Wesleyan witness: Three framing questions

October 12th, 2015

United Methodists added the word “witness” to the membership vows in 2008. Members who join are asked to pledge to support the church with their “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”

Christians often think of “witness” as telling other people about Jesus. Yet the word “witness” (as well as “evangelism”) carries more connotations than faith-sharing. Witness means to observe as well as tell. One can “witness” a car accident, and then be called as a witness at a trial, and then share their testimony or witness from the witness stand.

A witness shares their witness about what they witnessed.

It is the observational part of witness that we Christians often leave out. Sharing our faith is more than telling — it is also observing and naming, learning to view the world through the lens of Christ. Often, we ask people to share or tell their faith when they have not adequately “seen” their faith, or told their own story to themselves! It takes critical reflection, looking back on one’s experiences and asking questions, to develop a series of seemingly random life events into a coherent story. It isn’t necessary for someone to write a full autobiography, but it helps to have some questions with which people can frame their experience.

I sometimes ask people to reflect on their own experience using Wesley’s three kinds of grace.

1. “How have you experienced prevenient grace?” is one such question. Who taught you about God when you were young? How did your family model, or not model, God’s love? Where was God when you were in foster care? How was Jesus at work during your addiction? Who gave you hope when your friend died? These are the kinds of questions that help create a framework for us to name grace.

2) Justifying grace is what we generally understand as a conversion experience, although how we experience the timeline, the catharsis, the epiphany, or however we want to describe it varies from person to person. “How did you come to rely upon Jesus for salvation?” or “What made you decide to follow Jesus?” are, I think, pretty good all-encompassing questions.

3) “How have you continued to experience God teaching and transforming you?” is the question I use to help people understand sanctifying grace. “What is God teaching you about love and justice now?” brings it into the present moment, and makes it about more than my own personal holiness. Rather than just talking about salvation as a one-time event, this question invites the listener to acknowledge God’s saving action as an ongoing process.

When I understand my role as a preacher from the standpoint of witness, most of my preaching is not actually telling so much as public observation. Asking questions brings people into the larger narrative shared by the church. In preaching, I model how I can hear a story about a community tragedy, or a child’s birthday party, and name the important elements of our faith, like grace, sin, incarnation, justice, or redemption.

In this sense, witness stands at the center of what we do as a community of faith. At our church, we talk about discipleship in the familiar Wesleyan way of “Works of Piety” and “Works of Mercy,” dividing them into their public and private dimensions. Public piety is worship; private piety is devotion; public mercy is justice; private mercy is compassion.

But instead of calling “witness” a private act of devotion, something that happens between one person and another, we situate it in the middle of the means of grace. It unites what we do as a worshipping community, publicly giving praise to God; as devoted individuals privately sharing our faith; as compassionate individuals doing good for others; as a justice-oriented community proclaiming the kingdom of God. All of these involve seeing and naming grace active in our lives and in the world. It involves both observation and telling.

Witness is situated between the private and the public. We take what is known to us in private, our observations of how God has been active in our lives, and giving our public testimony. We likewise take the Bible story we share in public and use it to view our individual life stories.

It is also situated between love of God and love of neighbor. I share my love of God with my neighbor because I love my neighbor and want the same for them. I also recognize that in loving my neighbor and sharing my story I am also loving God.

This is why we situate witness in the center of our discipleship model.

One could, of course, make arguments about other areas of discipleship. They are all interconnected and all reinforce each other. For example, we could ask, “Where does worship end and justice or compassion begin?” Our private piety is also worship.

But witness, in its fullest sense, is a recognition that our story and God’s story are intertwined. We observe and we share, we see and we tell, we unite what we say and what we do because Jesus is active in our lives and in the world around us.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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