Christian Witness and Daily Life

May 15th, 2014

Can I Get a Witness?

I could have used a witness back in early April. I was driving on a freeway when suddenly a car sideswiped my car. I pulled over, as did the other driver. After checking to make sure that neither of us was seriously injured, I called my insurance company. One of the first questions the insurance representative asked me was, “Did any witnesses to the accident stop?” While I am sure that others who were on that crowded interstate saw what happened, no one stopped.

Fortunately, the other driver took full responsibility. He admitted, both to me and to the claims adjustor from my insurance company, that he caused the accident. But an impartial witness would have been helpful if the other driver had refused to stop or been reluctant to confess the truth.

What would have helped me last month was someone described in the first definition of the word witness in the Harper’s Bible Dictionary: “One who speaks from personal experience about what happened to oneself or another.” This definition comes from the legal world, and it is found in biblical descriptions of trials and legal transactions.

The Bible also describes another kind of witness. Harper’s states, “The term takes on several specialized meanings in the [New Testament], referring to a person present at the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus . . . or to one who attests to the truth about God.” This second definition is what we normally think of as Christian witness.

Called to Witness

Forty days after the first Easter, the risen Christ appeared to some of his followers in Jerusalem. He told them to stay in Jerusalem for a while and added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus called his followers to be his witnesses, to testify to the truth about God.

Those who heard Jesus that day in Jerusalem did what he asked. They stayed in the city for ten days, when the Holy Spirit empowered them on Pentecost. Suddenly they were able to speak in other languages so that people from various parts of the world could understand in their own native tongues. The Holy Spirit worked through the witness of those first believers to move many of the people who were in Jerusalem that day. Three thousand people were baptized and devoted themselves to learning from the apostles, sharing in the life of the newborn community of faith, and praying together (Acts 2).

The early Jesus movement did not stop witnessing on Pentecost. These first believers knew that they were called by Jesus Christ to be his witnesses. And Christians ever since have understood that they, too, are called to be witnesses. But how do we witness?

Less-Than-Persuasive Witnesses

I have had different people witness to me over the years. Some have persuasively shared the good news as they told the truth about God to me. Others have been less than persuasive.

One night, years before I was married, I heard a knock on the door of my apartment. When I opened the door, I saw three people I had never seen before, a man and two women about my age. They were from a nearby church of another denomination, and they were witnessing to the people living in my apartment complex. The man asked, “If you died tonight, what would you say to God?” I gave a short answer, something on the lines of, “As you know, God, I accepted your love for me in Jesus and have loved you for years.” The man pushed me for a fuller answer. I told him that I was the associate pastor of a United Methodist church in the area, and I could give a very long answer. The two women were satisfied, but the man was not. I had not given him the answer he thought was the correct one. I politely assured him that I was a Christian, and I was committed to my church. Then, I wished them a good evening as I closed the door.

A few years later, just after I started a new appointment to another church, my wife and I went to the Fourth of July parade in our new town. We were surprised to see an entry from another church in the community. Unlike other churches that had floats, usually promoting their upcoming sessions of vacation Bible school, this church had marchers who had chains and cans attached to their legs, much like those trailing the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s classic novella A Christmas Carol. The cans were labelled with various “sins,” and signs made it clear that each and every one of us had such a chain of sins dragging along behind us. The clanging of those chains and cans made an impression, though I doubt many people responded positively to that church’s invitation.

Both of those witness attempts were earnest. All of the people involved invested quite a bit of time into their efforts. I believe that everyone involved in both cases was sincere and truly wanted other people to be persuaded. But in the end, I found neither to be persuasive. In fact, both turned me off.

Effective Witness

I rarely went to worship when I was in college. Even though I was actively involved in my home church as a child and youth, that changed within months of arriving on campus. I tried to find a faith community at the start of my first year. I went to the United Methodist church closest to my dormitory for two weeks, but I was turned off by the attitude of the members. The congregation did not seem interested in college students, which seemed odd since it was located in a college town and was started by the same people who founded the university. I went to worship at the chapel on campus, but the sermon seemed more like a lecture on the interplay between science and religion than what I wanted and needed. By Thanksgiving, Sunday morning had become a time for me to head to the library and study for several hours.

By the start of my senior year, I was comfortable in my worship non-attendance. I still believed in God. I prayed on occasion. I did worship at my home church when I was back on breaks. But my faith was withering.

One day that fall, Carolynn, a friend who lived in the same dormitory, asked me to go with her to church that Sunday. I said I could not go with her because the marching band was headed to an away game that weekend, and I would not be back in time. She asked again the next week, and again I had a weekend commitment. She was kindly persistent and asked me a third time. The third time I was not able to think of an excuse fast enough, so I said yes. She later invited me to be part of a Bible study in our dormitory and to be involved in a campus ministry.

Carolynn’s invitations changed my life. I resumed going to worship every week, a holy habit that has stayed with me. I joined a Bible study group. I began to pray regularly again. And I started to live an intentionally Christian life.

Carolynn embodied how to be a Christian witness. She recognized that witnessing involves two steps: First, encounter the living Christ yourself; and second, invite others to encounter him. We cannot share with others what we do not have ourselves. Carolynn did not have to search for the “right” words or employ the “correct” formula. She was persuasive because she was herself and was genuinely interested in me. She was not pushy. She not only witnessed to me about her life in Christ, but she also listened to me. And she recognized that witnessing is not just saying words. We witness by the way we live. When we follow Jesus Christ, love others, give generously, serve those in need, forgive those who hurt us, and invite others into a new life like Jesus did, then we are his witnesses in our communities and to the end of the earth.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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