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Witness without being a Pest

Over on Philosoraptor, Carol Roper has an open letter to theists entitled Sick and Tired of God Talk. Carol talks about how tired she is of various standard questions from theists, general theists who want to convert her, and in this country one would assume mostly Christian theists. Carol is an adamant atheist, and she finds these people and their words and behavior annoying.

I’ve been planning to write a response to this essay for more than a year, if I remember correctly, but I haven’t gotten around to it. My response is not directed at Carol. After all, she knows what annoys her and what doesn’t, and I’m not about to try to tell her what’s what. But reading her article suggested some things that Christians do that I think are quite annoying and also counterproductive.

There seems to be a divide between some Christians who want to push themselves on everyone in a frantic race to convert and bring into church membership as many people as possible. “Jesus is coming back,” they think, “and he’s going to accidentally fry a bunch of people if I don’t get busy.” The answer, they seem to think, is to work on the statistics as fast as possible. Going door to door or randomly down the street and confronting people with what they think is the gospel is the only way they can see to really get into action and catch all those people before they go to hell. Their level of panic is matched on the other side by people who are quite apathetic. To hear them, Christianity is a dirty secret that one ought to keep as quiet as possible. Jesus may be returning, but he’ll have to deal personally with the people, because these folks aren’t going to do anything.

The first group supports their behavior by claiming that the gospel does offend people, and if they share the Good News with someone and they become offended, it’s not their problem. They gave the warning! But the question is, is it the gospel message that’s offending people, or is it you and your behavior? Studies have shown that people who are persuaded to accept Jesus as their savior by means of manipulative monologue generally do not stay in the church, while those who enter the church through a relationship with an individual Christian normally do stay. (My copy is loaned out right now, but you can find extensive discussion of this issue in Faith-Sharing, by Fox & Morris.)

I mention this because I think it shows that the frantic, manipulative method of witnessing is ineffective, even when measured by numbers. I don’t think measuring by numbers is the appropriate way for a Christian to measure witnessing. A witness is about being obedient to God. The fruit of that may show in your challenge to others to behave better, to help others more, or to think more seriously about spiritual issues. You may never see any fruit that you can hang on your church wall, so to speak. Fruit is God’s measuring stick, not yours. If we remembered this as Christians, we would cause far fewer problems.

The usual excuse is simply that we are commanded to be witnesses and to make disciples, so how can we stop? I am absolutely not telling anyone to stop witnessing. In fact, I don’t think you can stop. If you are a Christian, you are a witness. The question is what kind of witness you are going to be.

I’m also not saying that everyone on the street or knocking on a door is a pest. There are many legitimate reasons to do this sort of thing. If you are truly there to help, that’s one thing. If you are there to teach them your theology, that’s another.

A person who is so apathetic that most people don’t know of they are a Christian at all sends the message that Christianity is a sort of sideline that has a very low priority in their life. Christians are, to borrow the words of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “mostly harmless,” but they also aren’t much good for antything.

A person who is frantic, and portrays panic, while bumbiling ineffectually from person to person sends the message that Christianity is a group of people in a panic, afraid that the world will end. Not only that, they have a God who is not really prepared for the end. These Christians portray their faith as something that is actually dangerous to the world, as they live their lives contrary to the command of Jesus, as though the world would end at any moment. Ecology? Who cares? Jesus is coming. Social Security headed for bankruptcy? Don’t worry! Jesus will come before I need it!

So how does one manage to witness without being a pest?

Start by living your faith. Christianity worships God as creator and upholder of all that is (Hebrews 1:1-3), and also as a God who offers unearned favor to humanity, so much so as to cross the gap between infinity and the finite in Jesus Christ, who showed to us what God was like. We needn’t be in a panic.

Love your neighbor. This does not mean to sneak your way into your neighbor’s heart so you can convert him. It means that you build relationships because you love and value people. People will know if you are insincere. If you live up to your Christian principles and don’t make your Christianity either a secret or a wall between you and your friend, you are being a witness.

Learn to speak other spiritual languages. By this I mean to learn to talk about topics of interest in terms that the other person understands. Even as a Christian I am offended when a politician uses his or her faith as lever to get my support. I don’t know the sincerity of those faith claims. But if a candidate, of any faith or none at all, has lived according to certain principles, that is something I can understand and test. In communicating with a non-Christian, for example, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) is probably not the best question to ask. But if you think that your Christian principles are also good principles, perhaps you can find a way to express those good ideas other than by claiming they are divine commands. You are not denying Jesus just because you argue for his moral principles based on something other than the fact that he gave them as commands.

Learn the basis for your faith. This may not be the same as the basis for my faith. What brought you to your position of faith? Are you confident of that? Your personal testimony is more important than any amount of logical argument. If you are not an apologist by nature or training, you don’t have to behave like one. (An apologist is one who answers questions about the Christian faith professionally.) When people ask, answer for yourself. That’s not waffling. That’s just talking about what you know.

Wait for questions. If you live a life that is a good witness, inevitably people will ask something about your beliefs. That is your opportunity to answer. But remember it is not your opportunity to manipulate them. You believe that your Christian experience is a good thing, and it’s natural for you to want to share. When someone asks that means they want you to share. Then is when it’s fine.

Don’t resort to force. Many Christians today are trying to get the government to do their job for them. By this I mean by advocating state-sponsored, teacher led prayer in public schools, public displays of religious documents such as the Ten Commandments, introduction of intelligent design into the schools, and radical action against abortion and abortion clinics. I think all of those things demonstrate that we don’t really believe in the power of the gospel shared with the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. We think we need to use force in society just as we sometimes use manipulative language and behavior in our personal witness. Be a witness. Then let God do his part.

Think about it this way. You might be a pest, rather than a witness if:

  • You knock on doors belonging to people you don’t know, but can’t name your own next door neighbors
  • You know all the details of soteriology*, but don’t know where to get help for a homeless person
  • You think salvation is equivalent to joining your church congregation
  • You talk to people you despise so you can “save” them, and yet continue to despise them
  • You’re sure your relationship with Jesus makes you more special than everybody else
  • The only language you know how to speak is “church-ese”
  • You set a mental timer counting down until you will break off a friendship if the stubborn jerk doesn’t accept Jesus
  • You can’t carry on any conversation that isn’t about your religion
  • You try to befriend someone only because you think you can get him to attend church

*If you have to ask what that is, you’re probably a pretty reasonable person to talk to!

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  1. In this particular post, you almost get something right.

    However, you are arguing against a caricature, and then make a variation of the same mistake as those you mock.

    No all conservative evangelical Christians believe the world will end soon. Not all follow the relatively new invention of dispensational premillennialism. Some, such as me, are postmillennial while even more are amillennial. Neither group has their evangelism fueled by an expectation of the imminent return of Christ.

    Also, many evangelical Christians do not feel duty-bound to persuade anyone. Nowhere in the bible is persuasion used. Instead, the biblical model of witnessing is to live a Christian life (as you correctly point out) and to present the no-holds-barred gospel (which I did not see you advocate, but maybe I missed it.) You are correct that helping those in need is an important aspect of Christianity—and my own private annoyance with American conservative Christians is that we have abrogated this role to the state while simultaneously complaining about “big government.” However, it is also true that the gospel is not and never was a social gospel—it is a message of God’s mercy and God’s glory in providing redemption to a rebellious people who deserve death.

    It is true that merely presenting the gospel may offend, and of that offense we should not concern ourselves. However, my experience is that people are not (usually) offended when you present the gospel (which we are called to do) as much as when you attempt to persuade them to accept (which we are not called to do.)

    You offer kinder and gentler ways to persuade people—ignoring the fact that we aren’t selling timesharing. A less offensive method of persuasion still gets evangelism all wrong. You are still as much a salesman as the conservatives you condemn.

    It’s very simple: hardsellers—typically Arminian fundamentalists and softsellers—typically liberal Christians, both get it backwards. They emphasize the response rather than the message. One group tends to emphasize the eternal consequences (true enough, the lost do go to eternal punishment) as if they could scare people into the kingdom, while the other waters down the gospel to make it more palatable. But notches on a belt are irrelevant—the only job for the Christian is to be the messenger.

  2. In this particular post, you almost get something right.

    You know, you would be more convincing when you claim to explain an ancient book, and to correct all others on their understanding of it, if you showed some ability to understand modern English.

    There is no evidence that you actually read my post before commenting.

  3. Hi Henry,

    I appreciate your response to my essay. I’d like to clarify and perhaps emphasize what my intent was, specifically, when writing “Sick and Tired of Godstuff”.

    Of course, I don’t mind someone practicing ANY faith. I don’t even mind when it is mentioned in conversation – describing themselves. As I said in my essay, I’ll even drive someone in need to their church or other place of worship. BUT… what I DO mind, very much, is the assumption that I (and other non-theists) are either Christian or EVIL. And, I fear, that IS very often the presumption made by many Christians (and other fundmentalists).

    It’s the declaration that I am somehow sub-human, that my children should be shunned, that I have no moral compass and therefore cannot hold any elected position, that I am somehow out to harm Christians – that makes me so angry.

    It’s amusing, in these times, that our American Christians can see the dangers and horrors of any religion holding sway over others – as we see in the bloodshed in the Middle East, and in the far east. As we see in Africa. As we saw in many wars driven by religious zeal. — INSTEAD of moral direction!

    I am all for everyones’ right to believe as they wish – unless and until that belief transgresses on the beliefs and RIGHTS of others who differ. It’s then that I will actively work to stop it.

    I must add that I find the response above – that it’s not important if they convert, just that they tell their message, to be typical of the absurdist outlook of many who set out to preach. It’s clear that fellow doesn’t give a damn about people… just that he blather his silliness here and everywhere. And that he feels so self-righteous doing so. Blegh.

    THAT’s precisely what I am “Sick of”.

    Thanks for listening!

  4. Carol Roper,

    “I must add that I find the response above – that it’s not important if they convert, just that they tell their message, to be typical of the absurdist outlook of many who set out to preach.”

    You should read more carefully. I never said it’s not important whether they convert-on the contrary it is all important–it makes the difference between eternal life and eternal torment. What I said was it is not our (Christians) job to pursuade–because we have no power to do so.

  5. Henry,

    I admit, I read some parts of your entry and skimmed others. I read the parts that appeared to be new material to me and skimmed the parts where we appear to agree.

    Anyone who knows me for more than 30 minutes knows two (2) things. I consider myself a Christian and I am annoying, not necessarily in that order.

    I can count, however, on zero fingers the times I’ve tried to convert someone. After all, who am I to pretend my way is the right way and that anyone else should adhere to it. And while I occasionally have a run-in with folks who do not engage in faith, most of the vitriol I receive is from people claiming to be Christian who are so convinced that they have the only right answer that they will damn me to hell rather than admit I am entitled to a faith of my own.

    Militant fundamentalists of any bent harm their cause with anyone who can think before they act. In my opinion they are fearful and insecure people who must “convert” others in order to alleviate the feeling that they might not be right. It never appears to be about aiding another person so much as re-assuring themselves.

    My faith is a cornerstone of my life. I make no apology for it and refuse to justify it in any way. I also refuse to use it as a judge against other people because, ultimately, my faith says the God will make up her own damn mind and I do not have the authority or right to condemn or declare saved any person.

    My witness is as you suggest – I live my faith, I wait for questions, I freely give my opinion.

    While I am ready to stake my soul on my being right, I figure as long as I don’t stake your or any other person’s soul God will see the intent even if I miss a check box.

    If not, I hear Hell is where all the good beer is anyway.

  6. My witness is as you suggest – I live my faith, I wait for questions, I freely give my opinion.

    As I read the comments on this, I want to emphasize something here. Contrary to one opinion, I am not offering more gentle methods of persuasion. I am suggesting is that one’s witness is in dialogue and in living the Christian life. I have no place for “persuasive” sharing of theology.

    Further, I do not claim to know who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, nor do I make the assumption that only Christians are either moral or bound for heaven. None of that is part of my job description or life description as I see it. If you don’t ask a question, or express a desire to hear, I’m not going to try to push anything on you.

    I like your statement though. People will definitely get my opinion if they ask, as you well know! 🙂

  7. You should read more carefully. I never said it’s not important whether they convert-on the contrary it is all important–it makes the difference between eternal life and eternal torment. What I said was it is not our (Christians) job to pursuade–because we have no power to do so.

    It’s interesting how short a time it took you to go from criticizing me for offering “kinder and gentler ways to persuade people” (something I did not provide) to threatening them with the fires of hell.

    What was it you said the fundamentalists did again?

  8. David,


    Glad you’re so humble. By all means, enjoy damning me to hell if that makes you feel better. Can’t imagine that the Jesus you worship would be too proud of you, though. Two of my atheist values are tolerance and respect for others. You might want to try it. It’s really good for your blood pressure, too.

  9. Carol,

    I didn’t damn anyone to hell–I stated that if people are not converted (saved) they will go to hell–that is orthodox Christianity. It has nothing to do with tolerence–at least not my tolerence. If it were up to me, I’d save everyone–but unlike the host of this blog, I don’t repackage God in my own image.

  10. If it were up to me, I’d save everyone–but unlike the host of this blog, I don’t repackage God in my own image.

    But of course your real problem is not that I package God according to my image, but rather that I reject the packaging you propose.

  11. David,

    I guess the main difference I see between what Henry is sayin gand what you are saying is this:

    Henry tells us what he does and how he views things, you tell us that everyone but you is wrong.

    Seriously David, it’s nice for you that you are so confident but, if you are at all interested, God tells me your answer is not complete and that no matter what claims you make, it will not change that basic fact.

    I’m sure you’ll understand if I go with god on this.

  12. Jonathan,

    If God tells you that, then by all means go with God. He has never said anything to me, so I am a bit envious.

    If you like, you may insert the phrase “In my opinion” in front of all my sentences. I always think it is understood, so I avoid the repetition.

  13. David,

    As I read your post the one thing I see that you fail to realize is that THE MESSAGE of the Gospels simply isn’t all that clear. If it was, there wouldn’t be as many interpretations as we see.

    The difference here is that you seem to see a doctine in “The Gospel,” while others see something entirely different. Some see the idea of a *personal* savior, one of love, tolerance and understanding, as the fundamental message. Others, such as you, seem to see the inerrant, fundamental word of God, which interestingly seems always to be tailored to that person’s theological bent.

    You say you’re just delivering “The Message,” (my quotes), but isn’t that a job for aprophet?

    Is that it? You believe you’re a prophet?


  14. Lee,

    No, you missed the boat on what a prophet is. A prophet delivers new revelation. As a mere messenger, I present old revelation, the gospel, to wit:

    Christ came and died for the sick, not the healthy. He calls on the unrighteous, not the righteous. If you are a sinner who needs a savior, and you believe in the power of his shed blood to cleanse your sins, then you are promised eternal life regardless of what you have done.

    While some will no doubt argue this is not the best presentation, I think few Christians would not recognize this as “the gospel.”

    Do not mistake the gospel for “how Christians are to behave.” They are very different things. Christians are called to love their neighbor, but that is not the gospel, it’s a command for those who have accepted the gospel.

    It is not new revelation.

  15. David,

    Again, I submit that the message derived from the 4 books of the New Testament just isn’t all that clear. Again, if it was, there would be a unified interpretation. As there isn’t, the point is made. QED

    People have argued for ages whether redemption is acheived by works or by faith. I take no side in, but simply recognize there are differing interpretations, thus conclude the obvious.

    You can argue that yours is the correct conclusion. And other will no doubt argue theirs. I fail to distiguish why one is any more correct that the other, for, as far as I’ve been able to discern, there is scripture to support both sides.

    From a pure sociological point of view, however, the view favoring works appears to be the most loving, tolerant and understanding of the two. Personally, just personally, I find it difficult to believe that any god would damn somone who lived a good life because s/he could not understand the precise meaning of the scripture, which, to me, is often quite obscure, and even, at times, seemingly contradictory.

    God would not expect a common man to fully understand the esoteric subtleties of the Bible. One would have to be a scholar to even begin, and even *they* disagree.

    Don’ t be so adamant in your conclusions of what God requires and what he may not require. You very well may be wrong about how God reasons these things out.


  16. »If you are a sinner who needs a savior, and you believe in the power of his shed blood to cleanse your sins,«

    Ahh, see this is part of the problem. You are using language that doesn’t communicate to your target audience.

    Atheists don’t characterize themselves as “sinners” and may take offense if other people call them so. That language that may work well within your community, but is really dangerous to use to non-believers. (I am a person that messes up sometimes. That doesn’t in my books make me a “sinner”.)

    Atheists don’t need a savior, and they sure as heck don’t believe in the power of anyone’s shed blood to do much of anything, except stain the carpet or spread aids or make the floor slippery. To me, the idea is somewhere between gross and horrifying.

    Talking that way to people who don’t already agree with you is unlikely convince them of anything except that you are annoyiing.

    If I had to offer a suggestion, it would b the “By their works ye shall know them” approach. Witness by being, not by talking. (I think that is more or less what Henry is saying above, except that he goes into way more detail).

    Did you actually read Carol’s open letter? There’s a link to it at the top of Henry’s response.

  17. (I think that is more or less what Henry is saying above, except that he goes into way more detail).

    If I could summarize it briefly, I would say, live it, and when you have an opportunity to talk about it, do so in the context of dialogue, not monologue. That’s genuine dialogue, when you actually want to hear what the other person has to say.

    You know, for example, that Carol and I have discussed religion at some length. Why does this work? Simply because I’ve been listening to Carol express her view as well as talking about my own. Dialogue! It works in other areas of life. We really don’t like someone who is always the one talking about a subject and who doesn’t want his views challenged or discussed, nor does he want to hear anyone else’s views. My contention is that many Christians have become monologue experts, and they should be unsurprised when people are annoyed by it.

  18. Thanks Henry and yes I agree with that too. Talking =with= each other rather than =at= each other.

    (You are always a pleasure to talk to.)

  19. Henry – This would be a powerful discussion for Christian Fellowship Forum if you think we could handle it and if Carol agreed. For now, I’ve blogged in it and have been enriched by it. – Tom

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