A few years ago every Seventh-day Adventist ministerial college student was expected to take at least one course on evangelism. Classes of this type had the effect of suggesting to students what they should and should not do, even what they could and couldn't do. I learned quickly that either I needed more than a few classes on public evangelism, or perhaps that evangelism was "not my cup of tea"!
When I did do public evangelism, I did it trying to fulfill the letter of the law and the results were not reassuring. After that experience, I decided that inasmuch as it was not realistic to expect every minister to excel in every area of ministry, it should not be expected that every minister should be a successful public evangelist. After all, I thought, the Holy Spirit gives differing gifts to each of those who make up the Body of Christ.
Jesus chose 12 apostles (Luke 6:13-16). Except for Judas, all of them were with Jesus from the time of their calling to the time He was taken up from them. Consequently, He left them to be His apostles, those He sent, to tell the good news of His life, death, and resurrection.
Even though all of these apostles were witnesses, only three that we know of wrote about this good news that has become central to our Bible. Jesus also chose the Seventy whom He sent out (Luke 10:4-12). Then many others were sent out by the time Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:12-26), Paul being the most outstanding. Of course beyond these there are the countless thousands since then, coming on down to our time and place.
Why review these things? First, because only one indispensable factor must define one's essential qualification to be a witness to Jesus Christ: a personal encounter and ongoing experience with Him. All the witnesses of the New Testament knew Jesus experientially. They each had an immediate encounter with Him. Second, the form and content of witnessing for Jesus was not a uniform activity. Again, each of those who wrote accounts of what Jesus said and did, wrote them in their particular way. Thus we may all witness in different ways, depending on our personalities, experiences and backgrounds.
Although this is true there are certain indispensable characteristics to our Christian witness, no matter where or when we do it: First there is the matter of the content of our witness. We must present the good news, the gospel. Second, it must be contextual. Third, it should be a congruent message that its presenter can give without having to blush. Finally, it must be community conscious. These four characteristics of witness are what I call the four Cs of the Christian witness.
The message we bring must be good news. It must be truthful, yet pleasant to the ear. "The Second World War has ended. Hitler and Mussolini will never rise to haunt us again. We can pursue the dream of freedom unhindered. Their menace is removed. It is time now for justice."
"The Mau Mau is over, and Jomo Kenyatta is the new Prime Minister of Kenya!"
"Vietnam is over at last. Our son was among the first of the veterans to land back on U.S. soil."
"Our son has completed his medical degree. I can hardly contain myself!" "Mandela has been freed and the night mare of apartheid is over!"
I was in South Africa the day Nelson Mandela was set free. Most divisions in society ceased for a few hours that day because farm laborer and farm owner converged on television, transfixed. Teacher and student, priest and parishioner, boss and servant both drank in the proceedings of that day.
When you have news to tell, but you have a hard time telling it, then perhaps it is not good news. When I was a boy my father used to go out witnessing, using picture rolls. One picture in particular used to terrorize me. It was a picture of the lake of fire that depicted people in an agony of fear. I was shaken by that picture. It was frighteningly graphic! You could smell the fire, hear its crackling beneath the wailing of its victims. I do not know how much good that picture did me. I used to dream about it. When I snapped out of those night mares, I was not thankful for the news that God was going to cleanse this world of all its pain. I was only glad I was not a victim of that awful fire.
What is better news than proclaiming that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19, NKJV), that consequently He has made us who "were no people" into "God's people"(1 Peter 2:10, RSV), and that soon He is sending this same Jesus to rescue His children from all over this earth, to take them to a home where none shall either suffer or die (Rev. 21:1-4)?
The message of Jesus is one message. But it not only survives, it thrives when it is told in different ways with sensitivity and under standing for the many different settings in which it is proclaimed.
Years ago a missionary went to Zululand in southern Africa. He worked with the Emperor of the Zulu people, Shaka Zulu, attempting to bring him to Christ. A problem in the approach of the missionary revealed itself when he apparently seemed to have been more interested in "taming" the Emperor with the aim of making him less of a threat to the settlers and colonists who were moving into his part of the country.
Evidently Shaka showed some interest in Christianity and began to ask questions about Jesus. But when the missionary described how Jesus died on the cross, the king replied: "Are you telling me about a foolish man? What kind of man fails to defend himself?"
What the missionary should have known was where to begin with a military man such as Shaka. It might have impressed the king more had the missionary first helped him see the greatness of the Captain of the Hosts of the Lord, the eternal Ruler of the world, the King of kings! What he said was probably true, but at best inappropriate for his audience at the moment he told it.
All four of the Gospels tell essentially the same story. What makes each one different is that each evangelist had a particular purpose and a particular audience or readership in mind as he relayed the same message. More specifically, each had an audience to reach.
Is anyone of the gospel writers twisting the facts? Not at all! Each has a mission. Each has an audience and thus an emphasis. In each the story of the Messiah is alive and powerful. Likewise, we can tell the story of Jesus on the factory floor, in the lecture room, in the kitchen, wherever people will listen. It is always best to tell the story on the backdrop of the kinds of lives we live.
Context also has to do with time. Even Jesus told His apostles that there were some things He wanted to tell them, but that He could not right then because they were not ready to hear and would not understand. Thus there are times when it is not quite appropriate to say something, because the ground has not yet been cultivated.
The third factor that will make our witness to Christ effective is a lifestyle that is consistent or congruent with what we proclaim about Him. As much as we may have talked about this quality, it is still extremely important to our witness.
If we preach the love of Jesus that love must reveal itself in the effect it has on human lives. Unless this miracle of grace has begun to do its work in our own lives, what we say will have tentativeness and uncertainty and dishonesty behind it. Being hypocritical we will be trying to live down the dissonance between our words and deeds. It is ever critical to our witness that we "Be doers of the word and not hearers only" (James 1:22, NKJV; see also Matt. 7:15-21; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:18).
Effective witness to the Lord Jesus Christ requires our talk to be one with our walk. In doing this, we will, of course, have our personal limits. When we do not have an answer to a question, we may try our best to give a reasonable response and still be truthful enough to be tentative, owing to the fact that we still "see through a glass darkly." We are not under pressure to make it seem that we are above weakness, foibles, or even sin. We will always suffer set backs, but through it all, we shall seek to be transparent before the world.
Jesus called the Twelve to follow Him not only because twelve would do better than one. Rather, it was because He was building a new kingdom. He was creating a people. He was making a community.
The church He established has the right to see itself as His new Israel. What does this imply? Among other things, it implies that whenever we preach the good news, we must be conscious of the church as one. When new members join the church, they are to be welcomed in as members of the body, the community of Christ.
In my first year as a minister, I studied the Bible with a family of Pentecostal people. The husband was interested in the Adventist perspective and so it was not difficult to get him to come to my church.
The problem was that even in his outlying village the "Saturday people" were known to be the uppity crowd. He really wondered how he was going to be accepted. I was sure everything would work out well. I thought he would be blessed by his visit. But I was wrong.
When Sabbath came, I was not casually dressed. Nobody was, except this visitor. The truth is, he probably was not casually dressed either. That is, he came in his best: a pair of khaki shorts and a shirt. He was neatly dressed, but he stood out from the rest of us.
It was not my fault that he came to church dressed like that. I did not know what was in his wardrobe. He did not know what was wrong with wearing his best shorts to church on a warm morning. But what was wrong was the fact that I assumed that all the church members were mature.
One of the deacons approached the man and gave him a lecture; something to the effect that in this church he was aspiring to join he could not come in shorts. He was told he needed clean long trousers!
Needless to say, most of the church was mortified by what happened. But perhaps even that did not matter. But what did matter was that Magwaza never came back to church! Why? Because in my fervor to witness, I had failed to prepare the congregation for the types of people that might be attracted to our community of faith. Jesus likened the whole operation to the result of casting a net. Many different types of fish and even some "nonfish" are caught!
Paul and Barnabas did not leave this kind of congregational work to chance. When they saw that some members of the church were not ready for the "net-effect" of preaching the gospel, they had the church leaders call a meeting so that when Gentiles weighed into the church, the shock, judgment, and embarrassment were brought to a minimum. They intentionally planned and prepared the church by general consensus for the entrance of the new members into the community of faith.
Paul insisted that the church was in fact one body; that of the Lord Jesus Christ. In our teaching today we must be careful that we do not fan sectional fires that in the end will burn up the church as it fails to appreciate the united community vision and intention of Jesus for His church in the world.
When we have the content of the message as it should be, live lives consistent with its demands, give it in proper context and we are aware of the way God works with His community, evangelism and witness, I have found, is a piece of cake!