By Joe LaGuardia
In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare. Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer. Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.
There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days. I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.
I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?
Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches. What about spiritual literacy? Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.
Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.
In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose. Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith? Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.
Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this: The first was with the late Mr. Rogers. In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing. In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.
Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister. He spoke simply, but movingly.
The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises. “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”
Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages. You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery. (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?” He testifies on camera and off.)
Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.
For one, we need to speak well. Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.
We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel. This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).
Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict. After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like. Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear. He never offered trite opinions. Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).
Second, we must speak accurately. In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.
An example might suffice: Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true. Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate. Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.
Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.
Last, we must speak what is true. This is different than accuracy. You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts. If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.
There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst. This has taken a toll on the church. If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.
Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.
This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.
Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ. His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.
We must speak well. We must speak accurately. And we must speak what is true.