I have been doing some thinking about witnessing these days for a variety of reasons, partly due to a series of sermons I am preaching in some of the congregations I pastor and partly because it has been too rainy and wet outside to do much more than sit and stare out the window, thinking about stuff. In that brief period between beginning to stare out the window thinking and falling asleep, I have been giving some thought to witnessing.
Often, when I read about or hear someone preach or teach about witnessing as believers, the approach seems to be one that is trying to convince people that they need to go out and witness. Witnessing is presented as something that we have a choice about–we can decide to witness today, skip tomorrow, do a bit the next day and so on. If that is true, then we as pastors and teachers have to motivate people to be willing to be witnesses and then teach them how to witness.
But as I have been thinking about it, I have been becoming more and more convinced of something I have been looking at for a while now. When it comes to being witnesses, we don’t actually get a choice about “if”. We are witnesses automatically–when we become believers, we become witnesses. And one implication of this reality is that we are always giving witness to the God we believe in.
So, the real issue is what are we saying about God we are witnessing to? Let me run a few common scenarios that are part of the witness of the faithful and our churches, at least ones that I know.
There is the believer whose approach to everything is to condemn. Whatever people are doing, it must be wrong. These are the people who find a satanic connection to Halloween costumes; a temptation waiting in every TV show; a spiritual danger in every movie and so on. They are giving witness to a god who is judgemental, harsh and more than a little scary.
Or what of the believer who is afraid of offending anyone and who therefore tries to find room for everyone and everything? Sin is not wrong but maybe ill advised. There is no evil, just poorly understood motivations. There is room for everyone and their beliefs. They are giving witness to a god who is so vague and amorphous as to be pretty useless.
Of what of the congregation that decides that only certain people can be part of their faith? Anyone outside of certain carefully prescribed lines really can’t belong. Congregations have and still do draw lines of race, ethnicity, economics, gender, genetics, politics and so on. They give witness to a god who picks and chooses, whose favouritism trumps everything else, a god who only loves certain people.
Or what of a common practise of many small congregations? In order to make ends meet, small congregations have yard sales, special musical events (no admission but a “freewill” offering), suppers and teas and breakfasts along with regular appeals to members, adherents and community members to help support the church. They give witness to a god who is either broke or who can’t manage money very well and therefore needs handouts and charity to keep things going.
There are also the congregations that fight and feud and have all manner of internal problems that cause people to be deeply hurt and even leave the church and the faith. They give witness to a god of warfare and strife, a god who believes winning is more important than anything.
I think you get the point. In none of these scenarios is the god being portrayed a particularly powerful or helpful god. The witness is there–it is being seen and perceived and the message of the witness is not positive–and probably not at all what the individuals and congregations think it is.
And when I think about such things, it is more tempting to stop thinking and take a nap–but just before I drop off to sleep, I also wonder if a big part of the lack of interest in the faith and the church today is not because we haven’t been witnessing enough but because we have been doing a lot of witnessing but witnessing to the wrong god? Maybe some of the lack of response to the faith is because our witness is very effective and powerful but to the wrong god?
May the peace of God be with you.