June 23, 2003
Can I get a witness?

Rob at ConNiPtionNs wrote a post inveighing against "witnessing":

I don't really get this "witnessing," but I am subjected it to it quite often. Do these people get points for talking to people about their version of christianity? Do they get even more points for converts? Didn't Jesus say:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. - Matthew 6:5-6

In the comments to Joel's post on the subject, I remarked that while Jesus denounced showy piety, he did tell his followers to go forth and evangelize. Rob answered:
And I do think these are two different issues: the hypocrites who make a show of their "piety" and prosyletizing. However, I think many of the same people practice both. Jesus sent his followers out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven is at hand to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and not to pagans or gentiles (who they referred to as "dogs and swine"). Jesus said that he was himself "sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 15:24)

That's an interesting idea, and I'm thinking it might come up in the historical-Jesus discussion, which should resume once Telford catches his breath. (I saw him and his wife yesterday, and man, I don't know if I've ever seen anyone that tired on a Sunday morning who didn't go to a good party the night before.) It sort of goes with Wright's claim that Jesus' "judgment talk" was not about eternity but specifically about the people he was talking to.

At any rate, I agree that bad witnessing is incredibly annoying to be subjected to. I've been subject to a lot of witnessing of all kinds lately, mostly voluntarily (I am a seeker, after all), and it seems to me that what makes good witnessing effective, and yet what also makes it difficult, is that you don't just talk, you need to form a relationship. Some people with a conversion story did it on their own, but most people talk about friends or relatives or lovers or whoever who persuaded them over a course of time. I don't know of anyone who's been converted by someone on a street corner or who knocked at their door. In fact, I had a reporter friend who did a story on the Jehovah's Witnesses in our area, and he found that many people he talked to who'd been door-knocking for years had never won a single convert.

I suppose such converts probably exist; there are all kinds out there. But that's the point. People come in great variety and their spiritual paths wind different ways, and yet many proselytizers bring a one-size-fits-all message. This is what the Bible says. This is the right way to live. This is what Jesus did for me, so this is what he'll do for you, if you'll just stop being so obstinate.

At the other extreme, you sometimes find the attitude that everyone follows a different path, so this is something you should figure out on your own. I did that for some years, and some people seem to prefer that. But personally I find that the support and, yes, the witness of faithful people I know has been helpful to me spiritually. Even though I argue with them a lot, they've showed me a lot of ideas and viewpoints that I wouldn't have figured out by myself. And they also show me I'm not alone in seeking, which you can get to feel like, if you come from a background as secular as mine.

Posted by Camassia at June 23, 2003 05:43 PM | TrackBack

If my family is out at an L.A. restaurant in May and someone with a radio suddenly shouts out, "Hey, Lakers won in overtime!", the room doesn't glare back and say, "Mind your own business." We all take it as a message intended to cheer, not as something that awards "points" to the announcer. Likewise, in the context of Jesus' world, the good news is of a hometown victory over not another town's home team, but the enemies of all people. "Hey! Jesus of Nazareth defeated sin and death in overtime! Woo-hoo!"

Of course, people disagree over whether the news of Jesus Christ is good. Nets fans aren't excited by news of a Lakers victory, and people in cahoots with oppressive powers and principalities aren't excited that they have turned out to be on the losing side. (However, part of this good news is that they can still shift their loyalties and end their sinful ways, and all will be forgiven.) Christians should expect this kind of resistance, and treat it as charitably as the situation warrants (there are biblical examples of reactions to persecution that cross the spectrum from blanket forgiveness to blanket condemnation).

As for the people who turn the good news into something else – hegemons, crusaders, bigots, demagogues, cultists, etc., etc. – these people misunderstand or misrepresent what Christians are actually supposed to be doing. As e-mailers suffer from spammers, dinnertime callers suffer from telemarketers, and bloggers suffer from trolls, so legitimate evangelism suffers from distorted proselytism.

A terrific little book on this I will be reading with students this fall is Brad Kallenberg's Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age. Brad went from being a spammer to being an e-mailer, so to speak, and blames the epistemology of modernity for much of the warpage in Christian evangelism in our era. (Surprise.)

Posted by: Telford Work on July 7, 2003 01:57 PM
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