By Laura L. Wood
I sat in the mall with my two preschoolers, my own infant, and a baby I was babysitting. I had made the monumental effort of getting out of the house with these little ones to ward off the loneliness, isolation, and boredom that come with raising young children. As I sat at a child-sized table in the food court, wishing I could talk to an adult about something other than applesauce, a woman who had been sitting with a preschool-aged boy at a nearby table approached me.
“I’ve been watching you with your kids, and I want to tell you that you are doing such
a good job with them,” she said. “You’re so patient! I don’t think I could handle that many little children as well.”
I felt really good! Having a complete stranger compliment me encouraged me at a time when I doubted every parenting decision I made. We talked for a minute about the stress of being moms, and then she said something I will never forget.
“You deserve a night to yourself. I sell Mary Kay. Why don’t you get some friends together and have a Mary Kay party?” She handed me her card as she prepared to leave. I couldn’t believe it. Immediately, every encouraging word she had spoken was negated with the realization that she had just been trying to sell her product.
Thinking about it later, I realized that is how people can feel when Christians employ common witnessing techniques. Someone gives the appearance of caring about them in a world where few do, but then turns around and tries to “sell” Christianity.
As a Christian, I know that people witness for different reasons. Often it comes from a concern for others. They want others to know the life of grace that comes from Christ. They want the best for people. But sometimes they try to express it in ways that are culturally unacceptable and offensive—that push people away rather than draw them in. Witnessing today involves a lot more than a quick tract dropped in a public place. It involves sharing life with people, truly caring about them.
What Not to Do
In our culture, some techniques for sharing our faith simply will not work. Dropping in unexpectedly to invite someone to church, for example, is seen as intrusive into what little private time a person might have in a busy culture. People today do not socialize with their neighbors as often and it takes time to build up friendships.
Hardly a week goes by without me reading about culturally offensive acts that Christians do in the name of witnessing. On Facebook, I see numerous posts and articles written by restaurant servers who say that Sunday is the worst day of the week to work because of the large number of Christians eating out after church. The “I give 10 percent to God; why would I give more than that to a server?” attitude perpetuates the stereotype of pushy, greedy, and self-serving Christians. When I see that someone has dropped a tract on the table instead of a tip, I cringe. I have also heard servers complain that they picked up what looked like a $100 tip only to find that it was instead a tract telling them about the plan of salvation. While that may seem like a clever marketing idea, it actually sows a spirit of bitterness and resentment toward Christians and the God they represent.
Servers who are paid below the minimum wage because their tips are considered part of their income rightly feel cheated. I recently read about a lesbian server who received no tip but instead got a handwritten note on the bill calling her an inappropriate name and saying that, as a Christian, the customer could not support a person who lived that lifestyle. What kind of witnessing do we do when we call people names and hurt them in the name of Christianity?
One nonbelieving friend of mine who is a physician tells a story about one of his patients. This patient and her husband were both ministers, and during her visit to the emergency room, she kept asking my friend questions about where he went to church and what he believed. He finally told her that he did not go to church and was not a Christian. She then attempted to convince him that he should believe. “She kept at it to the exclusion of all else from then on, every time I had to go into her room, even stopping me in the hall as she was on her bed being taken to her hospital room,” he said.
She did not convince him, of course, since arguing someone into belief rarely, if ever, works. Do we really think that theological discussions and arguments will immediately convince someone to abandon their entire worldview and turn to ours? Will we argue someone to the point where they finally throw up their hands, admit we have won, and head straight to the nearest church to be baptized?
An Uncomfortable Task
Let’s face it—talking about personal things such as spiritual beliefs is difficult. We go to church and hear about how important it is for everyone to believe. We may even hear sermons about how if we were really dedicated to Christ we would fulfill our duty by telling everyone we know or meet about him. We feel pressure to share our faith, but sharing something personal with every single person we meet is difficult.
We feel that to be good Christians we must do this, so we seek out formulas or methods to make the process simpler. We look for just the right technique that will somehow make this difficult and distasteful task a little bit easier and maybe even more effective. Unfortunately, we are approaching it all wrong when we make sharing our faith out to be an obligation, and a formula will never make such an act more effective.
Caring about people and sharing life with them leads to genuine relationships and love for others; it gives us time and opportunity to live out a Christian example. We don’t need a formula for falling in love. We meet a person, enjoy his company, choose to spend time with him, and grow to love him. Likewise, we don’t need a formula for showing love to others and sharing our lives with them.
Had the woman I met in the mall asked to get together for coffee or to go to a play area so that the kids could play and we could talk, we would have become friends. Had she been my friend and shared my struggles and my life, she would have told me naturally that she sold Mary Kay. Had I cared about her as a friend, I would have been interested in her business and would have wanted to have a party to help her. Because she was my friend. Because she cared about me. Because we shared each other’s lives. Instead, I threw away her card and remembered her with a sad feeling of having been manipulated to make a quota.
Let me give you an illustration that I think applies to this situation:
Let’s say you’re driving across a bridge and you come upon a person who has climbed over the safety rail and is perched on the edge of the bridge, about to jump over. Whether you know him or not, you’d stop the car and approach him. You can clearly see the danger he has put himself in, and you want to help him because, as a fellow human being, you can’t bear to know that you had not done all you could to help him in his dire situation.
If you run up screaming and arguing or try to grab him, he might jump just to get away from you or to prove that he has control over his own life. If you argue with him and offend him when he’s clearly at his lowest, he might try to move away from you, resulting in him losing his balance and falling.
In order to save him you must also climb out on the ledge, show him you really do care about what happens to him, and lovingly accompany him back across the rail to safety. You may then take time to listen to him, bring him into your life, and be his friend while he heals from whatever sent him over that rail in the first place. Yes, you might put yourself in some danger and expend quite a bit of energy, but you’ve shown another person the way back home.
Laura L. Wood is a freelance writer in Papillion, Nebraska.
When I’ve Messed Up
We’ve all had experiences when we had the intention of helping but instead ended up a poor example of Christ’s love to others. It’s uncomfortable and even painful to think about, but reflecting and processing through these experiences helps make us better images of Christ in future interactions.
Think of a time when you were trying to help, encourage, or share Christ with someone, but your attempt was particularly hindered by your human flaws.
• First, evaluate the goals you had for the encounter. Were your goals consistent with what Scripture asks of believers?
• Next, look at your attitude toward the person. How was your approach like and unlike how Jesus treated people?
• Think through the elements of good conversation. Did you listen well? Did you speak too much? Did your questions help you understand, affirm, and point the other person to Christ? Did your body language portray patience and openness?
• Summarize in a sentence what roadblocks you’ve stumbled over in witnessing to others.
• Now turn that sentence into a positive statement about what you’ll prayerfully commit to do in the future.