Lost in Conversation: Time for a Witness

How do Christians go about their world as a witness without falling into one of two approaches today that don’t get the job done? The first method is the bold, unapologetic, shove-it-in-your-face-with-love approach one sometimes observes in public places. The other approach is the conversational approach, the kind of conversation where we get lost in conversation and never get out. These are two approaches that David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw are seeking to avoid in their book Prodigal Christianity, and where they propose a fourth signpost: Witness.

What does it mean to “witness”? What do you think of their three-fold breakdown of witness? Where do you see witness today?

They use the illustration of cross-gender relationships in their church to explore what it means to witness to the truth. Sometimes the conversation never progresses — it is just a conversation that needs to be had. “This is why we’ve become convinced over the past several years that more than a ‘gospel’ pronouncement or a ‘kingdom’ conversation, the church is called to be a ‘witness’” (57). [By the way, by using the quotation marks in these both gospel and kingdom get connected in ways that don't help either term.] So we need, they say, more than pronouncement and more than conversation; we need to embody the truth in a compelling way.

The word witness is the most common word for messaging in the NT. Witness they argue includes three themes:

1. Proclamation
2. Fellowship
3. Service

Witness is when God is using us. Trinitarian (John 15:26; 5:37; 14:7). It involves being with others and sharing life with them. Witness points away from us to Christ, and witness is about a shared life that embodies God’s work among us. God’s transforming powers witness to the work of God in this world.

The prodigal nature of witness is to discern what God is doing and to enter into that work of God together to embody that work.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • T

    I like the content of their recommendation well enough, but I think calling their proposal ‘witness’ is just confusing and thereby unhelpful.

    We do need more witnesses in the church–people who have ongoing first hand experiences with/of the Lord’s Messiah, via the Holy Spirit. I think being Christ’s witness does also include living a life that reflects the One we have seen/experienced/come to live in, so I don’t see their definition (as summarized) as totally off, but where is the foundational idea of ongoing personal knowledge and experience via the Spirit? That’s what makes us ‘witnesses’.

    I would be the first to agree that the church has focused on making teachers of doctrine rather than witnesses to everyone’s detriment, but I don’t think that’s what the authors are saying here.

  • Adam

    @T

    But I know many people who would say teaching doctrine IS being a witness. In fact, this seems to be the exact message of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; teaching doctrine IS witness.

    How do we separate the two when they have been so tightly bound together?

  • T

    Adam,

    My favorite story on that front is the story of the man healed who was born blind. There’s this wonderful interplay b/n him and the leaders. It’s a great illustration of the difference.

    And I don’t think teaching is bad; in fact, we need to teach the difference b/n teaching and bearing witness! :D But it’s also about what we include in our regular practices and thereby make part of our culture. Right now, we so overvalue teaching doctrine relative to experience and personal stories that most people: 1) have the idea that teaching doctrine is what they should do when spiritual matters arise, 2) have a ultra minimized view of “testimony” so that only conversion is included, 3) have no practice in publicly integrating their experience with doctrine, let alone doing it in such a way and with such frequency that they can share their experience with others intelligently and with confidence about what they personally know and what they don’t.

    If you want a good illustration of an organization/movement that does a much better job of balancing both testimony and teaching (and leveraging the power of the former), look at the recovery groups. Yes, they teach, but sharing their “experience, strength and hope” are the lifeblood of their groups and their relationships. They are truly a kingdom of priests; of wounded healers.

    As a lawyer, I’ve long been interested in what makes a good/powerful witness. Unfortunately, the Church’s typical culture and practices discourage the kinds of thinking and practices that make for good witnesses, and encourage the kinds of things that make for poor witnesses. Specifically, we’ve acted like the only witnesses worth making are expert witnesses, who give more opinion than eye-witness account and rely on their credentials and charisma to be persuasive. While experts are good, that’s not the kind of witnesses that Christ made us into by sending his Son and Spirit.

  • Rick in IL

    I like it. I was in a meeting with 3 other pastors last week about how to bring a renewed sense of Harvest to a regional group of churches we are serving. This threefold description of witness is right where we were going, but said so well. It’s going into our plan.

  • Ray

    @T “where is the foundational idea of ongoing personal knowledge and experience via the Spirit?”

    I think what the authors are perhaps trying to say is that witnessing is the practical/missional outflow of this personal knowledge & experience of the Spirit, as you say. Sure, it’s foundational to witnessing, but the idea of being a “witness” seems to me to be inherently outward-focused. I don’t see how it can be sufficiently wrapped up in or equated to personal experience alone. To limit it to that can too easily let us neuter the power of witnessing. And it can too easily tempt us with the less-demanding idea of holding & teaching the “right” beliefs (doctrine), a stance out of which makes the conversational approach sufficient to declaring our witness. This is what I think the authors are pushing against, or rather trying to push us beyond.

    As Scot noted above, the true power of a witness is more than just pronouncement or dialogue. It is an embodiment of that which we think is so true (good news of God’s kingdom) that we mold our lives & actions around it.

    Ahh – but there’s the rub. For that actually demands something of us beyond talking. It is the narrow road of living what you believe. And that is why we lack so many true witnesses. (I’m preaching to myself first here, BTW).

  • T

    Ray,

    I agree with the thrust at what you’re getting at, and I even like the authors’ idea of being a witness (of Christ) involves faithful embodiment of Christ.

    But it always makes me chuckle how Christians frequently misuse “witness” when they use it as a verb, as in people will say, “Bill witnessed to this guy on the beach.” When we “witness” something or someone, we don’t talk, we observe; we personally experience something. We can then testify or bear witness to what we have seen or heard or otherwise experienced. But when Jesus says that he will send his Spirit, and then the disciples will be his witnesses, he is saying something significant (and accurate!). Unfortunately, the conservative evangelical church often wants to disdain the Spirit, but still have people bear witness of Christ, and that’s just plain impossible by definition. But what is often meant is that people should teach others. Teaching is good, but it is not the same as testifying. I can teach about something without having any personal experience of it. But I cannot testify about something without personally experiencing or “witnessing” it, and this difference is becoming more and more important in our time. People care more now about spiritual things being real and working in real life than they care about how true the theory looks on paper. Witnesses focus on the former. Many, many people who are not open to more teaching about Christ, are very open to testimony of witnesses.

  • Ray

    T,
    Well said, & I couldn’t agree more. Maybe I was talking past you there somewhat. Seems that this term “witness” is pretty loaded with different perspectives. When we say that we are witnesses, do we mean in the objective or subjective sense, or both equally? Lots of semantics to unpack. Regardless of how it functions, to be a witness does certainly involves an experiential component, moving it past simply “teaching”, as you rightly noted.

    I suppose I see it both ways simultaneously (can I do that?). We witness, observe, God at work (in our own lives, church, etc.). Our witness, our experience, of God at work is intended to serve as the basis for our own transformed ethic & praxis. Thus, as evidenced by our actions, something markedly different is driving us. This Spirit-led life testifies to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom – that is, it provides substantial evidence to outsiders of God at work. Thus in this way our lives witness – that is, point to – the Truth. Without the transformed ethic & praxis, what good is our spoken/taught testimony?

  • T

    Ray,

    Absolutely, our transformed ethic and praxis (our deeds) should also bear witness of what we’ve seen/experienced in Christ as much as what we say. Big ‘Amen’ to that.

  • Merv Olsen

    A rewarding study can be gained by checking out how the word `witness` is used in John’s Gospel – it is used 47 times (Verb – 33 times; Noun – 14 times)
    1:7 a, b , 8, 15, 19, 32, 34 ; 2:25 ; 3:11 a, b, 26, 28, 32 a, b, c, 33 ; 4:39, 44 ; 5:31 a, b, 32 a, b, 33, 34, 36 a, b, 37, 39 ; 7:7 ; 8:13 a, b, 14 a, b, 17, 18 a, b ; 10:25 ; 12:17 ; 13:21 ; 15:26, 27 ; 18:23, 37 ; 19:35 a, b ; 21:24 a , b.

    John R.W. Stott has a chapter on this theme in his book `The Preacher’s Portrait`. Stott’s main points are that…

    Christian witness is borne BEFORE the world.

    Christian witness is borne BY the Father.

    Christian witness is borne THROUGH the Holy Spirit.

    Christian witness is borne THROUGH the Church. For the adequate fulfillment of his duty, the believer will need two special qualifications – experience and humility.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X