You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
In the churches that nurtured my young faith ‘witnessing’ was a big deal. The act of sharing your faith, telling someone about Jesus, was highly extoled even if rarely practiced by the average pew-sitter. Whether you ever did it or not, you heard often of its importance. We were all called to be ‘witnesses.’ That’s just what Christians do.
My Dad served our Baptist denomination for years in the ministry of evangelism. He’s a life-long pastor with the heart of an evangelist and the preaching fervor of a tent-revivalist. Given the church soil in which my young faith was rooted and the evangelistic DNA that ought to be coursing through my veins, it’s something of a puzzle to me that I’ve never been very good at ‘witnessing.’
As a seminary student I decided to try and do something about that.
A Would-Be Witness
In my first year of seminary I was required to take a course in personal evangelism. This class forced me to get honest about the fact that I never really shared my faith with people. Preaching or teaching? No problem. Bring it on. But witnessing? Not so much.
It seemed wrong that I was pursuing theological education with an aim toward pastoral ministry and I never ‘witnessed.’ One of the course requirements was having an evangelistic conversation with someone and writing it down. This was supposed to be the real deal, not a role play. So when I learned that the church I attended in Fort Worth had a Sunday afternoon evangelism ministry, I mustered the courage to sign up.
After gathering for a brief time of prayer we would scatter along Hemphill Avenue and look for folks on the street with whom we could talk about Jesus. What I recall now is that just down the street from the church was a large park where crowds of people gathered every Sunday afternoon to play soccer. While we were encouraged to hit the streets and share our faith, no one ever suggested that we just go to the park and join others in playing soccer.
No one seemed to think (or ever said) that our presence there might be a witness that could lead to conversations about Jesus that could bring a person to faith. Odd.
Those Sunday afternoon evangelistic excursions were never satisfying or fruitful for me. I was a failed would-be witness. Let me quickly add that my story is not meant to belittle or dismiss the act of ‘witnessing.’ The importance of sharing the faith isn’t really up for debate. But I look back now on those Sunday afternoons on Hemphill Avenue and I wonder about what it means to be a ‘witness.’ What does an effective witness look like?
Distinctive Life, Direct Word
One of the best known ‘witnesses’ of the New Testament was John the Baptist. ‘Witness’ was a moniker he willingly took to himself. His method was bold and direct. John would literally point to Jesus and tell people, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
But there’s also the salt and light way of being a witness. This means letting people see something distinctive about your life. Being salt and light means being present in the world in such a way that people are drawn to us and the God whom we serve. Jesus said that others should be able to look at the way we live – see the things we do and the way we do them – and soon come to love God. Both kinds of ‘witness’ are needed: the direct word that points to Jesus as God’s way of saving us from sin. And the distinctive life that offers the world something attractive and different.
A direct word that lacks a distinctive, attractive life will sound false. An attractive life that never leads to a direct word will be fruitless.
Making God’s presence known in the places where you live and work and play doesn’t mean you have to talk about religious things. You may not often engage in overtly spiritual conversations. But here are a couple of questions to consider as you enter this day.
First, if by some chance you had the opportunity to tell someone you’re around every day about your faith, what would you say? How would you tell your own faith story, or how would you explain what it means to be a Christian?
Second, are you living the kind of life that might lead to such a conversation?
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, Lord Jesus, that we might be ready to talk about you, and that our lives may look like you. Make us your witnesses in both word and deed. And make us bold as we seek to bring your presence to the places where we live each day. Amen.