August 30, 2009

An Effective Witness of the Gospel

Twelve Ways to Be a Better Christian Witness

Quality is one of the principal problems in evangelization. For the Gospel to be shown to the world, Jesus Christ must preach it: he must be visible in the evangelist not only to believers, but to those that are indifferent or even hostile to the Gospel. Few of the “public” evangelists really resemble Christ by their well-groomed looks, their many possessions or their bank accounts. That Jesus was poor is not the point; he lived a life like many others, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and living in much the same way as the ordinary people around him. In general, the millionaire, the factory worker, the teacher and the homeless person can all be effective witnesses to the Gospel within their own way of life.


Before proceeding, it may be good to examine what is meant by “witnessing” and “the Gospel.” Witnesses are called in a trial to testify as to events, facts, or to weigh in on the side of truth in some dispute. Witnesses may be disreputable, in which case their testimony may be discounted or ignored entirely by a jury. The testimony of many witnesses may conflict, their demeanor may indicate deception, or their own statements may be inconsistent. The jury is free to take all these things into account when rendering judgement. Their judgement may be in error if the witnesses are of poor quality, and a just man may even be condemned to death because no one testified effectively in his behalf.

The Gospel is simply the Good News of Jesus. It often is presented as some kind of ideology to which one may either subscribe or oppose, like a political party, system of government or sports team. Acceptance of the Gospel simply means the acceptance of a relationship with God that already exists. God is already our Father, as Jesus taught. God already loves us, as Jesus taught. Jesus has already done everything possible to get us to understand, through his life, death, and resurrection. What we call salvation is simply an acceptance of God’s will through a Christlike love of the Father.

By living this Gospel, by in fact “being it,” we testify to the truth of Jesus, the Word of God. The “jury” is the world, and through the Fall, humanity has put God on trial and condemned Him to death, so it might become God. Jesus came to us and his presence requires that the case be reopened, for we have been reminded of a higher Court. Indeed, Jesus appealed to this Court, and his resurrection is the judgement in his favor. The court of the world does not accept this and awaits a time when a final decision will be rendered. In the meantime, we are called to sway this worldly jury by our testimony. But will they believe us?

What, then, constitutes a good witness? St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words.” Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk in the mid-1900’s, said nothing is more revolting than “pious talk.” We are not called to be walking tracts but living words of God. The following points may help in this direction:

  1. Do your job well – If this seems like an odd way to start, perhaps we have separated our ordinary lives from God. If we are the Body of Christ, we are filled with every grace and blessing. If we are part of the Son of God, should we not be able to work hard and serve our customers, co-workers, and supervisors well? We are given the opportunity to use our gifts in some way through our jobs, volunteer work or parenting. If Christians cannot handle the small tasks of ordinary life, how can we be entrusted with eternal life?
  2. Avoid cliched phrases and living – Like any group, Christians have stock phrases and behaviors. These are not wrong in themselves, but as they become automatic they lose whatever meaning they had, especially for unbelievers. The Sign of the Cross, the “fish” signs on cars and shirts, and The Rapture can all become empty slogans and motions. They have no meaning for unbelievers. “The Word of God is living and effective,” not encased in plastic.
  3. Be loving РThis may seem a clich̩, but it is necessary to discuss it. Christian love is to the world as water in the desert. Rare and welcome. The world may not want the Gospel, but it wants Peace, which will only come through love. Love everyone, at least in terms of silently wishing everyone well. Rather than praying for the conversion of those around us, we should pray for their health and happiness. Sincere love must come before evangelization is possible. If we are gentle and loving, others may notice and want to be closer to us. They will soon notice the loving atmosphere where the Gospel is lived. Our love should result in action, and those closest to us must know the love of God through our service and kindness.
  4. Be respectful and show courtesy – Love is shown by our respect for others, especially respect for those whom the world expects us to despise. Because the world tries to see the Gospel as just another ideology, we are expected to hate those that do not live as we do. But Jesus died for all, with no exceptions, and so we must show every kindness to others, but without pronouncing a blessing on their acts. No insults should proceed from us, and even the lost arts of “please” and “thank you” must be applied often. This courtesy must extend to children, criminals, the homeless and workers that serve us. God plays no favorites.
    As an aside, I occasionally substitute at a high school. The students often express amazement that I say “thank you” when they quiet down at my request. This seems to indicate that teachers do not always extend this courtesy to students. This is worth some thought.
  5. Hospitality – this is another expression of love. It often appears in Scripture. When people come to our homes to sell us something, tell us about their churches, or make a delivery, do we receive them as we would receive Christ, or have we forgotten Matthew 25?
    Come and receive my blessing, for I was painting your house and you gave me cool water to drink, delivering packages and you welcomed me, old, and you gave me a place to sit down. (Cited very freely)
  6. Know the Gospel and practice it – Certainly all of these are included here, but this in turn covers much more. We must accept the whole Gospel before we can witness to its truth. If we cannot accept the Gospel in its entirety, we cannot effectively preach even a sliver of it. We may not be perfect, but we can at least desire to live according to God’s will and desire Him above all things. A sincere faith, although imperfect, practiced in a small and loving way can do much to promote the Gospel.
  7. Don’t be the big cheese in things – We don’t need to be the center of attention to be witnesses to the Gospel. Humility and modesty are Christian virtues (and indeed are viewed as virtues by most religions and philosophies). Don’t talk the most or the loudest. Living in a simple and modest fashion speaks louder than jewelry, fancy cars, or a mansion. We have no record of Jesus making a best-dressed list or having any significant possessions. As far as we know, he won no awards for his preaching or healing. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes that the Church in Corinth was not known for any sort of great accomplishments, wealth, or nobility. He says that in Christ, the weak shame the strong. When we are lowly, and yet reflect the glory of God in our lives, it is the same. The less we attempt to stand out in the ways of the world, the more God’s glory is revealed in an unexpected way.
  8. Defer, defer, defer – In Ephesians 5, St. Paul says: “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ.” While the context was a specific one, this certainly applies in general as well. We want our way, but we must defer to others whenever possible, both out of reverence for and in imitation of Christ. We cannot defer in matters of faith and morals, or where giving in would be an offense against love, but this still leaves a very large number of opportunities for us.
  9. Answer questions simply, directly – Jesus went to the heart of each matter set before him. He often told stories or turned questions around so the questioner had to think. Answers should be free of references the hearer will not understand. Jesus often quoted the Hebrew Scriptures because his listeners were somewhat familiar with them, but we may have to draw from other sources when speaking to those unfamiliar with the Bible or Church teaching. Many modern movies, even bad ones, can be used to illustrate a point if they are already familiar to the listener. Analogies with driving, school, work, or family often work well, but beware: the listener may find the place where the analogy breaks down and take the point wrong. Of course, if the listener accepts the authority of the Church or at least accepts the Bible as the inspired word of God, by all means use the Scriptures, Catechism, quotes and stories from the Saints and other good books.
  10. Avoid all illusion and pretense – Sometimes, it seems that unbelievers have better discernment than the devout. If we think we are truly single-hearted and pious, we must go shed our illusions first (“go, sell what you have �”) and then present our real selves as witnesses. A phony witness is rejected in the same way that hearsay evidence is rejected in court: it may not be introduced as evidence. If we are plagued with doubt, we must share that or be silent. An acknowledgement of our failings and doubts coupled with a genuine attempt to seek God can be a powerful witness. We really have little else to give. If this bothers us, we have far too much pride to be an effective witness, and may even risk becoming reformers, and there is no more dangerous office than this.
  11. Be joyful and happy – Our hope is in the Lord. He has saved us and provides for all our needs. We may be poor, ignorant, and sinful, but the Father loves us as His children. St. Thomas Aquinas said we have an obligation to be happy. Most worries stem from a lack of trust in God, which is a poor witness. Trust in God is often taken to mean a belief that things will work out as we had planned or in some way we will like. Jesus told St. Peter: “� someone � will take you where you do not want to go.” We have no assurances that our car will start in the morning, that we will not get cancer or lose our job. Our lives are fragile and may be turned upside-down by a single phone call or conversation. Trust in God simply means assurance that the Father loves us, Jesus has called us, and the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to “run the race.” Living this way shows others that Christianity is not “magic,” and also teaches them that our Faith is not a way to earthly happiness, but to God.
  12. Be content not to do it all – We have only our little part to do. There are a few, rare people whose job it is to reach millions of people. Others have been set aside to help a few make great spiritual progress. Most of us are called to the small tasks.
    For us let it be enough to know ourselves to be in the place God wants for us and carry on our work, even though it be no more than the work of an ant, infinitesimally small, and with unforseeable results. Now is the hour of the silent offering: therefore the hour of hope: God alone. Faceless, unknown, unfelt, yet undeniable: God. (Fr. Monchanin)

Prayer is the way to all of this. It is also another subject.

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