Being a Witness Isn’t About “Winning” Souls: It’s About Dying to Self

In a follow-up to this post, there is another aspect of evangelism that needs to be re-thought for those coming out of fundamentalist or evangelical backgrounds.  Many of us were taught to think of evangelism as “winning souls.”  We were to engage, speak to, and “win” the person to Christ.  Yes, we knew we had to pray, we knew the Holy Spirit had to work, but we still were taught to think about this process as “winning.”  The very language of “winning” is unhelpful and actually negates, or downplays our supposed reliance upon the Spirit or prayer.  Further, “winning” has nothing to do with it.

I remember many pastors and deacons asking me and those around me: “Are you a soul winner”?  Although I know they did not mean it this way, what this quickly devolves into is: “Are you getting people to agree with you, see things your way, and then getting them on board with our program?”  And by “program” it meant the follow-up of making sure they understood baptism and reading Scripture like we do and coming to our church.

And this concept or paradigm of “winning” also, unfortunately, can easily lead one to think they are “winning” arguments or “winning” by wearing people down.  I actually remember Christians who thought they had “won” even if the person became angry and rejected their message.  In their view, the person just couldn’t handle the “truth,” was willingly rejecting the Holy Spirit’s leading, and clearly in rebellion against the things of God.  More often than not however, the person was really just rejecting them and the way they chose to practice “evangelism.”  News flash: Being a jerk is not winning.

So, let’s try and think about evangelism differently.  There are two passages in Scripture that can help us and these are also, ironically, two key passages used by evangelicals/fundamentalists and those who use the “winning souls” language.

The first is the “Great Commission” passage in the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)

See, it’s right there—plain as day.  It reads we are to go and witness, to verbally share our experience and faith and to then ask for a response.  Well, no, it doesn’t say that plain or otherwise.  It says we are to make “disciples.”  Making disciples is a process, a journey.  Making disciples is about a conversation between two people sharing lives together, over time.  Yes, it has to begin somewhere, but it hardly means just telling someone about your experience and faith.  And if that is all one does, then one is not doing what we are commanded to do in this verse.  The reason evangelicalism/fundamentalism is a mile wide and only an inch deep is because they think in terms of “witnessing” rather in terms of making disciples.  There is a huge difference between the two.

The second is Acts 1:8:

8 “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (ESV)

“Soul winners” are taught the importance of being a “witness,” which they seem to understand in only one sense, which is sharing their “testimony.”  They further understand this to mean a verbal telling of how they became a Christian and how the person they are sharing with can too.  Once the personal history part is shared, the conversation normally then moves into where the two are sharing abstract ideas about what they believe and why. The problem here is that the word “witnesses” or “witness” in the Greek is the word martyr.

Jesus is telling his followers that from now on, wherever they find themselves, they are to be his “martyrs”.  Okay…wait, what?  The Greek word martyr that we translate “witness” has more than one meaning.  Yes, it means being a first-person eye-witness of some person, event, or experience.  But how are we to communicate that testimony?  We focus too much on the communication part, the verbal telling, and not enough on the ethos of its conveyance.

There are layers to what it means to be a witness.  To be a “witness,” to be a “martyr” is really to live and die for the other.  That is our witness.  Jesus didn’t call us to “win” others to a way of thinking or the way we understand theology.  He calls us to die for our neighbor, or, our enemy.  How do we do that?  We live sacrificially.  We live with the other’s well-being in mind.  We live concerned about their physical needs as much as their spiritual needs.  We live aware of their needs before our own.  We live to raise them up, even if it means we lower ourselves.  It means we often listen more than talk.  It means we try to see things from their point of view.  It means we become their protector and advocate—especially if they are on the fringes, the outer layers of society—the “least” of these.  It means we journey with them as friends.

Christian: Quit trying to “win” souls and start trying to die to yourself instead.  That is being a witness; that is evangelism.

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