. . . but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)
In the churches that nurtured my young faith ‘witnessing’ was a big deal.
The act of sharing your faith, telling someone about Jesus, was highly extolled even if rarely practiced by the average pew-sitter. Whether you ever did it or not, you heard often of its importance. We were all called to be ‘witnesses.’ That’s just what Christians do. Given the church soil in which my young faith was rooted, it’s something of a puzzle to me that I’ve never been very good at ‘witnessing.’
As a seminary student I decided to try and do something about that.
A Would-Be Witness
In my first year of seminary I was required to take a course in personal evangelism. This class forced me to get honest about the fact that I never really shared my faith with people. Preaching or teaching? No problem. Bring it on. But witnessing? Not so much.
It seemed wrong that I was pursuing theological education with an aim toward becoming a pastor, and I never ‘witnessed.’ So when I learned that the church I attended in Fort Worth had a Sunday afternoon evangelism ministry, I mustered the courage to sign up.
After gathering for a brief time of prayer we would scatter along Hemphill Avenue and look for folks on the street with whom we could talk about Jesus. What I recall now is that just down the street from the church was a large park where crowds of people gathered every Sunday afternoon to play soccer. While we were encouraged to hit the streets and share our faith, no one ever suggested that we just go to the park and join others in playing soccer. In retrospect, that seems odd.
Those Sunday afternoon evangelistic excursions were never satisfying or fruitful for me. I was a failed would-be witness. Let me quickly add that my story is not meant to belittle or dismiss the act of ‘witnessing.’ The importance of sharing the faith isn’t really up for debate. But I look back now on those Sunday afternoons on Hemphill Avenue, and I cannot help but wonder what it means to be a ‘witness.’
Distinctive Life, Direct Word
One of the best known ‘witnesses’ of the New Testament was John the Baptist. ‘Witness’ was a moniker he willingly took to himself. His method was bold and direct. John would literally point to Jesus and tell people, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
But there’s also the ‘salt and light’ way of being a witness. This means letting people see something distinctive about your life. Jesus said that others should be able to look at the way we live – see the things we do and the way we do them – and soon come to love God. Pastor Scott Sauls says this gets at what the church is called to be: “an irresistible community.”
Sauls writes, “What would it look like for [Christians] to become those who live most beautifully, love most deeply, serve most faithfully in the places where we live work and play? . . . What would it look like for Christians, en masse, to start following and loving the whole Jesus and the whole Scripture, the whole time, into the whole world?” (Irresistible Faith, xxii).
Both kinds of ‘witness’ are needed: the direct word that points to Jesus as God’s way of saving us from sin. And the distinctive life that offers the world something attractive and different. And make no mistake, the church is called to both.
Neither of those, however, is possible in our own strength.
Neither will be effective if we rely on our own clever strategies or powers of persuasion.
Whatever a witness is, whether a direct word or a distinctive life, it will not bring others to Jesus unless it is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Poured Out for a Purpose
In churches all over the world, this past Sunday was celebrated as Pentecost Sunday. We remembered how God poured out his Holy Spirit on a small group of gathered disciples and empowered them to change the world
Jesus had promised this would happen (Acts 1:4,8).
Jesus had told his closest followers that unless he went away the Spirit, also called the helper or counselor, would not come (John 16:7).
Shortly after his ascension, just as he had promised, the Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus in a powerful way. And it came for a purpose: to enable them to be what Jesus had called them to be. The Spirit made them witnesses.
This week we’ll end our “Alive” series by reflecting on that power and purpose.
What kind of witness are you? Are you more likely to point others to Jesus by a direct word or by a distinctive life? Pray this morning for the power you need to be the witness Jesus has called you to be in the places where you will live your life today.
Gracious God, being a witness doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m hesitant with my words about you, and my life often looks far too much like everyone else’s. Apart from your help and power I will not be an effective witness. Pour out your Spirit on me in a fresh way today, enabling me to do what you’ve called me to do, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen..
Mark H. Crumpler