Title: Looking at he Witnessing Church afresh
Fresh Thoughts on The Witnessing Church
Proposition 1: The church is called to be a witness to God to the rest of the world. This call goes far beyond simply speaking words and should include all aspects of expressing Jesus – love, goodness, revelation and power.
Proposition 2: If we come to see the truth of the above proposition in all its fullness, the focus of our church life in respect of the world around us, will be to see, find or make opportunities whereby we are able to be witnesses in that fuller way.
Proposition 3: That fuller way will involve us teaching and directing the church to enter into,
1. Introduction: Why this Paper
Very simply, I believe, God's call is for the Church to become a witnessing church – which, mostly, it isn't.
Now many will instantly respond, “But we are a witnessing church – we do tell people about Jesus, well at least, some of us do,” and therein is our short-sightedness. We see being a witness as merely being a speaking people. My suggestion here, is that we MUST become both a speaking AND a doing people and before those same defenders leap in with, “But we do lots of things,” I would add that I mean God-things, things inspired by and empowered by God, things that are seen to be impossible without God's presence.
Much of the latter parts of this paper are taken from an earlier paper on ‘Revival' in the Prayer series on this site and I have adapted and added to that material for this paper.
2. Inadequate Witnessing
One of the things that we allow to become a problem in modern church life, is our inability to recognise different gifts or ministries in people. Thus there are always a vocal minority who say, “We should always be witnessing to our friends and neighbours, telling them about Jesus,” and I have even heard the exhortation to “make sure you witness to at least one person this week to tell them about Jesus.”
There are two false assumptions in this kind of speaking. First, is that we are all able to be mini-evangelists (for that is what these people so often imply and convey) and second, that speaking words about Jesus is enough.
a) Words not enough today
We live in a society in the U.K where, we are told, less than 5% of the population attend church. The 95% population exhibit the following:
To counter these tendencies, today's society needs to find a faith that works, a faith that is full of love and goodness, that is wisdom-filled, and exhibits power to change. Jesus taught, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12). Jesus did considerably more than just speak words!
One of the things that I find grieves me, is the testimony of witnesses who share how they told others about Jesus and those others rebuffed them and turned away and rejected them. Now I am aware that the apostle Paul was rejected by the Jews in many towns in Asia Minor when he shared about Jesus but Paul was an innovator on a mission to spread the news as far as possible. Most of us stay where we are and will encounter the same people again and again, and therefore if they are not ready to receive it the first time we share, we need to do it in a way that leaves the door open for further encounters. (I will pick up on this again later).
b) Misunderstanding the Scriptures
Very often in church life we hear teaching (and I've done it) that says, “We are all called to be witnesses” and by that we mean we are all called to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now before any doubters write me off, let me qualify what I am saying:
Yes, I do believe we are all called to be witnesses but that means far more than we've just described.
Yes, at some point every person needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, but that may not necessarily be in my conversation with them today – it might, but it depends on a) where they are in their belief and b) how the Holy Spirit wants to lead me today.
May I make an opening statement to this part: when the New Testament records instructions about being witnesses, it is always in a corporate sense – we the church as a whole are to be a witness
We can (and must) use words to convey all those three things but if we use only words we will fall short of God's will. His will is that His presence, His nature and His desires be seen in actions. This will be His life expressed through us in ‘good works' (which we'll explain later) and through power activity that brings change to people and circumstances.
Here is a challenging suggestion: Jesus words were vital, the message he brought to people, but it was his deeds that drew the crowds and it was his deeds that brought us salvation. As James said, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (Jas 2:14) It should not be words or deeds, but words AND deeds.
c) Hit and Run Witnessing
There is a form of evangelicalism that says we must witness to every individual we meet and once we have done that we have discharged our responsibility to them. If we truly believed that we would put out mail-shots regularly to our community (and why not a bigger area?) presenting them with the Gospel. I was instrumental in doing that years ago in our community and we did it every three months for a year and then every month for a year to a community of over fifteen thousand people. We saw two people come to our church and come to the Lord; that's all!
I have even heard Ezek 3:18-21 quoted to justify our responsibility to warn every person, but wrenching Scripture out of context does not reveal the truth. That particular passage is started by, "I have made YOU a watchman" and that was a specific word to the prophet, not to all of Israel. As I have commented elsewhere, Israel WERE to be a witness to the rest of the world but whenever that is shown, it is by their life as a nation, not by individual words.
Hit and run witnessing that simply pushes the Gospel in someone's face does more harm than good in the long run. If we are being prompted by the Holy Spirit, that is something completely different. If we are not being led by God then I suggest we are verging on a self-serving and conscience-appeasing exercise that often simply hardens non-believers even more.
I recently came across this quote in Christianity magazine by a Christian clinical psychologist:
“Ten thousand hours of client contact have taught me two things. One: God is up to something big in everyone you meet, but you'll only find out what it is if you ask the right questions and listen long enough. People can be very nervous and defensive talking about their spirituality; they're scared you'll think they're nuts. Two: We all frustrate and sabotage whatever God is up to in us.”
So there was the Lord working in the heart of this person, gently bringing them to a place of facing the truth about them and the enthusiastic, zealous believer barges in and declares, "You're a sinner, you need Christ." Well of course that's true but they're not quite there yet and our zealot didn't bother to listen to the Lord and find out where He had got to with them. That's why I refer to it sometimes as godless witnessing!
3. Scriptural Background for Being a (real) Witness
Let's challenge the traditional teaching on “you (the individual) ought to be a witness”.
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria , and to the ends of the earth."
I would suggest that Scripture assumes we will be witnesses because of teaching that comes in other forms:
Matt 5:16 “ let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
To obtain a complete picture we need to note that the New Testament shows that:
a) Deeds follow words so often, but also
b) Words follow deeds so often.
a) Deeds following words
Matt 9:5,6 Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home."
Acts 4:29,30 “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
Acts 8:5-7 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed.”
b) Words following Deeds
It is obvious from the Gospel records that crowds flocked to Jesus because he brought physical transformation – physical healing, raising the dead, miracles of feeding large crowds, etc.
In Acts preaching sometimes became the explanation of the power working of God
Sometimes it is not always as clear but there so often is this link between words and deeds. A concluding example:
Acts 9:32-35 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. "Aeneas," Peter said to him, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat." Immediately Aeneas got up. All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
4. Catching the Bigger Perspective
The role of the church, therefore, is to reveal the Lord to the world and to present the world to God.
The very best illustration of this in the Old Testament is when the Queen of Sheba comes to King Solomon. 1 Kings 10:1-10 is so powerful that it bears repeating here:
Now that is absolutely remarkable. If only the modern world could say something similar about us, the Church! The nearest to that intent in the New Testament, as we've already seen, are Jesus' words, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)
Possibly the greatest recorded experience of that in Acts is the following:
Acts 5:12-16 “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people . Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem , bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.”
A number of years ago I listened to a talk by a researcher from the Bible Society who had investigated trends in the church following the revival in mid 18th century. The numbers in the church did not appear to go up much from before the revival to shortly after it, but what he did see is that within a hundred years the numbers in the church had increased dramatically. His conclusion was that, although the church was revived, it took a while for the revived people to go out into the world and change the mind of the nation as the church engaged with society. To change the society, he concluded, it had not been enough to preach the Gospel but they also had to change the mind of society and then larger numbers were saved and the church grew.
“Good Deeds” touch and bless people and effectively do the same things as Jesus did leaving people feeling good, and good about God, just like the Queen of Sheba.
To reinforce this same point (because there will be a number who struggle with it) I remember listening to a talk on the impact of the church in its earliest days, and of the story that often when the Roman emperor was about to order persecution of the Christians who would not worship him, the local Roman governors would warn the Christians to leave town until it had all died down. Why? Because they knew that the Christians were the backbone of their society who brought blessing to it.
There have been vaguely similar words about the church and charity in the past decade which enabled one writer to speak of the historic church and “its care of widows and orphans, its alms houses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions. charitable aid societies and so on.” This is the history of the church being salt and light to society and in so doing, changing the minds of people and opening their hearts to the Gospel. If we've done it in the past, then the upheavals of the present reveal an incredible opportunity for it to happen again TODAY.
5. Revealing the Real Church and a Real God
To summarize so far: I have suggested above there are general ways that we can act that are obvious and which match the character of God, and which need to accompany our words. I am going to describe them as
a) Bringing Love,
b) Bringing Goodness,
c) Bringing Revelation and
d) Bringing Power,
and this will constitute the remainder of this page.
a) Bringing Love
Over the past few years I have been impacted by two sets of verses. The first was in the Old Testament:
Ex 36:6,7 “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
This is the God revealed in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the other verse that has impacted me, is the apostle John writing, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). In other words everything God thinks, says or does is an expression of love, and if He lives in us (and He does) then so should that be true of us. A description of the church as a community that is “loving, accepting, caring and compassionate” should be our starting place and if people learn anything about us, it should be this.
But before we move on, what actually is ‘love'? In a Biblical context (and I'm not sure if there really is any other meaningful context for it), it is “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards all others”. That should be our goal towards the rest of God's world. Oh, and one more thing I note about God's love: it can't stand still; it is always working for the good of any it encounters. This is our starting place.
b) Bringing Goodness
This brings us to ‘goodness', which is not a word that is much used today. A dictionary defines goodness as “having suitable or desirable qualities; promoting health, welfare or happiness; benevolent, not troublesome”. ‘Good' signifies in our thinking, something that is pleasant, something positive that we are happy with. When we do ‘good' to someone they are happy about that, because if was a positive, beneficial thing.
Now the Bible speaks about God being a good God, a God who brings goodness; it is one of the ‘fruit of the Spirit' that is to grow in us. So, suppose the church was constantly exhibiting love and goodness? Yes, there are likely to be some who are upset because we show them up, but the larger body of people, as revealed in Acts, will be blessed by us.
If love is the heart attitude, goodness is the outworking of it to the world around us. This is what provoked men to work at abolishing slavery, create unions, establish hospitals etc. etc. To be salt and light, we really need to get into the world to be effective. So often Christians live in a ghetto that comprises church services on Sundays, Bible Studies on another night, and a prayer meeting on another night, so that there is hardly any time or space for anything else. Rarely, or never, do they participate in groups, clubs or organisations in the rest of society and so their salt-effect or light is missing from such places.
Many Christians feel threatened in such places where they are a minority, but this is simply because of their misunderstanding of who and what they are. Instead of requiring the world around us to come into our meetings, can we first go out and serve and bless them with love and goodness?
Can people look at our lives, and the way we live and work and learn, and see something commendable? I grew up in a defensive, evangelical environment and kept myself separate from ‘the world'. If I ran my life again, I would do what I have been doing for the last year and a half, and get out into the world and seek to be a blessing to it – and that doesn't mean looking for ‘salvation scalps', it means looking to serve and bless others, and then, as opportunities come up, share God's love with them.
We need a church leadership that is not a holy clique who know nothing of living and working in the world, but men and women of confidence who understand the world, its pressures and weaknesses and failures, and who can encourage the rest of us in our engagement with the world to not be ashamed but to be vessels of God's love and goodness.
Goodness also means we seek to be good at whatever we do. That means giving our time to work, time to learning, time to whatever it is we find in life we have to put our hand to. Christians should have reputations for being good workers whether that be at school, college, workplaces or wherever.
Jer 29:7 “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”
Gal 6:10 “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
c) Bringing Revelation
The greatest revelation that we can bring is not “You need Jesus” (that comes later) but “God loves you.”
Most people have a low self-esteem. Some cover it up well, but so often when God starts to work and people start opening up their lives honestly, most people want and need to hear that they are loved. They want to know that, if there is a Supreme Being, He loves them and accepts them just like they are (that is acceptance), but loves them so much He has got something better than what they are at present (that is hope for a better day.)
Many people don't dare face what they are truly like and so they become defensive if they are told they are a sinner. In my own experience I can face my failures best when I know I am loved. I have been transformed in life because I have been loved. When I know I am loved, I can be honest and when I am honest I can say sorry. (Zacchaeus was an example of this happening - Lk 19)
Jesus came to a society that was oppressed by the Romans, oppressed spiritually and therefore full of sickness and occult activity that led many to be demon oppressed or demon possessed. When John the Baptist came to prepare the way, it was a call to this oppressed people with a big history with God, to put lives right with God. Jesus came, bringing the blessings of God, healing all who came to him and speaking of a new way. When the apostle Paul went to the Greeks, he started with where they were at and appealed, in the philosophical forum, to their philosophical ideas and then led them to thinking about God.
The lessons are that we start with where people are at. Wherever that may be in our country today, it is that God loves them and is there FOR them to bring them the hope of something better than they have today. The problem is that with the communication world and political world we live in, they have been promised much but it has always fallen short. They need something more.
It is at this point that the Holy Spirit, working through us, brings words of revelation – words of knowledge, words of wisdom, or words of prophecy. Words of knowledge reveal things that couldn't be known otherwise. Words of wisdom bring ways of working, how to resolve problems etc. Words of prophecy bring a greater content about the future and establish a sense of being loved and of hope for tomorrow.
In each of these ways, the people around us are brought into an awareness that God is there and He's there for them without condemning them. As they respond to His love so they come to a point of recognition about themselves, of their need and of their yearnings deep down (the convicting work of the Holy Spirit).
We thus need to learn to listen to God and be available for Him to flow through us in these ways. Not everyone will do this for we are body with different gifts given. Some will do this and some will do other things. We need to encourage the diversity in the life of the body and not lay false expectations on people to be what God is not leading them to be. As we watch for His working so we will see the embryonic signs of gifts appearing in people and we need to encourage them in that, so that they grow in gifting and confidence.
d) Bringing Power
Healings, or dealing with demonic oppression or possession, are examples of power issues that Jesus used with great effect. I will simply say that I believe the Lord wishes to raise up an increasing number of those who are available for Him to use in these ways. This we've already touched on in the page on praying for healing.
6. And So…
i) The General Approach
The call, I suggest, is to go into the world to bless it with a combination of
ii) Specific Strategies
None of those things above are natural; there are human expressions of each of them but we have been considering the church, the people of God, inspired by God, led by God and empowered by God. Because they are not natural, the following are the discipleship stages needed:
a) Bringing Awareness
b) Teaching to do
This is the call to the leaders of God's Church.