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Unworthy witness

The author, David, is a research associate with OM. We are grateful for permission to reproduce this article which focuses on right and wrong ways to do evangelism. It is therefore relevant to the right use of the ‘Bridge Strategy’ in web evangelism.

“Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” A comforting thought, uttered by Francis of Assisi 900 years ago. Too comforting.

Despite spending well over half my life with my mission, my natural tendency is to keep quiet and hope my light is shining. But Arthur Glasser (Announcing the Kingdom, Baker 2003, p. 156) reminds us that ̶...evangelization of the world is a matter of both words and activity. It cannot be reduced to mere presence without dismissing all the valid data in the New Testament about imploring people ‘on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.”

What should I do? If I put into evangelistic practice the sentiment of a prayer I heard recently, denouncing the ‘beast’ of Orthodoxy, my wife and I would soon be looking for a new country of residence! The kind of action my acquaintance prayed for fits neatly, and correctly, into what the Middle East Council of Churches, and others, have labeled with the dirty word ‘proselytism’.

Unfortunately, though, virtually any form of evangelism is labelled ‘proselytism’ in many countries in which missions work. Fuller Seminary’s Cecil Robeck commented in a 1996 column that the problem is that “those who use the term (proselytism) have defined it for Evangelicals rather than with Evangelicals.”

As criticisms of evangelism flourish, the World Evangelical Alliance recently stated their opposition to proselytism, what John Stott called ‘unworthy witness’. Citing a 1970 World Council of Churches and Roman Catholic Church study, Proselytism takes place

  1. whenever our motives are unworthy (when our concern is for our glory rather than God’s),
  2. whenever our methods are unworthy (when we resort to any kind of ‘physical coercion, moral constraint, or psychological pressure‚), and
  3. whenever our message is unworthy (whenever we deliberately misrepresent other people’s beliefs).
Contrasting the words, WEA declares that to evangelize is “to make an open and honest statement of the gospel, which leaves the hearers entirely free to make up their own minds about it.”

So how do we go about ‘worthy witness’? A North African friend was attracted by the word ‘free’. The advertisement said it was free, and it was from Europe, so that was enough for him to send in the coupon without checking the details. (‘It’ turned out to be a Bible correspondence course.) Was he misled, or through his own mixed motives did he misinterpret a 'worthy' message which eventually drew him to Christ?

A Christian community development leader recently described to me a layered approach of their ministry within a community. It is something like a Christmas package. No deception can ever be involved, but the outer wrapping (public actions, activities, and appearance) stimulate interest which causes people to probe deeper, through the layers, until they find the gift inside – perhaps long after the team has left.

He says that integrity is vital in service and witness through community development. If we enter a situation with a commitment to feed 1000 people, we should not feed only 500 while taking advantage of the situation to evangelize. But if we fulfill our commitment to the host government and feed 1000 – or more – then our words, carefully chosen, can combine with our deeds for ‘worthy witness’.

Our era is characterized by a return to exclusive fundamentalism on the one hand and what Glasser calls “careless tolerance and religious relativism” on the other. No matter what we do, no matter how we live our lives, as we speak of our faith in Jesus Christ some will accuse us of ‘unworthy witness’. And – it hardly needs mention– different settings, different times, different people will respond to different approaches in differing ways.

Are outsiders more likely to accuse us of ‘unworthy witness’ if they sense we are trying to move people from worship in their building to worship in ours? Could one key to ‘worthy witness’ be a focus on the Centre, not the boundary? The Cross is itself a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23); we need not add more stones in the path, much less build walls (2 Cor. 4:3). A focus on who we worship, not where (John 4:23) may take away at least part of the unnecessary stigma of unworthy witness.

Who determines if our witness is worthy? Our lives should, where possible, win the respect of non-believers (1 Thess. 4:12). But in the face of opposition, our witness - with or without words – must be true and spring from sound motives. Ultimately it is God, who tests us, whose approval we seek (1 Thess. 2:1-6, 2 Cor. 4:1,2 ).

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