For this instalment of Sprachspielen, we have come to the sixth and final component of our Six-Fold Incarnational Strategy (6fis). Once again, if you are new to this six-part series of Sprachspielen, which focuses on this important and practical aspect of our day-to-day ministry, I encourage you to go back to the beginning of the series to the February instalment and work your way forward. Having looked at (1) Prayer, (2) the Open Home, (3) the “Ministry of Hanging Out,” (4) Interests, and (5) Needs, we come this month to the topic of (6) the Verbal Witness.
Before delving into a description of what we mean, when we say “Verbal Witness,” I’d like to make three preliminary observations.
Having just looked at the other components of the 6fis, you might be wondering if it’s even necessary to have this sixth component, the Verbal Witness. There is a very popular quotation, often misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi (i.e., there’s no evidence that he ever said it or anything like it). I’m sure you’ve probably heard it.
Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words, if necessary.Unknown
There is something that just feels right about this saying, isn’t there? I would share that knee-jerk reaction to this quotation (whoever said it originally), and I would also say that as a bit of hyperbole to push the point that our actions should reflect our speech these words can be quite powerful. You could even be forgiven, after reading the previous five components of the 6fis, for thinking that we would embrace this saying as a maxim. In other words, is it really necessary to have this sixth element of the 6fis after looking at the power of the example and description of the previous five components?
However, the fact of the matter is that the saying above, as emotionally provocative as it may seem, is inadequate. It only gives part of the picture. Some form of actual verbal witness (or signed for those who communicate through sign languages) is necessary to go along with all the other components which emphasise our actions. Otherwise, the message that we are trying to convey is incomplete. We must accompany our actions (especially components two through five of the 6fis) with some kind of explanation in order for people to understand the impetus for the actions. Another way to look at this would be an example that Michael Frost has mentioned in writing and speech, namely that we are to live “questionable” lives as Christian—not “questionable” in the common usage which would be a synonym of “suspect,” but in the sense of causing people to ask questions. In other words, if we were to look at our interaction with those around us who are not-yet-believers-in-Jesus as a conversation, our actions and example prompt the question, but our verbal witness would be a response to the question.
Of the many other things I could say about this issue, I’d like simply to present two, more clearly articulated reasons why the Verbal Witness is a necessary element of our 6fis and missions in general.
Glory to God and not ourselves
First, if we do not “connect the dots” for people between our actions in the name of Jesus and Jesus Himself through some form of verbal witness, then, the people with whom we interact will begin to look at us (the witnesses), rather than Jesus, who is the object of our witness. People may look at the example of our actions and interactions and indeed question them and ask themselves, “I wonder how I can have what he or she has?” If we don’t fill the void opened by that question with Jesus, they will fill it with us and our example, desiring to follow and learn how “we did it,” at which point what we have to offer is no better or worse than any other philosophy, method, approach, et cetera, of any other human being throughout history. “Jesus” has to be the answer to the question our lives produce in others, otherwise, they will provide their own answer to the question, which would actually lead them away from Jesus. After all, Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (emphasis mine), NOT simply “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works” (emphasis mine).
Proclaiming the Good News
Second and more to the point, the Bible makes it clear that verbal witness is a primary part of the process of the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to everyone in the world, which is our mandate as His people. Of the many New Testament examples of this truth, I will mention just two.
First, we see a clear connection between people hearing and understanding the Good News, and someone sharing a verbal witness in Romans 10:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’Romans 10:14-15
In fact, so clear is this connection in this passage that I do not actually think it requires any further commentary from me.
Second, Jesus Himself in preparing to send out the 12 Disciples as Apostles for the first time in Luke 9 gives them the actual purpose of the exercise in verse 2: “and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” It’s quite clear that the task of mission that Jesus gives to His disciples has two clear components: (1) proclaim, and (2) heal. He doesn’t present this two-fold mission as an “either/or” situation, where we get to choose the one we prefer. He clearly meant for the disciples to do both. How do we know this? There are two reasons for us to believe that Jesus meant what He said to the disciples in Luke 9:2. First, verse 6 tells us clearly that this is exactly what the Disciples did: “So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.” In other words, they clearly did not mishear or misunderstand the instructions of Jesus. Second, Jesus Himself modelled what He was asking the Disciples to do. In his account of the sending out of the 12 Disciples as Apostles, Matthew shows Jesus’ own example and words in chapter 9:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’Matthew 9:35-38
Though there was no conflict for Jesus and His first Disciples between what we might call “ministry,” or our actions, on one hand and the “message” through verbal proclamation on the other, we for whatever reason seem to struggle with the “both/and” of the mandate. We somehow see them as competing with, rather than complementing each other. However, the Scriptural view is that actions and words (together) are both “ministry” and “message.” In our 6fis, we spend more time talking about issues related to our actions and interactions (components 2-5 of the 6fis) because these activities have become less common and infinitely less habitual for many of us as Evangelical Christians. We have to re-learn the action side of the equation and practice it until it becomes second nature. Accordingly, we do not place so much emphasis on action/interaction in the 6fis, because we feel that our verbal witness is less important. On the contrary, the verbal witness is vital.
Often, when we look at lists like the 6fis, we tend to think of them as listed sequentially in the order that they are given but tied to chronology. We see them more like a recipe or DIY instructions: do this, then that, then this, et cetera, each in a specific order, each one to follow the other in sequence. The 6fis is not sequential, especially when it comes to points 2, 3, 4, and 5. It is not necessary to do one component before doing another. Also, it’s not necessarily a menu, where we choose the ones we like. Obviously, we might naturally and even rightly gravitate to those elements which are easier for us or more familiar, whether due to personal preference or experience, talents or spiritual gifting. But we should be challenged to grow in all of them, in order to expand our networks and interactions in new and exciting ways.
Whereas there is no significant sequential reasoning behind the order of the 6fis, we would say that the first element (Prayer) and the final element (Verbal Witness) do have a special relationship to the others. With the more active elements of 2 through 5, we are somewhat constrained by the laws of physics, i.e., we cannot be in two places at once and often cannot do more than one thing that requires effort and attention at the same time. However, both Prayer and the Verbal Witness can be integrated easily into the other elements of the 6fis. Perhaps one way to look at it would be to see Prayer and the Verbal Witness as the threads, which are woven into the entire fabric of the 6fis. Another metaphor familiar to most of us might be the simple, unassuming sandwich. We could see Prayer and Verbal Witness as the bread, and the more interactive elements as the filling. The bread is what holds the sandwich together, and without it, there is simply a mishmash of ingredients on the plate. Conversely, two pieces of bread with no filling are simply that: two pieces of bread. A sandwich requires both bread and some kind of filling. Accordingly, Prayer and Verbal Witness may anchor the 6fis, but it takes the filling (points 2 through 5) to make a “sandwich.”
When we speak of “Verbal Witness,” our minds often go to some kind of technique or methodology that must be learned and memorised. We might use words like “Gospel presentation” or “Plan of Salvation” to describe what we refer to as Verbal Witness.
I am not going to go into a detailed description of all of these evangelistic techniques, which we tend to think of when speaking of Verbal Witness. It would take too much space here, and I suspect that you are already familiar with many of these presentations. To “prime the pump” as it were, I’ll just mention in passing some presentations that might be familiar to you. There are some of the “oldies but goodies” that might be more familiar to my generation and older, such as (1) The Romans Road, (2) the Four Spiritual Laws, or (3) The Bridge to Life illustration. There are other, “newer” techniques as well, such as (5) Three Circles, (6) 1-verse or 2-verses (Romans 6:23 or 1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and (7) 15-second testimony, etc. These evangelistic techniques or Gospel presentations will undoubtedly be familiar to you, but if there are some that are new to you, and you’d like to know more about them, I’d be happy to send some resources where you can learn more.
At this point, when I speak about evangelistic presentations and techniques, my readers/listeners often think that I’m actually against using these tools and techniques. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think it’s a good idea for followers of Jesus to have some familiarity with these approaches and techniques. In fact, we often do a review of some of these presentations for our student projects. The problem is when (1) we lead with a presentation like this every time we have an encounter with a not-yet-believer-in-Jesus, and (2) a presentation of this kind is the only or primary evangelism tool in our “toolbox,” even if we’re familiar with a number of them. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, in our context especially, which is pretty thoroughly “Post-Christian,” the presentation approach comes off as sounding a lot like a sales pitch. They wonder what the “catch” is, and even when we switch to a different presentation, it just sounds like another form of the same sales pitch (people tend to be more savvy than we give them credit for). Because these presentations are learned/memorised, even if shared to a high level of competence and familiarity, they often sound inauthentic to listeners in many of our contexts. Second, if we always lead with one or more of these presentations, when they do not have the desired effect, which in our context is more often the case, there’s no where we can go, so to speak. What else can we say at that point except simply to repeat one of our presentations? If the Holy Spirit tells someone to lead with a presentation, then, my advice to him/her would be “by all means do so.” But usually we simply default to this approach because it’s what we’ve always done or been taught to do, and not necessarily because of direct leading by the Holy Spirit. In contrast, if a presentation is used at all in this process of verbal witness, it can often be most effective at the end of a protracted Gospel conversation or series of Gospel conversations, rather than at the beginning.
It is clear that Verbal Witness must mean something much broader and perhaps more organic than a simple, memorised presentation, especially if we are to engage seriously a lost world with the Good News of Jesus in a way that they can understand and to which they can respond.
Having given a bit of introduction to the question of “Verbal Witness,” I now want to turn my attention to describing in more detail what we mean by Verbal Witness in our ministry and as a part of the 6fis. Oddly and perhaps a bit surprisingly, this part of my writing is probably going to take less time and effort than the introduction, simply because the essence of the matter is actually fairly simple and straightforward. For us and in our 6fis, Verbal Witness is active and essentially has two components: Conversation and Jesus Stories.
I’ll start with the concept of conversation. You would think that this would be pretty simple and straightforward for us, because we have conversations all the time—with family, friends, work colleagues, at school, strangers, and even with ourselves in our own thought processes. So, conversation in itself and as a concept is not the problematic issue. What is difficult for us as Evangelical Christians sometimes is to realise that evangelism is more of a conversation than just a presentation, which is primarily a monologue, if we’re really honest. Generally, we guide the “conversation” with statements and questions, which will lead to certain responses from the other party, which then provide a segue to the next thing we want to say or ask in our presentation. In the end our “conversation” is about 90% our speaking and 10% for the other party to respond. If we were having a “conversation” about any other subject with that kind of ratio, I doubt if we would even use the term “conversation” to describe it, as it would feel more like a lecture or worse, a diatribe. And we wonder why the not-yet-believers in our lives are sometimes not very interested in talking with us, especially about spiritual matters? Not because they aren’t interested in spiritual matters, but because our approach gives them the distinct impression that we aren’t really all that interested in them. I’ll say more about that below.
I think another reason why looking at verbal witness as conversation is so difficult for us as Evangelical Christians is that our idea of evangelism has been co-opted by other metaphors. For a very long time, we have tended to think about our verbal witness in terms of the metaphors of competition, contest, and even conquest. For this reason we speak of “winning” the lost, or an evangelistic “crusade.” These observations are certainly not original to me. They have been talked about for some time, especially by missiologists and those leaders in ministry and evangelism. These more common, perhaps traditional metaphors all imply that one party “wins” and the other “loses” (generally, the argument). If we were to apply this example to the verbal exchange of ideas between two parties, where there is a clear “winner” in the exchange and the “winner” uses 85-90% of the speaking time ratio between them, we might call such an interaction a “discussion” at best and probably more likely a “debate” or “argument,” at worst. We would be unlikely to call it a “conversation.” The problem is that Jesus clearly had conversations with people, often asking questions and even answering questions with questions. There are examples such as the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27), and numerous conversations with religious leaders of the day, although those conversations often did turn contentious.
We believe, therefore, that conversation is the best format for verbal witness with not-yet-believers-in-Jesus, where hopefully everyone is a “winner,” and we are not so much experts trying to win an argument but “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread” (D.T. Niles). Because we’re not as accustomed to thinking about verbal witness as conversation anymore, in order to keep us on track, we would be mindful of the following principles, when it comes to conversation, and especially spiritual conversation, as verbal witness.
- Be interested in the other person. You might think this would be obvious, but surprisingly many of our “conversations” with people can often show that we are not actually very interested in the other person as a person. Even when the goal of our conversation is specifically evangelistic, something that we would consider an act of compassion and profound interest in the person with whom we’re speaking, we often are not very interested in them. This causes us not to dwell on what’s actually going on in their lives and to try to steer the “conversation” back to what we want to talk about, which is often our presentation. If we are going to have real conversations with people it requires us to be interested in them, truly interested.
- Be committed to silence. The goal in any good conversation between two people is to have roughly the same amount of speaking time for each party, i.e., 50%-50%. Sometimes in order for that to happen (or come close to happening), we have to be deliberate about NOT talking sometimes. We have to commit to silence at times, which gives the other person space to speak and share.
- Be a good listener. Just because we’re not speaking that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re listening well or at all to the other person in the conversation. Often our silence is as much for giving us an opportunity to think of what we want to say next as it is for listening to the other person. Not only do we need to commit to listen, but to listen well and actively. We can indicate that we are really listening in a number of ways, such as eye contact, body language (nodding the head, for example), and verbal cues that we are actually listening to them.
- Be a good question asker. About the only way that we can really get to know someone else is by asking questions of them. This is true in general, but also in getting to know someone at a more spiritual level. Asking good questions is key in this process. In the general sense, how can we ask questions that will really let us know about the other person, that person’s past, what does he value, in what is she interested, and even give us just simple basic information about the other person (origins, age, work, family, etc.)? When moving the conversation to more spiritual subjects, how can we ask questions that will not only help us to know where he or she is spiritually but also give the other person the platform to express what s/he believes about life and spiritual things? Even when we enter a point in the conversation that deals with elements of the Gospel message, how can we ask questions which lead the other person to Christ, which might even include answering THEIR questions with a question? Jesus often did that in His exchanges with people. There is a lot written about using questions in the evangelistic conversation, such as “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman.
- Be real. A lot of times, we as Christians believe that we have to be at our “shiniest” and best, when we’re around not-yet-believers-in-Jesus. We often embrace what I would call the “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” principle. But if we are going to be engaged in honest conversations and real friendships with people, we have to be open and authentic. Sometimes by sharing about our own struggles and difficulties, rather than trying to hide or “whitewash” them, we can actually encourage the other person, by helping him or her to realise that the only truly good thing about any of us is Jesus.
This component of our verbal witness contains two descriptors: (1) Jesus and (2) stories. In some ways, whereas this component is more important, it takes less space to describe it, as many of these observations are straightforward and simple in concept, though not always so simple to embrace and implement. Let us begin by looking at these two descriptors of the second component of the verbal witness, namely “Jesus Stories.”
First, we should start with Jesus Himself. As I’ve just stated above, we believe that conversation is the best context or conduit for verbal witness. But there is really only one item of content for verbal witness, which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. At the end of the day, the Good News is not just important information about God, us, His Son, and His plan and provision for us, but it is primarily a person, the Lord Jesus Himself, who gives us Himself, the One who lives and reigns and will return in final triumph one day. In evangelism or verbal witness, we are fundamentally introducing those who do not yet know Him to our Lord Jesus. Obviously, for someone to know Jesus deeply, he or she must know some facts about Him, which we can find in the Bible, as expressed in both the Old and especially the New Testament. In knowing about Jesus and His perfection and splendour, we also see ourselves most clearly, including our failures and profound need of Him. This knowing of Jesus through knowing about Him in Scripture would also lead us to some response to the inevitable question about Jesus that many would ask “so what?” “What difference does Jesus make to me?” We know Jesus both by learning about Him in His word and by spending time with Him in prayer, worship, adoration, and listening to the Holy Spirit, the internal dwelling person of the Godhead. The person of Jesus is the focus of our verbal witness.
Second, we find the word “stories” here, as the second descriptor. Story is important in our lives. We tell stories all the time. Our lives, in fact, are a story played out in real time. Because we live in the context of narrative all the time, Jesus coming to us in narrative form is a very powerful means of interacting with Him, or seeing where our story intersects with His. Is it any wonder that so much of the Bible is in narrative format? Furthermore, is it any wonder that we can remember so much of the narrative portions of Scripture, being wrapped up, as it were, in story? Because of this place of story in our lives, one of the most effective means of communicating Jesus is through stories; hence, the title of this component of our verbal witness.
This may all seem rather straightforward and even obvious at this point. You may be wondering, therefore, what we mean exactly, when we talk about Jesus Stories. In essence and once again very simply, we would say that there are two types of Jesus stories, which we try to share as often and as naturally as we can in our conversations with not-yet-believers-in-Jesus.
Marinating our lives in the Gospels
First, when we say “Jesus Stories,” we mean the actual stories about Jesus that we find in the New Testament. Of course, the books where we find the most information about the actual life of Jesus, what He did and said, are in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We try to become really familiar with the stories about Jesus and told by Him in the Gospels, in order for us to share these stories with others. This means spending A LOT of time in the Gospels. I heard Michael Frost refer to this kind of serious reflection on the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, as “marinating our lives in the Gospels.” As someone who likes to cook, this metaphor is certainly not lost on me. I have often marinated something in a mix of spices and other ingredients. The goal is for the flavour to penetrate deeply into the food by being covered in the spices and other ingredients for an extended time. By spending time with Jesus in the Gospels and becoming more and more familiar with His life, teaching, and example, we begin to take on more of His characteristics and we become so familiar with the stories about Him that we can share them naturally and completely, not as some rote memorisation exercise, but more like retelling true events that happened in our lives or in the lives of those close to us. These stories should become so familiar to us that they simply come out almost unbidden, as we go about the conversations and other interactions of our days.
Not only should the stories of Jesus come easily to our minds and freely to our lips, but His very name should be a consistent and nearly involuntary element of our regular speech. Call it holy “name dropping,” if you like. For example, suppose that you have a new friend, who is not yet a believer in Jesus, and you are trying to build your relationship with this person. Let’s also say that your primary connection point is over coffee at a local cafe. For the first meeting together, you might not necessarily lead with “have you heard the four spiritual laws,” or “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you ‘why should I let you into my heaven’ what would you say?” However, it also shouldn’t take ten coffee meeting before the other person figures out that you are a follower of Jesus. That information should come out naturally at the first real meeting, not because you are trying to do it, but precisely because you’re not. This is because mentioning His name should be as natural to use as “hello,” “how are you?” and the normal pleasantries of human interaction.
Our personal stories about Jesus
Second, when we say “Jesus Stories,” we also mean our personal Jesus stories. In other words, personal stories of how Jesus has interacted with us and transformed our lives and thinking. There is one such Jesus story that is familiar to most of us, as Christians. It is the story of how we first came to a saving faith in Jesus. We tend to call this our “personal testimony.” Often we receive encouragement and even training on how to articulate this incredibly meaningful Jesus story. And it really is a very powerful Jesus story, when we learn to share it with others and are open to do so. Our friends, who are not yet followers of Jesus, don’t always know what to do with this kind of story (in a good way), but they can see that there is something different about us, when we share this story of how we first came to faith in Jesus.
The only downside about the Jesus story of our salvation experience is when that’s the only Jesus story we have, or at least the only one that we share with others. Around the third or fourth time we share something about this story, as powerful as it may be, our not-yet-believing friend may say, “that’s a great story, but what has He done for you lately?” In that situation, this is actually a fair question. If we are trying to tell people that we are followers of Jesus and not just on Sunday but everyday and that Jesus has transformed our lives, where are the stories (emphasis on the plural) of our interaction with Jesus? The story of what He did for us all that time ago when we first gave our hearts to Him is a powerful thing. But what is our Jesus story from last week? Yesterday? This morning? We intentionally seek to examine our own lives for the evidence and power of Jesus’ transforming work in us every day, all day long, as we take up our own cross and follow Him daily. By recognising His work in our lives, we make it a habit of personal adoration of Jesus and thanksgiving to Jesus for His transforming power in us, which leads to joy and celebration, which then should lead to “gossiping” the Gospel and His goodness with all those in our spheres of influence. Naturally. Regularly. As involuntarily as exhaling after taking a deep breath. These are the Jesus stories in our own lives that we also share with those that God has placed in our lives.
Ultimately, if we have no personal Jesus stories, this is indicative of more than just a lack of motivation in evangelism or absence of evangelism training or anything similar. It is a personal and deeply spiritual problem, if we have no sense of Jesus’ transforming work in our lives on a regular basis. How can we speak to others about the power of Jesus not just to forgive us of sin and cleanse us of our sins, but also transform our lives, if we ourselves do not exhibit and share with others about the transforming power and work of Jesus in our own lives? Our personal Jesus stories are not hypotheticals that we create in order to convince others of our viewpoint. They are the natural expressing of the internal work of the Spirit in our hearts, minds, and wills. Simply put, we cannot share what we don’t have.
I hope that this explanation of our Six-Fold Incarnational Strategy is helpful to you in understanding how we go about being intentional about being involved in the lives of others, primarily from a thoroughly Post-Christian worldview for the sake of the Kingdom. Perhaps, some of these points might be helpful to you, your group, or Church in your own walk with Jesus and particularly as you try to engage the culture where you live with the Gospel in organic, spiritual, and creative ways.
We are actually taking a bit of a break in August; so, I will not have an instalment of Sprachspielen next month. I look forward to see you all again in September with another editorial on issues and terminology, which are important to our work and understanding what God has called us to do in this ministry. Until then, I pray that the Lord will bless you all.