We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

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.

Conversion is a Baptist’s cup of tea, fraught with diverse theologies

I.

I guess you can say that we Baptists have a love affair with conversions.  Audacious, Damascus-road conversions.  If someone comes up to you on the street and asks if you’re saved, I’ll bet my Bible he’s a Baptist.  To this day, despite the fact that I’m in the ministry, I still have Baptist pastors–“preacher men,” I call them–ask me if I’m saved.

You might think its offensive to ask a pastor that question; but, in these parts of the South, a conversion or salvation experience is what separates the Christians from everyone else.  You might also think that the answer is an easy yes.  Wrong again. For a guy like me, who grew up as a Christian mutt, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

II.

The Baptist love affair with conversions isn’t new.  Conversions became a litmus test for faith around the turn of the twentieth century, when tent revivals inspired believers to get right with God.

“If you were to die tonight,” the preacher man yelled, “Are you sure you’d go to heaven?”  It was a question that would make Jonathon Edwards proud.

The goal of revivalist preaching was to cast a shadow of doubt upon a person’s eternal security.  Only the people who reached “the age of accountability” can choose to follow Christ; church upbringing or infant baptism did not insure salvation.  “Walking the aisle,” writes Baptist historian Bill Leonard, “replaced baptism as public profession of faith.”*  Jesus must be one’s personal Savior.  Choose, or have that shadow darken your life forever.

Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking.  As revivalism spread, many theologians deemed the movement too sensational.  Mainline churches and liberals in particular argued that emotional conversion experiences were not adequate to raise a person in faith.  Salvation must accompany a process of baptism, discipleship, sanctification, and education.*

Furthermore, infants and children were saved and baptized because their parents raised them in the womb of the church.  After all, the Bible does say that Cornelius’ entire household got baptized when he believed in the Gospel, a household that likely included children of various ages (Acts 10).

Theologians also questioned how revivalists read the Bible. Saul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1-15), which became the model for revivalist conversion theology, is not about conversion at all.  When he met Christ in a blinding light, Saul did not convert from one religion to another.  He was Jewish before and after the event; the only difference was his new-found conviction that Jesus was God’s messiah.

The schism between revivalists and mainline theologians created confusion over the nature of conversion and, eventually, the substance of salvation.  Is salvation a one-time event or a process?  Jesus told his followers to enter the narrow door and walk the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14).  So what is it: a door or a road?

Thankfully, this schism has evolved over time, and many Christians have a more nuanced approach to conversion.  My own journey of faith attests to the confusion that results from this evolution, as well as the way people see conversion differently these days.  If anything, my life’s story sheds light on the importance of holding both views–conversion as a process and as a one-time event–together in a balanced, creative tension.

III.

I grew up in a Christian household.  My parents were reared in the Catholic church, but they insisted on “getting saved” at a conservative evangelical church in New York shortly after I was born.  When I was young, I just assumed that I was a Christian too.

As I was entering middle school–a very important time of religious discovery in a person’s life–we moved to Florida and started attending a Southern Baptist Church.  There, I heard the Gospel call of the preacher man for the first time:

“Little Brother,” he said, “Did you ask Jesus into your heart, because if you don’t you won’t be saved.”

“I grew up going to church, Sir,” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, “My parents are Christian.”

“Makes no difference where you grew up if you haven’t asked Jesus in your heart.”  The preacher man bent down and leaned on one knee, his breathing labored from carrying his weight that low to the ground. “Do you want Jesus in your heart today?”

I was not sure how to answer, and the preacher man was quite convincing.  I walked the aisle and said a “sinner’s prayer” to make sure my destiny was sealed in heaven.

Despite this decision, I still had my doubts.  I kept a tract in my bedroom so that when those doubts arose or I had sinned in some way, I would simply flip to the last page and say the prayer all over again.  This was a confusing time.  I thought I had been a Christian all of my life; now I wasn’t so sure.

This confusion created an acute guilt that haunted me throughout adolescence.  I resisted baptism when asked because I still wasn’t sure whether I was a child of God.

In high school and college, I moved my membership to a Presbyterian church that provided a more positive picture of the Christian life.  The youth group was affirming and encouraged participation in missions, ministry, and social justice.  While there, I decided to go into ministry, and I couldn’t be a minister if I hadn’t been baptized.  So, finally, my youth pastor baptized me in the lake behind the church building.  It was an emotional event although we did it on some random day of the week without my parents present.   Witnesses consisted of only a half-dozen close friends.

I entered seminary immediately after college and pursued ministry in Baptist life.  I decided to go Baptist because they championed soul competency.  That, and I never understood Reformed theology anyway, so how could I make for a good Presbyterian preacher man?

IV.

Going back to Baptist life was not easy.  My inner spiritual war, with all of its guilt and doubt, reared its ugly head once again.  I became anxious; my wife became annoyed.  Things were uncertain.  I asked a lot of questions: Was I really “saved” since I never had a Damascus road experience?  Did I love Jesus as much as those preacher men did if I didn’t insist on telling everyone I met about Him?

Fortunately, the seminary was progressive enough to welcome a more nuanced definition of conversion.  Salvation, it seemed, can indeed happen via a one-time event or as a process over a long period of time.  In fact, there was such a nonchalant attitude about conversion at the seminary, I started to wonder whether salvation was even necessary to get into heaven in the first place.  When I posed this to my wife, she said I was going too far.  She was right.

V.

The Baptist church I attended, the very one that eventually called me to be its pastor, also honored both views of conversion.  In theology and theory, one may be saved over a long period of time, even from very young.  In practice, the church insists on keeping an “invitation” in worship every Sunday to give people the chance to respond immediately to God’s call to repent and walk the aisle if necessary.

Studying the history of conversion is one thing, but to preach in a Baptist church that does an invitation week after week is another. I honed my theology of conversion in this precarious context.  After all, I needed some way to answer those preacher men in our community who insisted on questioning my salvation.

How do you explain to an enthusiastic preacher man that your conversion didn’t happen in one, tidy experience?  Do you make an appointment to take the time and explain the whole thing?

If anything, a true conversion is living (and, at times, surviving) through a series of cycles that include orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  Those terms aren’t original to me, but they certainly sum up the narrative flow of my entire life.  Orientation occurs when you think you have it all together.  Then, all of a sudden, disorientation: Mystery interrupts your life.  A dark night of the soul may prevail for one evening, one season, or, in some cases, an entire year.

Reorientation happens when you start to put the pieces of your life back together again, and you realize that the thing you put together looks nothing like what it was before.  There is no going back.

In other words, conversion is more like being married than deciding to marry.  Asking my wife to marry me was the easy part; it’s the staying married part that requires daily commitment and sacrifice.

I could explain all of this, but it’s not as dramatic as some evangelists prefer.  Half-way through the conversation, they might start fidgeting and wondering where Jesus is in all of this.  Preachers love their Jesus, and they love it when people meet Jesus in one explosive encounter.  I am sorry to disappoint.

At best, my life is filled with not one but many conversion experiences.  There was my conversion from childhood to adulthood, when my faith became my own.  There was conversion from being somewhat of a culture-warrior bigot to inclusive advocate who befriends “misfits” who are socially marginalized.  There was my conversion from one political party to another when I found out that Jesus did care about how I voted.

I had a powerful conversion experience about seven years ago when my daughter was born and I realized my life was no longer my own.  Her birth and my son’s birth shortly thereafter gave a new meaning to some words we Baptists sing every now and then: “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood…”*  Holding a newborn baby gives new meaning to being “baptized” by water and blood.

VI.

Recently, I was cleaning out a bookshelf when I found a small envelope my mother had given me about a year ago.  She said it was my dedication certificate, so I thought it was from that evangelical church of my childhood.  I put it aside to look at later, but it must have gotten misplaced over the months.

When I opened the envelope, I quickly realized that it wasn’t a dedication record.  It was a baptism certificate.  I got baptized in the Catholic church one month after I was born.

I called my mother and asked her about it.  Apparently, my parents were visiting the evangelical church while I was a baby, but still maintained ties to the Catholic church.   They baptized me Catholic just in case that whole “getting saved” stuff at the evangelical church was a fluke.

Here, in my hand, was the proof that God did indeed seal me as His child even before I could remember, or doubt for that matter.  My whole life’s faith journey flashed before my eyes.  Mine was a difficult road, but I had already decided long ago that I would turn this whole, harrowing wrestling match with conversion into something positive for other Christians.

As for me, I’m just glad I can answer those preachers once and for all:

“Are you saved, Brother?” the preacher man will ask.

“Yes,” I will say with boldness, “I was saved on April 16, 1978, when my Catholic brothers and sisters baptized me at The Church of the Holy Family, Staten Island, New York.”

It won’t take all day to explain that, and it will do just fine.  Just fine indeed.

Sources:

*(1) Bill Leonard, “Southern Baptists and Conversion: An Evangelical Sacramentalism,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), 17.

*(2) James Reed, “Horace Bushnell, Spiritual Formation, and Conversion,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), see pp. 49-55.

*(3) “There Is Power in the Blood.”  Words and music by Lewis E. Jones.

What kind of public witness do you want your church to communicate?

Although our nation sets aside one day—July 4—to celebrate our freedom, a Christian’s ability to participate in civic government without fear of persecution is cause for celebration throughout the year.

This is especially the case in a time of legal fundamentalism, in which a variety of nations are tightening religious freedom.  In France, a bill threatens to ban Muslim burqas; in Iran, a newly-signed law regulates men’s haircuts (this applies to Christians, too).  In Britain, hate-crime laws limit street evangelism; throughout Asia and Africa, persecution of Christians and Muslims is still commonplace.

We in America take our freedom for granted all too often.  We should consider how to engage politics with a sense of gratitude and humility.  One informative scriptural text on the subject comes from Romans 13.

On the surface, a reading of Romans 13 seems to simply advocate obedience to the government.  Paul writes, “Let every person be subject for the governing authorities, for there is no authority except for God.”  In isolation, this text seems to be pretty cut-and-dry.

Our church history reveals, however, that when Christians apply Romans 13 without considering the larger context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the text can be misused.   In the early Church, Romans 13 motivated Christians to fight in Rome’s army and the crusades, which led to bloodshed and senseless violence.  In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s clergy used Romans 13 to sanction injustices towards Jews, justifying Holocaust.

Romans 13 is not as clear as we might think.  Whenever Paul wrote about a Christian community’s engagement in the political sphere (Romans 13 included) there was one goal in mind—to inspire churches to be a witness to the governing authorities, not to simply follow the government blindly.  Paul wanted Christians to remind the authorities that God is really in charge of everything.

The alternative rhythm of church life, the unique beat of the Christian journey declares that the Lordship of Christ is real and active even when our political leaders don’t believe it to be so.

But if local churches are called to be a witness, then what is the nature of that witness?  What testimony is a church supposed to communicate?

Every church communicates a public witness and civic ethic.  Churches that are “not political,” for instance, communicate that the Gospel has nothing to say to public policy and social justice; other churches tackle issues that are important to those particular congregations.

In my home church in South Florida, we were big supporters of marriage enrichment and the pro-life movement.  Our church almost went bankrupt while paying legal costs incurred by our many protests.  Other churches in the area, meanwhile, invested heavily in HIV advocacy, a major issue in Broward County.  Many churches took up a cause.

The question, then, is this:  What kind of testimony do you want your church to give?  Is it a testimony of hate, fear, punditry, or partisanship?  Or is it a testimony that voices God’s power and compassion in all creation?   The Bible says that “God so loved the world”; and we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Again, Romans 13 is informative.  A closer look reveals that Paul couched Christian political engagement in the larger ethic of compassion.  Note the verses littered throughout Romans 12: “Let love be genuine” (v. 9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (v. 12); “Bless those who persecute you” (v. 13).  Romans 13:8 says, “Love one another, for the one who loves fulfills the law”; and 14:7 declares: “We do not live to ourselves…If we live, we live to the Lord.”

So it seems that the Bible tells us of what tune to sing when it comes to providing a public witness.  Last week at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Baptist historian Bill Leonard reminded us, “Don’t ask whether your church is thriving or in decline, growing or dying.  Instead, ask whether your church has a witness and a call to conscience.”   Don’t take this witness for granted; your freedom allows you to participate in it fully.