our experiences of Jesus so that their joy—and ours—may be complete. This is bearing witness.

Bearing witness is something all of us can do: children and grownups, introverts and extroverts, beginners and veterans. Everyone who knows Christ and who relies on the Holy Spirit to call, convict and convert can bear witness.

 

Four ways to bear witness

Here are four practices that can help us learn to bear witness as people born of the Spirit.

1. Be attentive to our own conversions. A witness’s testimony is only valid if it speaks to the witness’s own experience. What has Jesus changed in your life? How are you becoming more alive because of Jesus? How is your relationship with Jesus reshaping your values, self-image, other relationships, hobbies, finances, desires and more? Who makes the gospel real or believable for you?

2. Let our own experiences shape what we promise on Jesus’ behalf. Jesus doesn’t change all the circumstances of our lives. Can we promise he will heal a friend’s depression, crippled arm or even his marriage? We can’t know. But Jesus offers eternally abundant life that begins here and now (John 10:10). Reconciliation, healing, recovery from addictions and other changes—both quiet and dramatic—are signs of this life.

3. Be attentive to what people are already discussing. Before we speak of Jesus, we first need to be attentive to what people around us are asking. Paul listened before he preached (Acts 17:23). Where do people talk about Jesus, God, Christians, religion or faith? Consider carefully what they say.

 Consider what hides beneath their comments—shame, guilt, fear or greed. Jesus and the gospel address all human possibilities, conditions and cultures. Notice and draw attention to the ways people are unknowingly experiencing the Holy Spirit’s witness to God’s goodness: this incredible planet, productive work, happy mealtimes and more (Acts 14:17).

4. Live hospitably with our neighbors. A lifestyle that offers and receives hospitality prepares the soil for sowing the seeds of the gospel (Luke 10:7). Paul clearly expects Christians to associate with people who do not believe in Jesus—even people considered immoral, greedy, robbers and idolaters (1 Cor. 5:9-10). Jesus not only served but also asked to be served (John 4:7).

In the same way, we need to show hospitality to our neighbors and associates. We can share garden tools, parenting woes and joys, vacations and even food. When my neighbor knows me well enough to see my fear of heights and my outburst at a broken lawnmower, he will hopefully be close enough to also see Jesus shining out of the cracked vessel that I am.

 

Opening doors

Nearly 10 years ago, Denise* suffered a broken hip. She was elderly and due to her weak and stiff leg was unable to manage her household or her little dog. Her neighbors, Henry and Liz, visited Denise in the hospital; they loved Jesus and had experienced hardships themselves. When Denise came home, she asked Liz and Henry to assist her for a while. They came to her house twice a day to prepare her meals, help her get out of bed and to care for her dog.

One year into her recovery, Denise realized that her neighbors weren’t showing any signs of stopping their helpful visits. Finally, she asked, “If you had known how long it would take, would you still have agreed to help me?” Liz answered, “We’ll help you no matter how long it takes.” Noticing that Denise had books about various religions on her shelves, they readily gave her a large-print Bible when she asked for one. Quite naturally, Liz and Henry also spoke about Jesus and his love.

One day, Denise said, “I want what you have.” Several months later—sitting in her wheelchair—Denise was baptized upon confessing her faith in Jesus, whom she served by expressing care for the members of her home fellowship group. The seed of the gospel sprouted in part because Denise’s neighbors—ordinary disciples of Jesus—bore witness to their experiences with Christ. May his Spirit help us to go and sow likewise.

*Not her real name.

Andrew Dyck is assistant professor of ministry studies at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada and Canadian Mennonite University, both in Winnipeg, Man. For more, Dyck recommends Evangelism for “Normal” People: Good News for Those Looking for a Fresh Approach by John P. Bowen. This article was first published in MB Herald, the Canadian Conference of MB Churches magazine, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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