Monday, January 17, 2011

Witnessing (Part 2) - Turning a Mouse into an Elephant

Towards the end of my favorite book that seeks to analyze the War on Terrorism so far (a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to actually learn something meaningful and academic about the subject of counter-terrorism), Dr. Kilcullen talks about "turning a mouse into an elephant". In the context of terrorism, this means turning a group that is globally insignificant and marginalized (like Al Qaeda) into something that seems far more powerful and dangerous than it actually is simply by the extreme force of your response to it. After all, if you are really devoting so much time and effort to destroy something, it has to be a great threat to humanity at large, right? Well what if you are over-reacting? What if you are making a mouse look like a elephant simply by the way you frame the discussion?

This is what the church has done to witnessing. It has turned what is essentially a tiny squeaky mouse that the smallest child can defeat and made it out to be a huge, rampaging bull elephant in the minds of many Christians. Even the bravest among us are leery about facing a charging elephant. But what if witnessing is really the mouse that the Bible describes it as?

We have taken all kinds of thorny subjects like financial issues, church membership numbers, community involvement, cultural issues, synodical politics, and even sanctification only to lump them under the one big banner of "missions" so that many individuals feel the weight of all these issues on their shoulders when they talk to their cousin about why Jesus was hanging on the cross. Even the term "evangelism" is so misunderstood that it defines the act of bearing witness to the gospel as something that no Christian feels qualified to do. Let's break it down:

Evangel (n): 1. The Christian Gospel. 2. Good News.

-ism (suffix): 1. the act, process, or characteristic of the root word (ex: patriotism is the act or characteristic of being a patriot). 2. the condition of or property of the root word (ex: barbarianism is a property of a barbarian). 3. Adherence to a system of principles or beliefs. (ex: Buddhism is the system of belief for a Buddhist.)

Evangelism: 1. the act of the good news. 2. the property of the good news. 3. Adherence to belief in the good news.

So at least the modern evangelicals come by the horrible phrases of "being the gospel" and "doing the gospel" honestly. It is practically written in the English term so often used for reaching lost people. Historically, the term has not been understood as a legalistic human undertaking, but the modern church treats this as the work of men (thank you revivalism!). This is where the mouse becomes an elephant. It becomes something I'm supposed to do or become because I am a Christian and I can't let God down... I can't allow people to slip into hell...

I'm told that time is short and hell is hot. I'm told that I don't want to face the people that I failed to witness to on the Last Day only to have them ask, "Why didn't you tell me?!?" as they are flung into hell. (And, yes, I heard that second one several times as a kid from the pulpit during sermons! One time it was described as a criss-cross of escalators like at the mall where I was going up to heaven and I met a friend of mine that I never witnessed to on his way going down.)

But is that really what the Bible teaches? What if the Bible doesn't frame witnessing in these "elephant" terms but in "mouse" terms? What if the church, as an institution, is so busy legalistically driving people to be better evangelists that it fails to paint the act of witnessing as the simple act that it really is? Why has the church decided that the way to solve the fear of witnessing is to present it as a do-or-die mission of such urgency that no one would ever want to even think about it?

Matthew 28:18-20: "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"

Did you see what Jesus said there? Ignore the middle part that the church beats everyone over the head with. Right there at the start and the end of the "Great Commission" Jesus takes on all of the elephant tasks that we concern ourselves with. Christ has all authority. Christ is with us always. Our "mouse" tasks in the middle there are surrounded by Christ, His work, and His promises. If anything, that middle part describes how we will be used as His instruments. Do you really think that our incompetence can impede the will of God? The witnessing issue is so charged with guilt-trips that many people who have extreme anxiety about witnessing fear that this is exactly what is happening. God wants to save people but can't because we are failing Him... and our neighbors. No wonder people are hiding from evangelism! And yet, within this envelope of divine care, Scripture clearly shows that we are free to declare the word, baptize, and make disciples. We are shown that this authority that we burden ourselves has been given to CHRIST. Why do we make this seem harder than it really is?

1 Corinthians 3:5-7: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth."

Just ask around and you will observe an inferiority complex within the Christian community regarding giving public testimony. Some of this is good ole honest stage fright which is understandable because religion can be a contentious thing. Most of it is an overwhelming sense of inadequacy to the task. The mistake many leaders make is that they confuse these feelings of inferiority and unpreparedness with timidity. Not understanding the problem, they try to build up enough courage and confidence in the hearts their people to take on that elephant!

The inferiority will not be overcome. Why? Because it's true! We are all unworthy sinners who are not even worthy of being saved ourselves let alone having the privilege of sharing the good news of salvation with others. You don't overcome that with a few powerpoint slides and some good motivational speeches. Instead you embrace it!

You do as Paul did again and again and point out everyone's inadequacy and listen to the collective sigh of relief in the room. Rather than despair, people will be free to admit their own fears and reservations regarding witnessing in an environment free of judgement and condemnation. In my own experience, being shown that everyone is inadequate to the task is met with a universal, "Oh, thank God! I thought it was just me!" Then you take that elephant and reduce it down to a mouse by pointing out that "evangelism" is not really our work, but God's! If you frame witnessing properly, people will see it for the mouse that it is... a mouse that is much less terrible than the elephant that they are used to.

The unpreparedness should not be ignored and it can't be addressed with a few workshops and some pre-made religious tracts. This problem is a diagnosis of the poor job the church is doing in training its people. If you really get to the heart of it, most people don't witness because they don't feel confident in the subject matter. They don't know the issues well enough and they don't trust themselves to do a good job. This is made worse by directing people to talk about their own personal testimonies. Personal testimonies look good on paper because they are essentially immune to apologetic arguments. They are subjective so they cannot be argued and people already have their own histories memorized. How can I tell you that God didn't do something subjective to you when it happened in your life?

...but this misunderstands the critical weaknesses of personal testimonies:

1. Some people don't have them. Some people have never had anything impressive happen to them. They have been blessed with quiet lives and have nothing to share that would emotionally appeal to anyone. In our "personal testimony" culture, they wrongly assume that have no witness and so... they don't witness.

2. While it is impossible to debate a personal experience it is still just a personal experience. Your personal experience has no sway over me. So what if Jesus rescued you from a life of drugs and prostitution? I hate to be insensitive, but what does that have to do with me? Even if I have a similar situation, does that mean that I am supposed to be impressed by this Jesus?

3. Which leads into our next problem: personal experiences can be duplicated by non-Christian sources. Jesus got you off of drugs? Well, rehab did it for me and I got to stay a hedonistic pagan. Jesus fixed your family? Well, I went to this family counsellor and my family is doing fine? Jesus got your finances in order? Well, I did that myself with a little self discipline and Quicken on my PC.

4. Which leads into our next problem: personal experiences are not indicative of future results. Jesus got you off of drugs? Well, I can show you tons of Christian who still struggle with that. Does that mean that Jesus loves them less than you? Jesus fixed your family? Well, I can show you tons of broken families and a huge divorce rate within the church. Your personal testimony could prove insulting to those you witness too. This isn't just because your success may actually be the exception rather than the norm, but it is inherently dishonest. After all, you are implying that Jesus could do the same good things for the person you are witnessing to... which does not always happen... but no one ever says that during witnessing. It's a bait-n-switch. A con. A scam.

5. Every Christian is still a sinner. The problem with a personal experience is that your experience has to live up to the hype of your pitch. If you are going to tell people that Jesus got you off of drugs, what happens to your witness when you stumble and use drugs again? If you talk about how Jesus fixed your family, what happens when that affair you had becomes public knowledge? ...this is a major reason why people don't witness. They are afraid of letting Christ down in the eyes of the lost. Why? Because we tell Christians that they are supposed to live better than other people. All this law talk only creates two groups of people: secure hypocrites and sinners full of despair. It's no wonder that modern evangelism is largely made up of these two groups.

6. Most importantly, a personal experience is about you. Are we talking about you and what has happened to you or are we talking about Christ and the work that He did on the cross? The more you talk about yourself the less you will actually talk about Jesus.

So let's turn this elephant back into a mouse. Do you want to witness? Just tell people about Jesus and what the Bible says He has done for sinners on the cross. Share the small catechism and the creeds with people. When someone misrepresents the Christian faith or quotes the Bible out of context, be bold and correct the record. Be open and honest. Be willing to talk about this important part of your life with others to the best of your ability knowing that the Holy Spirit will guide you and that Christ is with you always. All of the hard work has been done and is being done by Christ and He has given you the privilege of sharing this great news with others. You don't have to do anything but bear witness about Jesus and His saving work... and all a witness has to do is tell people the truth about what happened. All you are doing is planting and watering... those are almost menial tasks when you get down to it. The growth? That's not your job.

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