When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I attended a church in a denomination that was, let’s say, gung-ho about evangelism. I can remember one night hopping into a church van and going into downtown Baltimore to “witness” to people by handing out tracts.
Being 14 at the time, and a fairly new Christian, I wasn’t very good at “witnessing.” I would walk up to people, shove a tract in their hand, and then turn very quickly and walk away from them. Even if someone wanted to talk about what I had just handed them.
My most vivid memory of that night was being left behind by the church van in downtown Baltimore, and needing to figure out how to get home. Yes, the church people left me behind!
As a more mature Christian, and a more avid student of words, and The Word, I can look back on that night and realize how fruitless that kind of evangelism was. I was in a strange place, passing out little pieces of paper telling strangers whom I’d never see again that they were going to hell. Some “witness,” right?
When you think of the word “witness,” what comes to mind? For me, the most obvious thought is a person who testifies in a court of law about something they’ve seen or heard. A lawyer calls a witness to the stand, and asks them questions about whatever is pertinent, and the witness answers.
That’s what we, as Christians, should be doing as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that is in you.” In the context of the passage, Peter is talking about our actions when we are persecuted or slandered. We are told in verse 9 not to “repay evil for evil,” but to “bless…that you may obtain blessing.” In other words, in JESUS’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
Let’s note what Peter is saying.
First, “always be prepared to give an answer.” Some translations say “always be prepared to make a defense.” I like “give an answer,” mostly because it doesn’t sound so “defensive.”
Peter is telling us that people will ask us about our hope. We don’t have to shove a tract in their hand or preach at them. What we need to do is live our lives so conspicuously as disciples of Christ that people WANT to ask us…maybe NEED to ask us what it is that makes us hopeful in Christ.
We are to be prepared to give an answer “to anyone who asks.” This is where the preparation part comes in. Do you know how to talk to all of the people who are in your sphere of influence? Let me suggest that knowing how to answer anyone who asks means knowing who’s asking.
We should be cultivating relationships with people. We should be willing to get to know them, and more importantly, we should be vulnerable enough to allow them to get to know us. I cringe when I hear of people talking about trying to have a “relationship” with someone for the sole purpose of trying to convert them. My brothers and sisters, this is not how it ought to be! Jesus didn’t say “love your enemy unless they won’t convert, then blow them off.” If you’re trying to have a “relationship” with someone only to try to get them to become Christians, you’re doing relationship wrong.
Once we get to the point where we are in a relationship with someone who notices our hope, and starts asking questions about it, then we’re ready to share the Gospel with them, right?
Well, sort of.
When people start asking you questions about your faith, it’s a good idea to know where they’re coming from, because sometimes a question ISN’T just a question.
When most people ask questions about your faith, they’re coming from a specific background with specific experiences. Sometimes, a person will ask about your faith because their loved one has died of an incurable disease, and they want to know why. Or a person who has been burned by churches and Christians in the past might be looking for answers about church and Christians.
So, when someone asks questions about your faith, start by asking questions back. Get an understanding of why they’re asking the question. Get the subtext. Then you can start to share your faith at their level, where they are on their spiritual journey, and you can avoid discussions that get nowhere, or that cause the person to retreat deeper behind their spiritual wall.