Witnesses and Evangelists

Twenty years ago a friend of mine served on a jury. When she told me about her experience, I had a light bulb moment about my call to be a Christian witness.

My friend said the judge gave the witnesses strict instructions. Witnesses were to tell exactly what they had seen or heard or experienced. Witnesses were not supposed to hypothesise about what other people were thinking or feeling. They were not to talk about what might have happened or what they believed to be true. They were simply to report what they had seen or heard or experienced.

Up until that point I had spent most of my Christian life feeling guilty that I was so uncomfortable with evangelism. I had known several people who were passionate about evangelism, and those people shared several characteristics. They grieved deeply for people who didn’t know Jesus. They were always praying for non-Christians to become Christians. They were comfortable striking up conversations with strangers in the hopes they would be able to talk about Jesus at some point in the conversation. When those opportunities to share their faith came, they were excited and energized by the experience.

I was so not like them, and I felt guilty about that. (My passion is to see Christians deepen in faith, and I’m not at all comfortable talking with strangers about God, even after a lifetime of trying.) That moment when my friend served on a jury changed my life. I realized I didn’t have to be an evangelist. I only had to be a witness. I only had to talk about what I had seen, heard or experienced when opportunities arose.

Over the next few years, I became more comfortable – not totally comfortable, but more comfortable – being a witness to family members, friends and acquaintances who don’t know Jesus. I became more comfortable saying things like: “At church on Sunday we talked about God’s love.” “I prayed a lot about that challenging situation and God answered my prayers.” “You wonder why I made that decision, and I have to say it’s because I prayed about it and God seemed to lead me in that direction.” I talked more openly and easily about what I had seen and experienced in my walk with Jesus.

As I became more comfortable as a witness, I found great encouragement in these words at the beginning of the first letter of John:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us (verses 1-3).

When opportunities arise, I am called to talk, simply and clearly, about what I’ve heard, what I’ve seen with my own eyes, what I’ve looked at “concerning the word of life.”

I am convinced that some people have gifts in evangelism. We need to train them and empower them to use those gifts. One of my friends with gifts in evangelism was hired by her church for a few years to be an evangelist. They paid her for 15 hours a week, and they set her free to sit in coffee shops and talk to people. What a great idea! We need to help congregations identify the people who have a passion for evangelism and gifts in evangelism. We need to train those people and set them free to use their gifts and passion.

I am convinced that those of us who don’t have gifts in evangelism are called to be witnesses, to be willing to talk about what we have seen and heard and experienced with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. In our congregations, we need to train and empower all Christians to be witnesses, without putting pressure on them all to be evangelists.

One of the reasons I felt like a failure as an evangelist for so many years is that no one made the distinction for me between people with gifts in evangelism and the rest of us who are called to be witnesses. I always felt pressured to love talking to strangers about Christ, to take initiative to turn conversations with strangers around to the topic of God. That is a big ask. Being a witness about what I have seen, heard and experienced with God to the people I already know, and occasionally to strangers, is much more doable for most of us. This emphasis on being a witness is, I believe, faithful to the biblical commands to use our unique spiritual gifts wisely and also to allow the Holy Spirit to empower us to be witnesses (John 15:27, Acts 1:8).

(This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Evangelism Project website.)