By Andrew Symes
Growing up in England and attending evangelical churches and student Christian unions, I learned that ‘witness’ and ‘friendship evangelism’ were more or less interchangeable. We were encouraged to share our testimony: we have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ which we can describe in terms of the benefits in the present; we can tell the story of how we began this relationship; we can explain how the new life and eternal security is possible through the death and resurrection of our Saviour. My story, my present experience, the Bible’s theology – these together tie the personal to the universal; ‘my truth and reality’ to what is true and real and therefore urgent for everyone. An individual confirming the testimony of other individuals, creating a family bond with them and thereby being the church.
Now of course one could point out the flaws of this approach, not least the ecclesiology. But there is no denying the powerful advantages of the simple evangelical faith for bringing others to Christ and growing the church. As part of our task as disciples is to ‘witness’, we pray for those with whom we come into contact who do not share our faith; we look for opportunities to “give a reason for the hope in us”. Some of us are better than others, and are successful evangelists at the local church level. The development of courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored mean that it does not all depend on us: we can invite friends to hear the Gospel and discuss it in a group. Our evangelism in this way leads to church growth, as the church I attend has found. The congregation has been encouraged and trained in evangelism, and are sharing faith with their friends and neighbours informally. After a Parish “mission week” in late January, more than a dozen previously with no faith and a number of “fringe” people are now attending a Christianity Explored course.
This model of witness assumes a benign cultural context. As we share our faith with others, the parable of the sower takes effect: some may say “no thank you I’m not interested”; some may appear to make a start on the journey but then fall away; some may accept Christ with great joy and continue as his disciples. Very rarely, perhaps at school or in the workplace, Christians might be given the cold shoulder or ridiculed for their faith. Witness might involve embarrassment or discomfort but not danger. Witness is simply sharing our faith with friends; part of the evangelistic task of growing the church – right?
In a hostile cultural context, witness becomes something different, closer to its true meaning of ‘martyrdom’. Where people have already turned their backs on God and see the Christian message as a threat to be eliminated, witness is not sharing your experience or discussing theology with mates in the pub – it is being on trial, in the dock. It is no longer trying to win over people of goodwill, it is an act of prophetic defiance against people who have embraced evil. Witness to Christ when people have already rejected him and are persecuting his people is now no longer the announcement of good news, but the pronouncement of judgement.
Elizabeth Kendal is an expert on religious freedom in countries where the church is persecuted. In her book “Turn Back the Battle” she draws parallels between the world of Isaiah in the 8th century bc, and the current situation, not just in the ‘10/40 window’ but increasingly in the West. She suggests that too close an association between witness and friendship evangelism can lead to the church affirming the culture too readily in order to win people to Christ by being acceptable. Instead, an essential part of witness is ‘cultural criticism’. She says:
…it is not uncommon for Christians to adopt a spirit of denial, whereby they reject the notion that persecution could ever be part of their testimony. They insist that ‘its not happening’, rather than face the reality that their nation or community might be regressing into a more hostile, less civilized place where the persecution of the righteous is systematic….
Persecuted believers are rarely ever passive victims…as the culture collapses, society degenerates and persecution escalates, the testimony of the persecuted only grows louder, heaping ever more criticism upon the culture. Sometimes it takes the shocking and shameful cutting down of the righteous to shake a people out of their nonchalance so they cry out in shame and horror: “what have we become? To what depths have we sunk? How did we come to this?”
All through the Islamic world, there are Muslims questioning and leaving Islam because they have been shocked by Islam’s violence and repression, particularly its persecution of righteous, peaceful Christian citizens.
The same will happen in the West. Yes, affliction and persecution are escalating and intensifying in the West, but we are not to fear, for God is doing something new – yet old. Once again he is exposing and dealing with sin by taking it upon his own body – only this time his body is the church.
[Elizabeth Kendal, Turn Back the Battle, Deror Books (Melbourne), 2012, pp93-94]
For years we have assumed that effective evangelism involves our ‘witness’ being appreciated by society. If people don’t actually become churchgoers, they will praise our good works and our nice nature. If we can teach our people to get rid of nerdy tendencies, boring theology and black-and-white morality; if we include and affirm those we engage with and the culture we are part of, if we speak out to apply Christ’s standards only where they happen to coincide with the opinions of journalists, then people will listen to and embrace our good news of which we are the embodiment. What then do we think of Christians who are persecuted in the Middle East – it’s their own fault, for becoming a ‘toxic brand’? Do we think that because Christians there have become unpopular, they can no longer witness?
No – of course this isn’t right. It seems counter intuitive, but being persecuted for being a Christian does not mean you have got your witnessing method wrong – it is the witness. An example in our current situation: Our Bishops are being given a hard time for affirming the true meaning of marriage, and they are tempted to backtrack and apologise, thinking they have harmed the church’s witness. Let’s hope and pray they get understanding and insight, that some at least recognize they have been granted the amazing privilege of experiencing a taste of what the spiritual giants in the Global South are getting. To say “no” to gay marriage may be a PR disaster for a worldly corporation in a universe where there is no God, but in the real world it is witness to Christ, the beginning of martyrdom, the outworking of judgement on the culture, the salvation of many through a purified church.