Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Dangers of Secondhand Witnessing

My husband and I recently became victims of a horrible social crime: secondhand witnessing.

It was a gorgeous, sunny Saturday afternoon, and we'd decided to have lunch at a nearby cafe. We were fully enjoying our meal, our time together, and the wonderfully comfortable silence when another couple plunked down at the table next to us. The man began to make overly loud conversation with his female companion.


Her (barely audible): Yes, it's beautiful today.


Her: Uh ... yup.

Each time the man made a comment about God or his faith, he'd give us a little sideways glance, estimating our reaction. And each time, his companion also would sneak a peek at us, her eyes full of apologies.

Before they'd received their beverages, we knew which church they attended, how long the man had been a Christian, and what he prayed for every day. All without him speaking a direct word to us. When the waiter brought their sandwiches, the man grabbed his companion's hands and yelled, "LET'S SAY GRACE, HONEY!" He thanked God profusely for the food, practically praising the good Lord for every ingredient in his sandwich. And after he uttered, "AHHHHHHHH-MEN," he turned to stare at us, waiting for a reaction.

My husband and I kept our heads straight forward, our gaze glued on each other. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman across from me, almost lipping the words, "I'm so sorry." She didn't say it out loud, but she didn't have to--the embarrassment was written all over her face. I wanted to reach over, pat her hand and say, "It's all right, dearie. It's not the first time I've had to endure a secondhand evangelist."

As they began chomping on their sandwiches, comfortable silence reigned once more. I figured the worst of it was over. Suddenly, the man broke out like a preacher on Easter Sunday, "OH, WHAT WOULD I DO WITHOUT MY SAVIOR! MY LIFE WOULD BE IN UTTER SHAMBLES, YES IT WOULD. GLORY TO GOD FOR THE DIFFERENCE HE'S MADE IN MY LIFE! THERE'S POWER IN THE BLOOD. I CAN'T IMAGINE HOW ANYONE CAN LIVE ONE DAY WITHOUT CHRIST--NON-CHRISTIANS TRULY ARE LIVING IN THE TOILET."

(OK, he didn't really use the word "toilet," but he did imply anyone who wasn't a Christian must be having an utterly miserable life.)

I then noticed other diners seated nearby were beginning to roll their eyes. My attention shifted to my husband, who is not a Christian. His hands were clenched around his sandwich, knuckles whitening. His green eyes had narrowed into two black death rays. I feared he'd leap from the table and commence beating down this Christian loudmouth. The next words out of my mouth were, "Check, please."

On the way home, my husband told me how offended he'd been. (His exact words were along the lines of, "I wanted to put my fist into that man's mouth to shut him up.") I apologized, explaining how some Christians thought this was a good way to share the things they believe. My husband's response was direct and simple: "Acting that way, did he actually think I'd be interested in what he had to say? That I'd want to be like him?"

Too often, we Christians witness in ways that diminish interest in Jesus rather than peak it. We try "secondhand witnessing," proclaiming our beliefs loudly in public and thinking others will overhear and want to seek God. Or we use our weird "Christianese" language: "There's cleansing power in the Savior's blood. It washes away your sin, you are forgiven and your relationship with the Father is renewed." Huh? How is someone who's never been to church supposed to make sense of that?

Sometimes we become "evangel-pests": We only talk about God. All the time. We pester, believing if we debate and prod and argue with someone enough, they'll want to know Jesus. What a mistake!

All of these ineffective means of witnessing come from a good place. We want to share what God's done in our lives. We want others to experience the difference Jesus can make in theirs.

Unfortunately, we Christians sometimes feel it's possible to convert others by our own ability, to persuade them to adopt our beliefs. We forget it's God who moves hearts and changes lives.

We don't need to use sneaky tactics, a fancy speech, or a point/counterpoint argument to be an effective witness. All we need is to make ourselves available to God, and pray he will use our lives and our words to speak to others.

To ponder:
It's easy to think about witnessing as the things we say. Think about your actions (the way you live) and your friendships (particularly, the way you listen). How do these factor into the way you witness?

2) In The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), Jesus instructs us to "make disciples." Think about the definition of disciple. How does that differ from the word convert? What are some attributes of disciples--what does it take to be a disciple? What does it take to make a disciple?

3) Think about someone with whom you'd like to share your faith. How much do you know about them personally? How much time do you spend with them socially? How much do you know about their spiritual background? (For example, how do they view God? How do they view organized religion? If they went to church and/or believed in God in the past, why did they stop?)

4) Some people perceive Christians as snobby perfectionists who look down on others. Sometimes, the most effective way to witness is to reveal where you've struggled and failed, and how God has helped you through rough times. How well do others know you? Think about specific stories that illustrate your struggles/failure so you'll be prepared if you get the opportunity to share these.

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