To witness or not to witness?

Reader Jeannie commented that it can be tough to walk up to a stranger and talk to them about Jesus, hence the decision by some to drive by or fling tracts randomly. She also asked whether witnessing should always be in the confines of a trusting relationship. A fine question, that. My knee-jerk answer is yes. That may be tough news for those of you who have encouraged witnessing in all circumstances, but I’ll tell you why I think that.

I’ve been witnessed to on more than one occasion, and I know that is a central part of faith for those who witness. I don’t argue here against witnessing itself, because I know the motivation is kind. If I can occasionally bring myself to listen to a boring sales pitch because I’ve taken pity on some poor chump who works at a call center, I can definitely listen for a little while to a kind person who has my salvation in mind.

However. The thing about being witnessed to when my beliefs are at stake is that it’s really, really important to feel that I’m not being attacked. Especially because my beliefs are a bit of a mystery to me, and I’ve wrestled with them a lot, and I’ve been attacked in the past for not having beliefs that matched those of others, I need to feel that the person who is witnessing to me is telling me what they believe because they think it will help me. If I start feeling that the person is telling me I’m wrong, I’m bad, and don’t believe in anything (oh, and also that I’m going to hell in a handbasket), my defenses go up and anything they tell me starts to actually make me angry.

I’ll give you an example. When I was living in Laramie and attending the University of Wyoming (for the weirdest fight song lyrics ever, click here), I went to church with my friend Mary one day. I signed the visitor’s card, and based on what happened next, I have never signed another one. Two clean-cut young Baptist fellows came to visit me. Not so bad, right? Well, they knocked on my door, didn’t get an answer, and then knocked on Mary’s door (she lived in the dorm room next to me). She told them I was in the student lounge, and they came and hunted me down. They surrounded me on the couch I was lounging on, and proceeded to tell me that I would burn in hell if I didn’t start believing in Jesus Christ pronto. I thanked them politely for stopping by and didn’t go to church again for at least a year.

Now, that’s obviously a textbook example of what not to do, and I’m sure age and experience has mellowed both boys. And it’s easy to see what they did wrong. But the elements of disaster in their approach were not just that they threatened me with hellfire and interrupted my day without the least respect for what I was doing. It’s also that they skipped straight from “Hi, we’re Baptists” to “hell awaits thee!” I didn’t know these guys from Adam and they were presuming to tell me not only what my beliefs should be but even what the consequences would be? Wow. And that was a questing time for me. That was a fertile time to have a real discussion about God and life and everything, and the boys did more harm than good, with the standard dose of good intentions that generally leads somewhere else.

Point being, religious beliefs are intensely personal. (That Blazing Flash of the Obvious is brought to you by me, free of charge! Feel free to cross-stitch it on a pillow, if you’d like.) There aren’t many of us who like to discuss personal things with strangers, particularly if they happen to be in a moving car at the time. So although it’s probably sometimes tough, I’d recommend waiting until you’ve established some kind of trusting relationship, and when you do witness, I’d suggest the “I” approach. As in, this is what I believe, this is what belief does for me, this is why I believe what I believe. Questions come across as much more gentle than declarations, too. If someone asks me, “What do you believe?” first, I’m much more likely to engage with them, especially if they seem to actually listen to the answer rather than wait to tell me what they believe and why I should believe it too.

More on this later; I think there’s something I’m missing here and I plan to Give It Some Thought.


2 Responses to “To witness or not to witness?”

  1. 1 Jeannie January 15, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    In college, I had some great opportunities to share my faith with friends that I made on my newspaper staff. I doubt any of them would have taken time out of their crazy schedules to visit church (especially since deadline was Sunday night). But some of my best conversations with them about God happened at 2 a.m., right before we went to press and were giving our proofs a final read-through. Even though I didn’t hold any altar calls in the darkroom, I made some great friends– and maybe one day they’ll remember our late night talks, wonder what that one Christian news writer is up to, and give me a call.

    Excellent points and hilarious supporting anecdotes (gotta love the zeal of christian college students). Thank you for your insightful advice!

  2. 2 hdolezalek January 15, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks, Jeannie! That’s true of me too – the best conversations about God I’ve had have been late at night, with good friends, after too much caffeine (or, on occasion, too much schnapps – ah, my youth). I have always remembered those talks, and I even asked a friend for her testimony once. So it makes a difference, all right.

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