Witnessing. Few words strike more fear into the heart of the average Christian.
What is witnessing, exactly, and how do you do it? What happens if you forget what to say or get tongue-tied or don’t know the answer if the person asks you a question?
I know the feeling. I became a Christian at age twenty-one during the Jesus movement. Witnessing? Wasn’t that something you did in court?
“Don’t worry,” my long-haired Jesus-people mentors told me.
“We’ll show you what it’s all about.”
They showed me the ropes of evangelizing as we witnessed our way through clouds of cannabis smoke at an outdoor rock concert. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d been part of the “target audience.” Now I was the targeter. I was told that this is what it meant to be a Christian. If you weren’t finagling a way to steer the conversation toward Jesus, you were “selling out.” If you weren’t feeling uncomfortable at least once a day due to your boldness for the cause of Christ, it was doubtful that you were really saved.
When I was a new Christian protected by my closed hippie-Christian culture, it all seemed so simple. Go out, witness to as many people as you can, come back to the bible study, and tell everyone about your exploits. When you do this, you’re rewarded with kudos and assurances that anyone who rejected you rejected God. You can shake that experience off like so much dirt on your shoes. Their blood is no longer on your hands. On to the next target!
In time I became a professional Christian and started acting like one. Pastors learn not to do radical things, such as walk up to people on the street and ask them for a few minutes to explain Jesus, God, sin, and hell. Instead, we find culturally appropriate ways to “present” the gospel. We do it at special church programs, or we sneak it into the talks we give at weddings and funerals. We don’t want to come off like the door-to-door guys. We become more sophisticated in the way we go about sharing our faith. And sadly, many of us stop altogether.
Sure, in public we keep it up. We still remind the “troops” to go out and share the gospel with their neighbors. We read the latest demographics so that we know where our target markets are located. We even hold seminars and commit a few weeks every year to teach on evangelism. But we pretty much know that nothing is going to come of it.
I speak not as an outsider but as one who has been there and done that. I was a busy pastor, preaching, leading meetings, and coming up with mission statements. Yet I couldn’t make myself stop thinking about evangelism. I couldn’t live with it and I couldn’t live without it. So I buried that voice.
But still, I could hear it call to me. I’ve been intrigued, frustrated, and energized by the issue of evangelism all of my Christian life. I’m not an evangelist. I am more a student of the game we call evangelism.
It may be because it’s one topic that’s guaranteed to irritate both Christians and non-Christians. I have been told that one of my spiritual gifts is provocateur, which may help explain the connection.
I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t succeed in my thirties or forties. As I turned fifty I had a slight inkling as to what I wanted to do when I grew up. I took heart in studying the lives of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Harry Truman, and Mother Teresa, all of whom really got started around age fifty. The sense of mortality has a huge upside: It helps you stop worrying about trying to become something you aren’t and get on with being who you really are—warts and all—because this is as good as it’s going to get.
Someone has said, “We change when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same.” I finally realized that my evangelism fixation wasn’t going to go away. I had buried the memory of it, but it was buried alive, and it was rising from the dead to haunt me.
You’re Not Brave? Great!
Some of us are born salesmen. Most of us aren’t. Some of us are born leaders, taking our place at the front of the charge and ready to accept the casualties. But again, most of us aren’t. So it’s a good thing that connecting with the people Jesus misses most doesn’t require a Type A personality.
In his counterintuitive book Leading Quietly, Harvard professor Joseph Badaracco steers us away from the well-worn leaders-as-heroes path and onto the road less traveled, where ordinary people get things done. Delving into the decision-making experiences of several quiet leaders, Badaracco takes a closer look at their thinking. “The most effective leaders are rarely public heroes,” he writes. “These men and women aren’t high profile champions of causes and don’t want to be.”1
The book of Joshua opens with these startling words: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you…” (1:2). Just as Joshua had to learn to lead in ways that differed significantly from Moses’s approach, we have to learn to connect with the people Jesus misses most in our own way. I’m sure Joshua wanted Moses to stick around just as we want those who are more gifted than we are to go ahead and do the work of evangelizing others. But eventually it falls to us to get it done, in our own way.
Even though Moses got all the press, Joshua may have been a better leader. Moses did stuff for others; Joshua did his work through others. Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea; Joshua followed them across the Jordan River. Moses saw the Promised Land; Joshua lived in it.
People Prefer Prayer
Fortunately for those of us who lack boldness, it’s not all that hard to connect with the people Jesus misses most. If you can pray, you can preach. John from Mount Vernon, Washington, tells about a time he and his wife resorted to prayer: Thirteen years ago my wife and I moved to Portland for a job. We didn’t have a place to move to, so my brother offered to put us up while we looked for a house.
My brother didn’t sound too hopeful [about us finding a place], especially since my job didn’t start for a couple of weeks. We went out anyway and fell in love with the first place we visited. The landlord was inside painting. He asked me about the job and also asked if I had ever done that type of work before (I hadn’t). He was very skeptical, but accepted an application anyway, telling us he had several other applicants, all of which he said were better prospects as tenants.… Taking applications for rentals wasn’t a common practice where I came from, and I was quite intimidated by the whole process.
Anyway, we had a feeling about this, so Jeanette and I prayed that God would bring us to this man’s mind every time he looked at the applications. The next morning we received a call; it was the landlord telling us he had decided to rent to us. He set up a meeting for later that morning. When we arrived, he said we would have to make arrangements for the first month’s rent and deposit. We had the money to meet those requirements! Then he told us that each time he looked at the pile of rental applications, he was drawn toward ours, even though he was inclined against it from a logical point of view.
I told him we had prayed that very thing would happen. My landlord, it turned out, was something of an agnostic, but he laughed and told us that took the responsibility off him, he supposed. Anyway, we visited our landlord and his wife when we were down in Portland last summer. They invited us for a meal, and they prayed beforehand. It seems they had left some of their agnosticism behind.
Here’s one thing John’s story tell us: The people formerly known as “lost” prefer prayer to preaching. John and Jeanette weren’t preachers, but they did know how to pray.
If you’re not a bold evangelist, you’re in the majority. In fact, you’re in great company—including Saint Peter, the ultimate Green Beret who became the world’s biggest Christian chicken. Under pressure he uttered curses and denied that he even knew who Jesus was (see Mark 14:66-71). At that point he had hit bottom (see Mark 14:72; Luke 22:62).
Peter was the man who boldly declared his willingness to die for Jesus (see Luke 22:33). But after the Crucifixion, he began using his leadership skills to lead the other disciples back into the fishing business. Jesus was dead, and Peter didn’t know what else to do. At least fishing was something he understood.
Peter was out on the lake in a boat when he heard that familiar voice: “Come and have breakfast” ( John 21:12). Immediately he knew it was Jesus. Once onshore, Peter steeled himself for Jesus’s seminar on the eternal fate of compromisers and backsliders. But it never came.
Instead, Peter walked in on a three-part series titled “Do you love me?” Like the brilliant preacher he was, Jesus repeated himself over and over again. Some read a rebuke in these words, I assume because of the repetitive use of the phrase “Do you love me?” But if you hadn’t been taught that interpretation by someone who knew ancient Greek, I would suggest that you might not have come to that conclusion. Perhaps my point of view is too hopeful, but I see it this way: When Jesus found Peter, he didn’t rebuke him; he reminded Peter that they loved each other and that Peter’s life had purpose and meaning in serving others. Peter already knew what he should be doing. Jesus gave him the hope and motivation to do it by giving him what he needed rather than what he deserved. Cowards make great leaders when they’re loved. Finding the people Jesus misses most isn’t about boldness; it’s about love.
I resigned from witnessing in 1996. I knew I could never go back to the same old programs, the contrived joviality, or the fake evangelistic caring. But what would I replace them with? Along with many people in the church I was leading at the time, we decided to do what was doable and to count what really counts.
We decided to count all the small attempts we made to connect with the people Jesus misses most and to do it in ways that were natural and had context in our ordinary, everyday lives. We decided to call these practices Ordinary Attempts.
An Ordinary Attempt is just what the name implies. It’s something that anyone can do. You don’t need special skills or experience; you just have to be aware and available. It’s an attempt, not an accomplishment, so no extra credit is awarded for succeeding, and no demerits are given for failing. Ordinary Attempts are this easy: They are nothing more than free attention giveaways.
People crave attention. In our cultural setting it’s like the cup of cold water Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:42, where he said, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because
he is my disciple…he will certainly not lose his reward.” When we pay attention to people because we want to nudge them toward Jesus, it refreshes them. It becomes the connecting bridge between them and God. Best of all, instead of asking them for something—their time, attention, and interest—we give them something—our time, attention, and interest. We serve them a small taste of Jesus’s desire to attend to them.
This attempt to connect with the people Jesus misses most is evangelism. Here is my paraphrase of Matthew 10:42:
If anyone…even cowards for Jesus
Gives even…small things are the big things
A cup of cold water…ordinary things are the real things
Because he is my disciple…good intentions count too
He will not lose his reward…it counts, and God will multiply its effectiveness.
Jesus made it clear that when people see him, they’ve seen the Father. This is what I see when I look at Jesus and, through him, his Father:
• He asked great questions.
• He wasn’t frenzied when it came to moving people closer to
• He operated in a relatively small geographical and cultural
• “Sinners” found him approachable. They liked him.
I want to be like Jesus. I want to be friends with the people Jesus misses most, the people formerly known as “lost.” I want missing people to like me, to want to hang out with me. I want to partner with Jesus in seeing them cross the starting line into the kingdom of God.
Christians are the freest people on earth. Our past, present, and future are completely secure through the love of Jesus. Not only do we have eternal security; we have internal security. In a word, we have nothing to lose. We can risk, attempt, and fail, and we’ll still go to heaven.
When it comes to evangelism, we can be our ordinary selves, and it turns out to be good enough. It turns out that all Jesus needs are the five loaves and two fish of our lives—something we already have. Rather than trying to escape the ordinary, we should exploit it and attempt something small for God, something ordinary.
Here’s an Ordinary Attempt my wife and I got involved in while in a grocery store. See if you think it counts as evangelism. A woman ran up to the checker just as our items were moving down the conveyor belt.
“Can I get a calling card?” she asked, clearly frazzled. “My son is stuck in Italy, and his phone card won’t work, so he can’t call his credit-card company to get his debit card to work.”
“Man, been there, done that,” we said. My wife and I let the woman cut in front of us. Should I offer to pray for her? No, that would be too weird, I thought. She got a calling card and headed off, and we continued getting our purchases scanned.
But I did pray for her, secretly. I hoped she would come back just one more time. Surprisingly, she returned to ask the clerk for a little more help.
“What’s your son’s name?” I inquired.
“Colin. He’s in Italy and…” She had that scared-parent look.
“Listen, I’ll pray for him.”
“I’ll pray for Colin that he gets out of Italy.”
A warm smile spread across the woman’s face. “Thank you!” she said and left the store. That took all of ninety seconds.
You might be wondering: Just how does that count as evangelism? I would have wondered the same thing several years ago, and I still find myself wondering even now. But…what are the odds that the worried mother has ever once had someone stop her in a grocery store and spontaneously offer to pray for her? For that matter, when was the last time it happened to you? Since Jesus and I are partnering and he had already been working in the woman’s life, I simply offered a “cup of cold water” to her and then left it up to Jesus to do the hard part of bringing her closer to his kingdom. And I really believe he will.