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.

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Let your light shine before others

By Jesse Strutko.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Read that daily… Soak that into your life and know that every day we are like lights in this world of darkness and people are watching.  We may not know when they are or when a challenge comes our way, but just know God is watching us as well.

Jesus was the example and the ultimate sacrifice; but, now He has given us the task to be the ultimate witness to everyday life and the people that encounter it.  We have been given the resources and the tools to overcome stress, anger, and the trials we may experience every day as we walk this earth.

Why must we let the little things bother us so? After all, we battle the devil and the things he shoots at us every day.

We are no different than David.  We all are kings and queens who are called to lead others to the light that Jesus left for us to carry throughout this earth.  It is not for us to hoard; it is for other people to see.

The most important thing for us to remember is that we must let go of the little things that bother us in our daily life and move on.  In other words, don’t let the little things get to you.  Instead of yelling and cursing at the car that cut you off, say, “God bless you and your driving.”  Speak positively and things will be better.  Instead of letting someone’s attitude get you worked up, say, “Lord, help that person with whatever he is going through today and help him have a better day.”

God designed our hearts to love others, not to condemn others.

Remember that God wants all of us to be the ultimate witness.   He watches us and smiles every time we do a good work in someone’s life.   Let us all be lights and make this terrible time of recession into a wonderful time of compassion and kindness.  The book of Hebrews put it best: “Let mutual love continue” (13:1).  Amen.

Jesse Strutko is general manager of The Cop Shop & Co. in McDonough and all around great guy.

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.