Sowing seeds or tossing nutshells?
Speaking of Jesus
As a teenager, I followed the encouragement of a Pentecostal classmate and took a training course in the Four Spiritual Laws (FSL). In the basement of Yarrow MB Church, I learned how to use FSL so I could participate in an evangelistic media blitz.
That summer, while on a city work crew, I took advantage of a coffee break to share FSL with another teenaged employee. After I’d read the booklet to him, I was taken aback when he asked a question about one phrase in the booklet: “What’s the door of my life?” No matter how I tried, I couldn’t explain to him what that door was, let alone how he could open it to Jesus.
More recently, when I was a pastor, people asked me for help sharing the gospel. A longstanding believer, for instance, said, “Please teach us how to talk about the gospel; we don’t know how to answer the questions people are asking us.” This woman could talk at length about Jesus and salvation with her children and church care group, but struggled to speak up with her unbelieving neighbours and relatives.
As I watch Jesus’ apprentices share the gospel, I see some of them go through life speaking about the gospel as if they were sowing grass seed all around them – and a carpet of verdant growth emerges in their trail. Others, like my teenaged self, are just as devoted to Jesus; but when they speak about the gospel, nothing seems to happen, as if they were tossing out empty walnut shells.
What makes the difference? What’s really happening? More importantly: what does God expect Jesus’ followers to do with the good news of Jesus Christ?
What does the Bible say?
In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus offers an answer to my question. He instructs his followers (who circulate throughout the entire world because Jesus is their Lord) to make apprentices (disciples) of every ethnicity: baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to keep all Jesus’ commands.
Acts 1:8 provides another version of Jesus’ answer: once his messengers (apostles) have been empowered by the Holy Spirit, they will be his witnesses everywhere.
Both these answers, however, were addressed to a limited group of disciples. What does God expect of all believers? What about those who aren’t gifted to be apostles, evangelists, apologists, or teachers? What does God expect of people who are tongue-tied or shy?
Very few passages in the epistles teach believers how to speak about the good news of Jesus – how to witness. Peter writes to dispersed people who are learning to obey Jesus Christ: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15–16).
Paul offers similar words to faithful brothers and sisters in Asia: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5–6 NRSV).
John exemplifies this respectful, gracious approach when he introduces Jesus, the eternal Word of life: “We’re announcing what we heard, saw with our eyes, looked at, and touched with our hands, so that we will all have fellowship with each other and with God, and so that we can have complete joy” (1 John 1:1–4 paraphrased).
Living according to the Bible
From these Scriptures, there are several things we can say about witnessing.
Witnessing is letting others know how we’ve experienced Jesus. Like John, we tell our own experiences and those of our faith community, rather than the experiences of others.
Both Peter and Paul emphasize that we speak in response to what other people are actually asking. In other words, witnessing is a genuine conversation, not a one-sided sales pitch that pushes for a deal.
We salt every conversation with gentleness, kindness, and wisdom – without a hint of anxiety or stridency. We respect the other person’s convictions, customs, community – even religion – by listening carefully and seeking to understand him or her. We can be this patient because God is (2 Peter 3:9).
We always couple our conversations about Jesus with living in the way that Jesus taught. And we witness with the expectation of discovering joy.
We don’t need to know everything about the gospel – in fact, we can’t. No single book of the Bible and no single author in Scripture offers everything that can be known about the gospel. Even if we could know the entire Bible, we would never finish searching and tracing out God’s wise and wonderful ways (Romans 11:33). We always need the help of other believers, churches, and denominations to communicate the gospel’s fullness, so that every household on earth can truly grasp how broad and high and long and deep is Christ’s love (Ephesians 3:18–19).
By sharing our own experiences of the risen Jesus, we renounce two temptations. We avoid the temptation to distil what God has revealed about the gospel into a pre-packaged or lowest-common-denominator summary. That’s like offering people a dry empty nutshell instead of a living seed. Rather, we are to be as lively as God’s birthing Spirit, who comes and goes like the wind (John 3:8).
Also, we refuse the temptation to feel that “it’s all up to me.” God stitches each individual’s witness – however incomplete – with the witness of the church in every place, creating a multicoloured tapestry that reveals Jesus with ever-increasing beauty to our neighbours and our enemies, to the world, and even the cosmos (Ephesians 3:10).
Journalists speak about a moral obligation to “bear witness” to the extreme poverty, atrocities of war, or devastating effects of human trafficking they have seen firsthand. Having discovered people and events hidden from their viewers, these communicators feel compelled to respond to the world’s pain by letting their audiences know “the rest of the story.”
As Jesus’ apprentices, we are to be spiritual journalists, bearing witness to what we have experienced. We’re not spiritual detectives who sniff out evil, spiritual police who collar sinners, prosecuting attorneys, parole officers who ensure consequences, or judges who assign eternal punishment. We’re also not God’s sheriffs, bailiffs, or prison guards; instead, we are his witnesses.
Like the first believers, we who know Christ aren’t content to tell only the facts about the gospel. We want others to know our experiences of Jesus so that their and our joy may be complete. This is bearing witness.
And it’s possible for all Jesus’ brothers and sisters: children and grownups, introverts and extroverts, beginners and veterans. Bearing witness is possible for everyone who has begun to know Christ, and who relies on the Holy Spirit to call, convict, and convert.
Four Spirit-ed impulses
Here are four practices that can help us learn to bear witness as people birthed by the Spirit.
Be attentive to our own conversions.
A witness’s testimony is only valid if it speaks to the witness’s own experience. What has Jesus changed in your life? How are you becoming more alive because of Jesus? How is your relationship with Jesus reshaping your values, self-image, other relationships, hobbies, finances, desires, and more? Who makes the gospel real or believable for you?
Let our own experiences shape what we promise on Jesus’ behalf.
Jesus doesn’t change all the circumstances of our lives. Can we promise he will heal my friend’s depression, crippled arm, or even his marriage? Will Jesus give her a job? We can’t know. But Jesus does offer eternally abundant life that begins here and now (John 10:10). The signs of this life include reconciliation, healing, recovery from addictions, and other changes – both quiet and dramatic. By looking at our own initial and ongoing conversions, we can learn what eternal life looks like in the lives of real people today.
Be attentive to what people are already discussing before we join their conversations.
To be heard when we speak of Jesus, we first need to be attentive to what people around us are actually asking. Paul listened before he preached (Acts 17:23). Where do people talk about Jesus, God, Christians, religion, or faith? Ponder carefully what they say and consider the desires that hide beneath their comments. Shame, guilt, fear, or greed: Jesus and the gospel address all human possibilities, conditions, and cultures. Notice and draw attention to the ways people are unknowingly experiencing the Holy Spirit’s witness to God’s goodness through this incredible planet, productive work, happy mealtimes, and more (see Acts 14:17 for a model).
Live hospitably with our neighbours.
Offering and receiving hospitality as a lifestyle prepare the soil for sowing the seeds of the gospel (Luke 10:7). When Paul wrote to immature Greek believers, he clearly expected Christians to associate with people who do not believe in Jesus – even people considered immoral, greedy, robbers, and idolaters (1 Corinthians 5:9–10). Jesus, our role model, not only served but also asked to be served (John 4:7). In the same way, we need to exchange hospitality with our neighbours and associates; we can share garden tools, parenting woes and joys, vacations, and even food. When my neighbour knows me well enough to see my fear of heights and my outburst at a broken lawnmower, he will hopefully be close enough to also see Jesus shining out of the cracked vessel that I am.
Nearly 10 years ago, Denise* suffered a broken hip. She was elderly, and with her weak and stiff leg was unable to manage her household or her little dog. Her neighbours Henry and Liz visited Denise in the hospital; they loved Jesus and had experienced hardships themselves. When Denise came home, she asked Liz and Henry to assist her for a while. They began coming to her house twice a day to prepare her meals, help her get out of bed, and take care of her dog.
One year into her recovery, Denise realized that her neighbours weren’t showing any signs of stopping their helpful visits. Finally, she asked, “If you had known how long it would take, would you still have agreed to help me?” Liz answered, “We’ll help you no matter how long it takes.” Noticing that Denise had books about various religions on her shelves, they readily gave her a large-print Bible when she asked for one. Quite naturally, Liz and Henry also spoke about Jesus and his love.
One day, Denise said, “I want what you have.” Several months later – sitting in her wheelchair – Denise was baptized upon confessing her faith in Jesus, whom she served by expressing care for the members of her home fellowship group. The seed of the gospel sprouted in part because Denise’s neighbours – regular disciples of Jesus – bore witness to their experiences with Christ. May his Spirit help us to go and sow likewise.
*Not her real name.
—Andrew Dyck is assistant professor of ministry studies for Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada and Canadian Mennonite University. Andrew and Martha are enjoying getting to know their neighbours in Winnipeg. Andrew recommends Evangelism for “Normal” People: Good News for Those Looking for a Fresh Approach by John P. Bowen. Chapter 15, for instance, offers three biblically rich examples of introducing people to Jesus in a way that is conversational and open-handed instead of formulaic.
How does Scripture give different messages of hope for different situations in life?
How have mistakes and influences from our history as Mennonite Brethren shaped the way we understand and share the gospel today?