I grew up in a Southern Baptist youth group that stressed the importance of witnessing. In fact, I can easily summarize the main message of every retreat and youth camp we went on as follows: Don’t have sex (or do those things that tend to lead to it). Don’t drink or do drugs. Do witness. I was a goody-goody so the first two weren’t a problem. But the third thing was a big deal. At least a few of my friends and I witnessed. Or wanted to. The problem was that we were young and immature and didn’t know how to do it well.
I know witnessing isn't handing out this.
One of my youth group friends was Mark, who was really into heavy metal of the ’80s hair-metal variety. He had long hair and wore spandex like he was in Mötley Crüe. (As you might imagine—if you’re old enough to remember—he switched allegiances from Satan’s music to Stryper when they came along.)
One time, Heavy Metal Mark and some other youth group friends were going to the mall to witness. “Witnessing” in this context meant handing out gospel tracts to complete strangers. They invited me to go with them, and the idea made me deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, owing to some combination of guilt and peer pressure, I was seriously considering it.
My sister Susan was mortified. She said, “If I saw someone like Mark approaching me in the shopping mall in order to talk to me about Jesus, I would run in the opposite direction!” I don’t know if it was my sister’s words, but I begged off. I don’t believe handing out tracts to complete strangers in a shopping mall really counts as witnessing, and it may actually cause harm. It feels pushy, impersonal, and condescending: “You, Mr. Unsuspecting Passerby, are obviously a sinner in need of God’s saving grace. Since I, unlike you, have all the answers, let me give them to you in the form of this boilerplate tract.”
As Stephy Drury has frequently pointed out over on her funny, insightful, and more than slightly depressing blog “Stuff Christian Culture Likes,” evangelical Christians can know they’re doing evangelism wrong if their efforts actually avoid fostering genuine relationships with people. This rules out, for instance, sloganeering on billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.
To this day, I’m deeply afraid of doing it wrong. I’m afraid of turning someone off to Christianity. I’m afraid of being one of those people.
You know… those people. Like Heavy Metal Mark. Or, worse, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around knocking on your door at the least convenient time. Or Mormons. I was running on the greenway just last week when a couple of white-short-sleeved-shirt-and-tie Mormon missionaries passed me on bicycles. I can’t help but admire their commitment—even if it is to a deeply distorted, heterodox version of the gospel. In fact, a large part of me hates that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, potentially leading people away from the orthodox Christian faith.
But who am I kidding? Another part of me hates that they’re out there—trying so hard in their own way to witness—because it reminds me that most of the time, I am not! Or can I safely say that we are not—”we” meaning United Methodists (but I’m sure this applies to plenty of other Christians). Most of time, we don’t even think about it! Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to their credit, think about it. A lot. Witnessing is a part of their DNA in a way that it ought to be a part of ours but isn’t.
Let’s face facts: we United Methodists are lousy at witnessing!
We are at least talking about it more. We changed our Book of Discipline 15 years ago to say that the church’s mission is to make disciples. We changed our membership vows a few years ago to emphasize witnessing: we pledge to serve Jesus and support the church through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and—you guessed it—witness.
But how do we do it? What does witnessing look like today?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. Because when I ask many of my clergy peers, they’re more apt to tell me what it isn’t—for example, it’s not handing out tracts to strangers at malls. Or they describe something that sounds exactly like marketing. Or they make witnessing seem very passive. As if it weren’t something we had to do at all, just something we had to be.
I’m not buying it. What is it really?