DON’T ANTICIPATE THE RESULTS

When I find time to get to my workshop and begin playing with wood, I generally have a good idea what the finished product will look like. True, it will never look quite like the plans that I began with–my woodworking skills are backed with lots of enthusiasm but my skill level isn’t quite as high as my enthusiasm. I like to say that in the end, lots of paint and plastic wood make a big difference.

In many areas of life, we both like and expect predictability–we like knowing that if we do this, that will happen. Whether it is woodworking, cooking, computer programming, predictability is an important part of the process.

And many times, we carry that desire for predictability into our witnessing activity. If I say this to that person, it will bring them to faith. If I do that for that person, the result will be another believer. Unfortunately, our desire for predictability simply doesn’t have a place in the realm of witnessing.

Think again about the encounters Jesus had with people. Since Jesus is God in human form and our supreme example in everything, including witnessing, there should be a clear pattern in these encounters, at least from our human perspective. We would expect it to go this way: Jesus meets person, Jesus witnesses to person, person follows Jesus. But when we look at actual encounters, there is no pattern.

Some people do decide to follow Jesus–the disciples, for example, were ready and willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. But many others didn’t follow Jesus. There is no record that those who accepted Jesus’ teaching and the food at the two miraculous feedings (Matthew 14 and 15) decided to follow him–and there is good evidence that the vast majority didn’t since the number of confirmed believers at the beginning the book of Acts was about 120 (Acts 1.15).

That realization leads to my fourth principle of witnessing: Don’t anticipate the results. We don’t know what will happen when we witness. Witnessing involves a complex interplay of our personality, the activity of the Holy Spirit and the personality of the person to whom we are called to witness. And because two of the three participants are people, the results are simply not predictable. We cannot know what the results of our witnessing will be.

The Holy Spirit can know the results and will use our witness to continue the process in the life of the individual. For most people, the decision to follow Christ is a lengthy one involving many witnessing contacts and many interactions with people and God. We simply can’t predict the results of our witnessing contacts.

I actually find that liberating. Seen in this light, witnessing is not about bringing people to the faith. Instead, it is about following the Holy Spirit’s leading and allowing my witness to be added to the witness of others in the life of any individual. The Holy Spirit is at work, seeking to have believers provide the actions and words of faith that are required to help that person in their journey to God. My responsibility to seek to be in tune with the Spirit and the individual–and myself–so that I know what the Spirit wants me to do and/or say in any given situation.

The unpredictability of witnessing can be frustrating at times. I am sure that Jesus was frustrated at times when people didn’t respond positively to his witness. But when we allow ourselves to embrace the unpredictability of witnessing, we are freed. We don’t have to “succeed”–we just have to do what God wants done in the situation. What we consider a failure isn’t really a failure if we have been listening to the individual and the Spirit and faithfully doing what we are asked to do. Our witness is being used by God in ways that we can’t predict and shouldn’t try to predict.

If we believe that the results of our witness should be predictable, we are going down a path that leads to the development of manipulative and even unethical practises–we will be using human means to force or trick or manipulate people into doing what we want them to do, rather than allowing ourselves to be part of God’s loving and graceful process of bringing people to him.

I want my woodworking and cooking to have predictable results–but I have learned that it is best if I embrace the unpredictability of my witnessing.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGIN WHERE PEOPLE ARE

I wrote in my last entry that looking at Jesus’ encounters with people provided me with two principles of witnessing, particularly when thinking about verbal witnessing. I wrote about one of the last time–but I didn’t forget about the second one. I want to look at that one today. It grows out of the realization that there is no one sure-fire way to witness in the verbal context.

Because every situation is different, I think we need to spend some serious time learning the context before we speak. When we are seeking to be used by God to help people come closer to him, we learn the context best by listening first. There is an old proverb that I use often when working with church leaders. It tells us, “God gave us two ears and one tongue so that we would listen twice as much as we talk.” In witnessing, as in most areas of life, this proverb provides some really valuable wisdom.

I have discovered that most people really don’t know how to listen. We are much more interested in speaking than listening. Think for a bit about the number of times you feel that someone has actually listened to you–I would bet that you can count on one hand the number of people who seem to really listen to you.

Listening is a skill that can be learned and at some point, I may spend some time looking at how we can enhance our own listening skills. But for now, I am going to look at what listening in a witnessing context means. I think here are two sources that we need to be listening to.

First, we need to listen carefully to the other people involved. We listen to their words and to their non-verbal communication. We are listening for feelings, concerns, discrepancies between words and body language, impressions–we are focusing completely on the other person to get a clearer sense of their personal context. We want to know what is going on in that person as much as we can. The more we focus on that person, the more we will learn and understand about them and their context.

At the same time, we are listening for the Holy Spirit. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is already active in the life of the person we are listening to. The Spirit has been influencing and exposing the person to God’s love in a variety of ways that neither we nor even the person can fully know or understand.

And the important thing to remember is that we have the same Holy Spirit active in our lives, active at an even more significant level. The Spirit who is influencing that other person can and will give us insights into how best to relate to that person. The process of verbal witnessing becomes an interaction involving us, the other person and the Holy Spirit. Actively listening to both the Spirit and the other person allows us to know where the other person is and what can help move them along in their journey to God.

This is the third principle of witnessing–we begin where the people are. And we can only do that by listening to them carefully and completely. We need to listen to get beyond our assumptions. We need to listen to get beyond our fears. We need to listen to get beyond our desires. We need to listen to get beyond our need to be in control. We need to listen to be able to be God’s instrument in the situation.

One interesting side effect of the listening process is that sometimes, we will discover that as we listen, we don’t know what to say. My suggestion is that for most of us, that feeling of not knowing what to say is a message from the Holy Spirit that we need to act on by not saying anything. I have often heard people complaining that someone talks too much but I don’t think I have ever heard someone complain about someone listened to them too much.

When we begin where people are and combine our listening to them with listening to the Holy Spirit, we will in the end probably talk a lot less in our verbal witnessing but will have a much better chance of saying something that will actually help the person move closer to God. And since that is what witnessing is all about, it makes a lot of sense to listen at least twice as much as we talk.

May the peace of God be with you.

CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT

When ever I lead Bible Study, I eventually get around to talking about the three rules of Biblical interpretation, something I learned during my time as a theology student. To properly understand any passage of Scripture, you follow the three rules: Context, Context, Context. The point of the rules is that Scripture cannot be easily and truly interpreted unless we see a passage in its setting in the Bible–the more we understand the context of the passage, the better our interpretation of the passage.

The same three rules apply to witnessing, particularly when it comes to the time when we need to use words as part of the process. I mentioned the encounters between Jesus and a variety of people that we read of in John 1-10. Every encounter is different. As we widen the context to look at all the Gospels, we discover that no two encounters between Jesus and people are the same, except for the times when the Gospel writers tell the same story.

Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 is a very philosophical, theological discussion. Nicodemus is a well educated religious leader and probably thinks and talks in this way a great deal. Jesus’ comments and questions fit Nicodemus’ personal approach to life.

But in John 8, when Jesus is faced with a whole crowd of educated, theologically and philosophically astute leaders, he says very little, refusing to be drawn into their debate of the fate of the women they have trapped in their midst. His approach to this crowd is not to argue but to be silent and write in the sand. His one comment to the leaders forces each of those present to do some serious soul searching. His comment to the woman offers forgiveness and guidance for a better way of life.

Taking all the encounters together provides me with two more principles of evangelism. One of them is that there is no one way to do witnessing. If Jesus himself doesn’t have a canned speech or prescribed formula, why should we expect any one approach to verbal witnessing to be the way it must be done?

Approaching people with a prepared and memorized script may make the verbal witnessing process easier for the person doing the witnessing but in general it doesn’t do much for the person being witnessed to. In fact, it can be a very rude and obnoxious thing to do. When we try to use a pre-packaged witness script, we end up sounding like telemarketers, who appear to be trained to go through a script no matter what the person listening says or doesn’t say. When I used to be on the receiving end of such marketing tactics, I used to get very frustrated and annoyed and would hang up–sometimes after politely telling the person I wasn’t interested (if I remembered that even on the phone to an anonymous and annoying telemarketer, I was still giving witness to my faith)

Not having a formula or script makes witnessing much more difficult and scary, at least for me. And I think that is a good thing. If I don’t know what to say and am not even sure that I have the courage to say anything, that can cause me to avoid verbal witnessing–or, it can force me to open myself more fully to the Holy Spirit.

God, I think, delights in putting us in places and situations where we are out of our depth and therefore don’t know what to do. We are much more likely to remember God at those times and call upon him for guidance and help and wisdom and anything else that will make a difference. If we knew how to do witnessing, we would have no real need of God and then we would end up witnessing to ourselves, not God.

But if we are feeling that we are in over our heads, we just might turn to God, who is already active in the life of the person we feel the need to witness to and who through the Holy Spirit can show us what to do and say. If we remember that our job isn’t to bring people to God but to be let ourselves be used as his instruments in the process, we will also remember that he can and will help us know what to say when the time comes to say something.

So, the second principle of witnessing is to remember that there is no one way to witness–no formulas, no memorized package, no wonderful words that always work. But there is the Holy Spirit, whose presence is much better and more effective.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

There is a lot of pressure put on believers to witness and bring people to the faith. There are many canned programs to memorize and play back to people who come within range. There are seminars and web based resources. There are books both to read and to give away. There are techniques and tricks that are recommended as sure-fire ways to win people to faith. Every one of these things work–or, rather, they did work, for someone in some situation.

Finding something that works in terms of effective witnessing is a triumph that the discoverer can use to write books, lead seminars and become well known, at least until the next great thing comes along. And there will be a next great thing, simply because no matter how great the idea and no matter how great it worked in its initial context, it will eventually stop working.

It stops working for both practical and theological reasons. The practical reasons are easy to figure out, if we would take the time to think things through. What works for one person in one context is going to become less and less effective as the people and context change. Taking a process that works well for the charismatic pastor of an urban mega-church and expecting it to work equally well for the shy kid who is the teen Sunday school class in a rural community is like expecting David to be able to use Saul’s armour to defeat Goliath. (I Samuel 17.38-39)

As logical as the practical reasons are, it is the theological reason that is the more significant when it comes to the effectiveness of witnessing programs. In our desire to develop programs, we have made a major theological mistake. We see witnessing as our job and responsibility, meaning that we become responsible for getting it right and bringing people into the faith.

The mistake is that bringing people to faith isn’t our job. We certainly have a part in the process because of God’s gracious choice to work through us but as we see in Acts 2.47b, God brings people to himself: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Working through the Holy Spirit, God seeks to bring people to himself. He can and does graciously give his people a part in the process–but it is his process, not ours.

Our human desire to take over means that we try to replace God in the process. If God works in a certain way in a certain situation, we immediately begin to see that as something we can structure and organize and import into every situation. The program we develop can become more important than God’s leading in the process of witnessing. The formulas and structures and actual wording become sacred and almost magical–get it right and people have to come to faith.

I have read and heard people who suggest that unless someone actually repeats what is known as “The Sinner’s Prayer”, they have not yet become a believer. When I actually came to faith, I thought the only way a person could become a believer was to “walk the aisle” during the annual evangelistic campaign.

While witnessing is something all believers do, we need to remember that the whole process is God’s work, not ours. He knows what is needed in every situation and doesn’t need our canned approaches–in fact, he doesn’t even need us. He chooses to allow us to be a part of the process but he can and does at times accomplish his goals without us–and more often than we want to admit, he accomplishes his goals in spite of our involvement rather than because of it.

For me, witnessing becomes easier when I remember that while I have a role to play in helping people discover God’s love, it is God who brings people to himself. A person’s eternal destiny doesn’t depend on me and my fumbling attempts at witnessing. God may chose to use me and my efforts to help someone come closer to him–or he may have to work around my fumbling attempts. He wants me to be involved in the process but bringing people to faith is his process and his responsibility, not mine. That insight gives me a great deal of relief because I trust God’s abilities much more than I trust my own.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I SAY?

I started this current line of thought about witnessing with a quote that I think comes from Francis of Assisi, “Witness always, use words when necessary.” I spent a lot of time on the issue of our lived witness and how we need to become much more aware of and intentional about that if we are going to be effective witnesses. There is probably a whole lot more that could be said on that part of the quotation and I may deal with it again at some point.

But I also think I need to spend some time on the second part of the quotation, “…use words when necessary.” It would be really great if the fullness of our witness was taken care of by our lived example–and there are probably examples out there of people whose decision to become a part of the faith was completely due to the lived witness of other believers. But most people are going to need some words at some point in the process to help them understand what they are seeing and what God is calling them to. And that means that all of us are likely going to be called upon at some point to be the ones supplying the words someone needs to help them move along in their journey to God.

Finding those words is the issue. Now, there are lots of suggestions out there. Most believers in the conservative church have been exposed to things like the “Four Spiritual Laws”, “The Roman Road”, “The Sinner’s Prayer” and a variety of other memorisable and pre-packaged sets of words that are recommended as ways of presenting the Gospel to people. Other approaches are less programmed but do offer a clear set of things that need to be covered–people need to acknowledge their sin, repent, accept God’s forgiveness and so in.

While any of these approaches is going to work sometime with someone, my suspicion is that overall, these canned approaches are not particularly effective overall. For all the effort put into memorizing them, printing and distributing booklets containing them, packaging seminars and workshops on how to use them, the results are meagre. I don’t personally know anyone who came to faith through the use of such programs, nor do I know anyone who has actually used one of them to help someone actually make the decision to follow Jesus. I have read lots of stories about their effectiveness, generally in the promotional literature that accompanies them.

While having preprogrammed words gives us something to say when the time for words arrives in the witnessing process, it doesn’t seem to make the process all that effective. Evangelism isn’t slowing the decreasing number of people interested in the Christian faith. It may be that we need to re-think the whole process of what we actually say to people when the time comes to use words in our witnessing.

A few years ago, I made an interesting discovery during my Bible reading. I was working through the Gospel of John as part of my devotional reading and realized that in the first ten chapters or so of the Gospel, there are a series of encounters between Jesus and individuals that easily qualify as good example of evangelism. We see Jesus with some of the disciples (chapter 1), wedding guests and people at the temple (2), Nicodemus (3), the Samaritan woman (4) and others.

The fascinating insight that I saw at that point was that every encounter was different–Jesus didn’t have any one particular verbal formula that he used in every case. The stories show us that Jesus focused on the people he was with and out of that particular situation, he found the words to use with that particular person. Since that time, I have given the issue a lot of thought and used the insights I gained as the basis for sermon series, seminars on evangelism and even a course on evangelism that I taught to Kenyan theology students.

I think we can use those chapters of John, along with other encounters that Jesus has with people to develop some principles of evangelism that help us when it comes to figuring out what to say when the time comes to say something. So in the next few blogs, I will look at those principles that can help us find the words we need when they are needed.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M SORRY

No matter how good or bad our lived witness is, it will never be perfect. Since we are all somewhere between being the worst example and the best example, we are all going to make some really serious mistakes in our faith lives. A significant factor in the effectiveness of our witness will be how we deal with our failure to live up to what we proclaim personally and what the church as a whole proclaims.

Pretending this isn’t a problem doesn’t work. Nor does playing with definitions of good and bad, attacking those who point out the failures, calling the failures “God’s will” or any other way of trying to avoid the clear and visible truth that Christians are not perfect and so some really terrible stuff.

The only way to deal with our failures and the failures of the rest of the church is to own our failure. We don’t own our failure with pride. Rather, we follow the Biblical principles of confession, repentance and seeking to change. In practise, this translates to admitting that we made a mistake, offering apologies for the mistake, facing the consequences of the mistake and working to change what caused the mistake.

On an individual basis, this is hard. None of us wants to admit that we are wrong and we let our pride get in the way. No matter how we define it, it is hard to admit that we are wrong. Our pride drives us to do almost anything to avoid confession. Remember that when Adam was confronted by God about his failure, he responded with the words we find in Genesis 3.12: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (NIV). His response is classic–he seeks to shift the responsibility for his failure to both his partner and to God, trying to suggest that on his own, he would never have eaten of the forbidden fruit.

But just as it is clear that Adam was responsible for his failure here, so it is generally clear to those looking on that we have failed in our witness. Our attempts to avoid accepting that responsibility only make us look even worse that we are and at the same time, make it easier for people outside the faith to stay outside the faith. Continual denial of our failures also drives a wedge between us and God because we are not being honest with ourselves or him.

The only real option that prevents further damage to our own spiritual lives and our witness to the world is to be willing to take responsibility for our failure–to confess it both to God and those affected, to apologize, do what is necessary and try to do better next time. If the failure isn’t our personal failure but a failure on the part of someone else in the faith or the church, we still need to accept responsibility and apologize.

Rather than being a sign of weakness, as some suggest, confession and repentance are actually a powerful witness. Remember that we are seeking to give witness to the love of God, not our perfection. When we trust God enough to accept our sins and trust that he will continue to love us and hold us in his eternal grasp, we are making a powerful statement about God and his love. We are showing the limitlessness of God’s love–he can and does love us when we are not perfect.

I am not sure there is a better comment we can make about the love of God than to show that even our failures don’t affect God’s love. He loved us before we followed him, he loves us when we follow him, he loves us when we fail him, he loves us no matter what. When it comes to being a witness, I would much rather give witness to the unending and unalterable love of God than to my imagined perfection.

“Witness always”–remembering that even our failures can become a powerful witness if we are willing to surrender our pride in ourselves and show instead our pride in being loved so completely by God.

May the peace of God be with you.

CAUGHT IN A CORNER

I like writing and have been enjoying the blogging process. But I am discovering a difficulty in the process. Blogging for me consists of writing one or two short articles a day several days a week, which fits well into my personal schedule and allows time for other things like sermon preparation and flying the drone I got for Christmas.

However, while I like to have a sense of where a particular theme is going, the fact that I write short articles means that now and then, I find I have written myself into a corner that I have to find a way out of. In this particular thread, I have been writing about our witness. So far, I have said that we are not perfect witnesses and that our witness begins when we publically claim faith. People see our faith in what we do and that is the foundation of our witness.

It sounded really good when I was writing it, each piece making sense and saying something that I think is important. But I have arrived at the corner–one wall tells me that I am a witness no matter what and the other wall telling me that I am never going to be a perfect witness. The paint covering the floor leading to the corner tells me that my imperfection causes serious problems with my witness. I can’t not witness and I can’t witness perfectly.

Rather than give up blogging and go fly a drone (not a kite), I will try to deal with this corner. I am not sure there is a way out of it–and maybe we don’t actually need to get out of that corner. Being caught in that difficult spot keeps us aware of the reality we live with as witnesses.

And being aware of that fact will perhaps motivate us to do two things. First, it will help us as we seek to grow towards a more mature expression of our faith. If we are not perfect, we have room to grow. I think the lack of serious effort to grow in faith is a real problem for both individual believers and the church as a whole. Our immaturity in the faith creates all sorts of problems.

When we don’t grow in faith, we don’t have the ability to challenge our lives or our culture and that results in a great many non-Christian ideas getting jammed into our faith. They don’t belong there but because of our immaturity, we put them there and the world ends up believing that this idea is a part of our faith.

We end up giving witness not only to the truth of the faith but to some seriously dangerous ideas as well, ideas which will probably drive away more people than our witness to the truth will encourage.

Growing in faith takes work–hard work. It will be painful at times. There will be times of stress and confusion as we confront the parts of our lives that need to be changed because of our faith. We will need to develop new habits and patterns in our lives that will encourage and enable growth towards maturity.

And much of the work towards maturing in faith is work we have to do ourselves. We can have lots of helpers and guides; we can read all the spiritual maturity books; we can engage in long and painful prayer sessions–but in the end, when God shows us what has to be changed for our next step towards maturity, we have to make it ourselves. God will provide enabling power through the Holy Spirit; spiritual guides will show us ways to do it; fellow believers will provide support and prayer but in the end, we will need to take the step towards maturity.

And then, having done that, we will have to continue doing the same process because maturity in faith isn’t completed with one step. It requires that we commit ourselves to a lifetime of work and growth. That may be part of the reason why so many believers chose not to move towards maturity–they don’t really want to put in the work that is necessary.

So, as we sit in the corner created by the reality of always being witnesses and our inability to be a perfect witness, we can see the need to work at developing maturity in faith so that our witness will be better.

There is a second thing the corner can motivate us to do–but that is the topic for the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.