“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NKJV).
Evangelism and witnessing is the theme for the current Sabbath School quarterly. As the teacher of a young adult Sabbath School class, I have had the opportunity to discuss this topic with peers from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I am struck with how applicable these lessons are for our time and situations. As we learn from Scripture, each member of the body of Christ is called to be a witness for Christ within our circle of influence—be it among our family, friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, or the strangers we pass and hold brief conversations with throughout our busy days. Yet some of us have a difficult time understanding what evangelism and witnessing mean to us individually.
One of the first reactions I noticed at the beginning of this quarter was a very strong, negative attitude towards the terms “evangelism” and “witnessing” among some Adventists. This was not the first time I have come across these feelings of loathing towards the terms and what these words represented. From my experience, those who harbor this extreme dislike more often than not were raised Adventists and do not have the joyful experience of having been reached through evangelism and witnessing.
As an individual who was raised Protestant Christian and joined the Adventist church through an evangelism outreach, I have spent a good deal of time over the years contemplating this aversion towards evangelism and witnessing that some Adventists seem to have. This is a serious problem for our church, because as followers of Christ, evangelizing and witnessing is one of the main reasons we, as a church, exist. In Matthew 28:19-20, Christ gave what is widely known as the great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
After careful probing in my Sabbath School class, I have concluded that many of these negative feelings stem from experiences these Adventists had growing up within the church. Bible-thumping family or church members, an irrational fear of the end times, a strong aversion to the beast imagery of Revelation, and pressure into baptism too early are among the top reasons given. They demonstrate that there is a misunderstanding about what evangelism and witnessing is and what it is not.
First, let’s tackle what evangelism and witnessing is not. It is not out-arguing the other person until they have no choice but to concede to your view; it is not pressuring the other person into submission to regulations and traditions; it is not using fear to coerce their obedience to Biblical doctrines. I remember visiting a Kmart with my mother when I was in high school, and a very strange man suddenly cornered us in one of the aisles. When he opened his mouth, the words “Do you know Jesus?” fell out, and when my mother replied, “Yes, we do,” the atmosphere became very awkward. He would not accept our answer and began to expound on why we needed to believe in Jesus. Clearly he was on a mission, but the loving heavenly Father I knew was, in my eyes, clearly not the one who had sent him. When my older sister was away at college, she ran into a man preaching on the street corner near campus. He loudly condemned every college student who walked by to hell, calling them drug addicts and prostitutes. How many times have these scenarios and others like them played out in millions of shopping centers or on street corners around the world? How many precious souls who did not already have a relationship with our Lord find such an attack morally offensive and were turned away from God, temporarily or permanently, because of it? How many who were barely holding on to their faith found such harsh words and condescending attitudes the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back?
We all have heard similar stories from others or maybe experienced them ourselves, but we like to think that we are better than that. Yet many of us, in our zeal to share what Christ has done for us, end up going about personal evangelism and witnessing the wrong way. We may unintentionally pressure the person we are witnessing to when he or she is still sorting out his/her life and relationship with Christ. When giving Bible studies, we may jump too far ahead of where the person is, trying to feed them spiritual meat when they have not even tasted spiritual milk (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). We may also tend to focus on the areas of study that are most interesting to us personally without consideration for the needs of the person we are studying with or witnessing to. How can we expect a person to have a solid relationship with Christ if we gloss over the basics to share the parts we may find most interesting? Some of us are not able to hold a conversation without delving into conspiracy theories and end time speculation, stirring up fear without being balanced by a knowledge of an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving Creator and Redeemer.
I sheepishly admit that I am guilty as charged. There have been times when the Lord opened the door to witness, and I, in my excitement, went in the wrong direction. Are you also guilty?
Now that we took a quick look at what evangelism and witnessing are not, we can discover their true meaning. The simplest definition of evangelism and witnessing is the act of sharing the love of God with others. You and I are given the privilege of influencing the lives of those around us by being living, breathing witnesses of our Lord. As the moon reflects the light of the sun to brighten the darkness of night, we are to reflect, through our words and actions, the love of Christ to a love-starved world. In 1 Peter 3:15, we are admonished to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (King James Version, emphasis added).
Some among us may understand the concept of evangelism and witnessing but hesitate, unsure how they are to go about being an effective witness. We are not all convincing evangelists, trained Bible workers, eloquent speakers, or passionate community outreach volunteers. Perhaps you are a student in the middle of preparing for exams, a full-time worker weighed down by responsibilities, a parent struggling to make ends meet for your family. Maybe you just do not have the extra time or spiritual gifts needed to go door-to-door, visit the sick and shut-ins, give Bible studies at homeless shelters and prisons, or work with the youth. It is possible that talking with people about the Lord makes you nervous and tongue-tied, worried you will forgetful or say the wrong thing. Maybe you are afraid of negative outcomes such as confrontation, humiliation, and rejection.
Do not be discouraged, friends! Often the most effective witnessing is the silent witness. The key to witnessing is building relationships and being a positive influence in the lives of those around you. Family, friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and the stranger you meet in passing, you can show them the love of the Lord even without saying a word. People will notice that there is something different about you—a strange calm in the face of difficulties, compassion and helpfulness, a positive attitude, diligence and care, a firm conviction in your beliefs, and other fruits of the Spirit. “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3, English Standard Version).
If we are following the teachings of Christ in our daily lives, those who are knowingly or unknowingly seeking the Lord will be drawn to us. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 14-16, NKJV). If we spend time on our knees in prayer and in diligent study of His Word, if we rely on His Spirit to guide us, He will give us the right words to say at the right time. And when we realize we have missed a witnessing opportunity, when we say or do the wrong thing, when our doubts and anxieties start to re-emerge, we should fall to our knees and claim the promise of Romans 8:28. “Lord, I have really messed up this time! But I lay this mess at Your feet, because I believe that all things will work out for the good of those who love You.”
You are an evangelist. You have a unique testimony to share with your circle of influence, and the Lord has placed you here for a special purpose. You may be planting a seed with the way you live your life, you may be watering a seed planted by another evangelist through your acts of kindness, you may be nurturing the tender shoots in someone’s heart with words of encouragement and hope, or you may be reaping the harvest through Bible study. All the Lord asks is that you let your light, the reflection of His glory, shine upon those around you.