Witnessing? Really?

Did the One who preached on the hillsides of ancient Palastine hand out gospel fragments written on papyrus scraps in the city streets? Did he preach hellfire and damnation atop an orange crate in the centres of commerce? Would he have waved Scripture banners in the Colluseum? Did he paintsakingly hold to his idea of what ‘church’ is . . . or did he join people wherever they were and, by so doing, make every place holy?

I am still amazed how those who were influential around me as I grew up seem now to have such a different view of what classifies as ‘witnessing.’ (For the uninitiated, witnessing may be classified as doing or saying anything that tells another person that you are a Christian–this may include telling the gospel story, but is not limited to this.)

So every time we sat down in a restaurant to eat, dad had to say grace (and we all had to bow our heads and close our eyes). this was witnessing.

Every time we went somewhere on vacation, we needed to take a good supply of gospel leaflets with us which we would put in people’s letterboxes with a reply-paid card in case they wanted to know more about Jesus. This was also witnessing.

When we said ‘Goodbye’ to a Christian friend at an airport, we had to pray and ask God’s blessing on their travels, and sometimes we even sang ‘God be with you till we meet again.’ This was, after all, a great way to witness.

Sunday mornings were an excellent opportunity to show that we were Christians, first of all by our signs. We put the church sign outside of the rented building (after we cleared away the beer bottles from the party the ‘unsaved’ people had the night before). After all, we didn’t want anyone who would come to our services to think it was US who had drunk all that evil booze.

Then we would set out the chairs (usually three long rows to allow for our family, the other family who came, and the three or so others who decided our church was where God determined they should worship. We would put out the hymnals, practice the ‘special music’ (usually a duet or trio involving me, my dad, and/or my sister). Then we would do church.

I was reading Frank Schaeffer‘s novel Zermatt the other day. It is a coming-of-age story about a young lad, Calvin Becker, who has the unfortunate situation of being born to Presbyterian missionary parents (loosely relating Frank’s own life as the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer of the Evangelical mission ‘L’abri’ fame). I pick up the story as they prepare their hotel’s dining room for their Sunday morning service.

‘Calvin! Haven’t you heard one word I’ve been saying? Now help me put out the hymnbooks,’ Mom muttered.

‘We already did. And we’ll have to collect them all again and I’ll be even later getting out to ski,’ I muttered.

‘Calvin! If the Lord calls just one of the hotel guests or staff to come to church, I want them to see they’re welcome and expected,’ Mom snapped.

‘But it looks so dumb,’ I said.

‘Calvin! How can you say that? We put out the chairs and the hymnbooks as the Lord prepared the wedding banquet and sent his servants out into the hedges and byways to seek the guests! It is our job to be faithful! The Lord will bring in the harvest in his own marvellous and miraculous timing.’ Mom took a deep breath, smiled, and started talking in her cheerful voice again, but now it was a little higher than before and the lines on her forehead were still there.

‘Don’t you see, dear, that everything is for a purpose, even our vacations? There are no holidays from God! And this year we have a piano! And it may be that the English General or the Swedish ladies or other guests who once knew truth and fell away from the Lord – perhaps even the Germans – will hear the piano. And they will be in their rooms, perhaps even with a hangover from drinking and dancing the night away to fill the empty place in their souls, and they will hear the sound of “Abide with Me” coming up the stairs as Janet plays the piano; and tears will fill their eyes and they will come down, haltingly, embarrassed that they have fallen so far from grace, and they will peek around the corner and see a chair set out for them waiting and a hymnbook lying on that chair and you singing from the bottom of your heart. And I will hand that poor lost sheep a book, opened at the right place, and point to the verse we’re singing. And with tears streaming down his cheeks the lost sheep will begin to sing, at first in a soft quivering sorrow-filled voice, and later with a voice full of praise. And he will open his heart to the Word that is preached when Ralph is anointed and the angels will rejoice over that lost Iamb brought back to the fold, and what was meant for satanic purposes, the piano, and the bandstand, and instruments, will have been turned to good and the prodigal will have returned and—’

‘Mom?’ asked Rachael.

‘Yes, dear?’

‘But the English General and the Swedish ladies and the Germans and everyone else are out skiing, so how will they hear the piano?’ asked Rachael.

Mom got angry again and stamped her foot.

‘Rachael! Will you just stop it?! The Lord may cause him to fall and hurt his leg so that he will be up in his room by ten,’ Mom said.

‘You want God to break the General’s leg?!’ I asked.

Rachael laughed. Mom’s brow puckered even more.

‘Sometimes He has to chastise those of us He loves!

I’ve always had a feeling that the English General gave his heart to Christ, perhaps long ago as a boy, and he has wandered from the truth. It is quite possible, you know. There used to be many Bible believing Christians in England before the liberals took over all the Anglican seminaries. Haven’t you seen the way he looks so wistfully at us when I say grace before we eat at dinner?’

‘I think he’s just staring at us, Mom,’ said Rachael. ‘So much the better. It is good to bear witness in all things!’

The fact that we had the piano for church did no good at all. No one even glanced through the windows no matter how loudly we sang.

It reminds me of the ‘John 3:16‘ banners that pop up in American stadiums during sport telecasts, the street preachers on soapboxes, and those who hand out gospel literature. Sure, there are stories of those who are miraculously ‘saved’ out of these types of ministries, but I wonder how much more damage we may do to the cause of Christ by appearing to be the ranting fools, setting our minds on the success of such methods in decades or centuries past.

Did the One who preached on the hillsides of ancient Palastine hand out gospel fragments written on papyrus scraps in the city streets? Did he preach hellfire and damnation atop an orange crate in the centres of commerce? Would he have waved Scripture banners in the Colluseum? Did he paintsakingly hold to his idea of what ‘church’ is . . . or did he join people wherever they were and, by so doing, make every place holy?

Would his good news be: ‘By meeting together / saying grace in public / preaching on street corners / handing out gospel tracts will people know you are my disciples’? Or would he say something like this: ‘By this will all know you follow me: if you love one another’?

After all, it was not with the waving of banners, the building of megachurches, or the mass distribution of literature by which the kingdom of God would come, but in deeds of kindness done in humility and with great love that would bring about the greatest reveolution the world has ever known.

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4 thoughts on “Witnessing? Really?

  1. I’m still sure that “some” witnessing is better than no
    witnessing at all, no matter in what manner it is done. And Paul
    might not have preached “hellfire and damnation” from the
    city-streets but he certainly did preach that God “has appointed a
    day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man
    whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by
    raising Him from the dead” in Athens (Acts 17:31-32). And, yes,
    some mocked (as you alluded to in your final pararaphs, and I’m
    sure many did call Paul a “ranting fool” (see your statement above
    and compare that with Acts 17:18). I also seem to remember our Lord
    Himself as well as his contemporary John the Baptist preaching a
    similar message of “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
    Hmmm…..and was not our Savior Himself also accused of being a
    ranting madman, and even demon-possessed? I highly doubt that God
    is upset or angry or disappointed with those men and women of God
    faithfully handing out “fragments of Scripture” and preaching on
    the street-corners warning people out of love of the fate that
    awaits them if they do not accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness.
    The message of God has never been popular, and never shall be. It’s
    not meant to be. But regardless, we are called to proclaim that
    message through the power of the Holy Spirit, and leave the results
    to Him.

  2. This is an awesome post, Jon. It really brings home the
    absurdity of what we do in the church in the hopes that somehow
    people will notice and respond. It also reveals the often
    ridiculous theology that we have to develop to support this kind of
    “witnessing”. Like you, I’ve been there – and I can only say that
    I’m really glad I’m not there anymore! Grace John

  3. Hi Aaron.
    I’m not in any way discounting the NEED to share the good news “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Rather, we need to look at our methods and how they are perceived. Even in the early Church we read that they found favour with the people. What the disciples and Paul did was quite culturally appropriate for the time (e.g. Paul at Mars Hill).
    When the gospel is proclaimed in a loving, caring, and culturally-sensitive way, it will be attarctive and it’s preachers held in high respect. The problem today is so many preachers have been insensitive to the way they frame the gospel that the message itself has come into disrepute.
    I know that our city banned street preaching because of a few disruptive, confrontational, and angry “hellfire” preachers. There was a court case recently where two young men who violated this statute were sued by the city for disruption in a public place. They escaped by a loophole in legislation. But because of their unloving and condemnatory attitude (rather condescending attitude) they caused more to laugh and mock rather than fall down and say “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
    Thanks for your comment. Peace.

  4. John, thank you for your comment. Since we believe so strongly in the love of God, we too must take every care to ensure what we say, how we say it, what we do, and how this is perceived by others is fully and thoroughly enshrouded in the unconditional love of God. To be honest, when a person’s need for love is so strong, theology takes a back seat. Maybe it’s time we understood that love attracts, but arguments and confrontation repels.
    I really apprecuate your writings and your comments on Twitter. Blessings to you.

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