This article also appears in our congregational newsletter, The Hope Lutheran, for September 2010.
A Scary Story
However, one thing disappointed this young lady: the very guilt-laden “missions” message pushed by presenters. Gathering presenters may have meant well in teaching the youth to bear witness to Jesus, but their message actually ended up burdening the young people. The presenters were so focused on prompting these Lutheran youth to carry out the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ (a.k.a. “witnessing to Jesus”) that the youth felt guilty for not witnessing enough. That’s how this pastor’s young daughter received the message, but it’s hardly the way to teach people on the Church’s mission.
The scary side of the story did not end there though. As the true story goes, many of the youth went on a tour of a New Orleans cathedral. As the group was touring inside the large space dedicated to worship and prayer, my friend’s daughter got separated from the group as she was looking at something else. All of a sudden an older man, evidently homeless and dressed in tattered and dirty clothes, approached the young lady. The man told her that he was an atheist and began mocking religion in general.
Guilty for Not Witnessing?
What makes this part of the story so scary is the moral dilemma that flooded the young lady’s mind. Should she stay and try to “witness” to this obviously bitter and unbelieving man, or should she return to her tour group and its certain safety? She knew she should have paid more attention and stayed with her group, but now she was also feeling guilty for wanting to flee to safety and not witness to this unbelieving homeless man. She chose to leave the confrontational man and return to her tour group. However, as she did, she also felt incredibly guilty. She had not, in fact, witnessed to that older man. And wasn’t that, after all, the message she had been hearing at the gathering?
An Instructive Story
However, here’s where this story transitions from being scary to becoming instructive. It actually instructs in what not to do and how not to teach Christian witnessing.
This pastor’s daughter was exactly correct in seeing through the “missions” presentations for what they really were: burdensome guilt trips dressed in the sheep’s clothing of “witnessing to Jesus.” She was also exactly correct in fleeing from the stranger and returning to her tour group. She need not feel guilty about “not witnessing” to him. Rather, she actually did witness to him. How? By returning to her God-given vocation of being a) a student learning about the cathedral, b) a participant in the youth gathering, and c) a daughter who needed to return home to her family safe and sound.
At first we might think: “But how do those things bear witness to Jesus?” That’s easy. The young lady bore witness that she is a Christian by learning more about that cathedral (That was her purpose at that place and time.), by returning to and staying with the group of Christians that brought her there (She was under the care of gathering chaperones.), and by loving and honoring her parents (Remember what mom and dad said about not talking to strangers?). Believe it or not, this young lady did show that she is a Christian in these very normal and ordinary ways.
No, she did not spark up a conversation about Jesus with that confrontational stranger. But let’s be honest, such conversations born out of such confrontations rarely “make disciples.” If anything, a quick and off the cuff talk about Jesus and religion most likely would only further solidify that man’s hard-hearted hostility toward Christ and His Church.
The Joy of Mission Work
Should this young lady—and we—be concerned about lost, unbelieving people such as the stranger in the cathedral? Of course! It’s basic Christian love. Now there’s the proper motivation for “mission work” (a.k.a. “missions,” “evangelism,” “outreach”).
When “mission work” is taught in a burdensome, guilt-giving manner, it’s usually done with some kind of self-serving purpose—a purpose such as increasing the size of an institution or ensuring institutional survival (either of a congregation or of a whole church body). That’s hardly Christian love for the lost neighbor!
The joy of witnessing to Jesus comes not in keeping tabs on how many times we’ve sparked a conversation about Him with unsuspecting people around us. Rather, it comes from living as God’s redeemed children and enjoying the forgiveness and life that He freely gives in His Gospel and Sacraments. It comes from faithfully receiving His goodness and mercy in the Divine Service.
The joy of witnessing to Jesus shows as we love our neighbors enough to want them to enjoy the forgiveness and life that Jesus brings for them too. We certainly invite them to join us in the Divine Service at church, where they get to hear the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them. Most of the time, though, witnessing to Jesus simply means living in our God-given vocations—such as father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, worker, citizen, etc.—and showing that we Christians live differently than other people around us. We spend time with our families and learn the Word of God together; we work diligently at our jobs; we do works of mercy for those in need; we love and pray for one another, both inside and outside the Church.
As one of my professors once said, witnessing to Jesus is as simple as: “Pray, and when you get a chance, say.” Pray for your neighbor who does not yet know Jesus Christ, and then when the time comes, speak of Him and what He has done for you and your neighbor. St. Peter said it well: “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
If our mission work is lackluster, it’s probably because we do not find our joy of life in Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen. However, when we cling to our Savior and treasure the boundless depths of His forgiveness, grace, and life, then our joyous mission properly – and naturally – falls into place.