Note: The following article has been excerpted from The Good and Beautiful Community, by James Bryan Smith.
Who should you witness to? What are the criteria in deciding who to share your faith with and when to share it? And finally, how do we go about it? The truth is, we are always witnessing, whether we know it or not. People are watching us, and our actions communicate something for good or for ill.
Having said that, I want to offer an exercise that will help us when we become more intentional about reaching out to others and drawing them into the life of faith. There are seven activities I have found helpful in the process, some of which will look different depending on our current relationship with the person we are witnessing to. If we know the person well, and he or she already trusts us, we can move more quickly through the process, even jumping all the way to the last act. Still, all of the previous parts are necessary because they remind us that we are not doing this alone but are relying on God at every juncture.
- Pray. The first thing we can do is pray for God to send us someone. This is a powerful prayer that nearly always gets answered, and soon. The Holy Spirit is far wiser and more knowledgeable than we are. He knows the needs of those we know. Pray not only for God to send those people your way, pray also that you would have eyes and ears to know it when they come. Perhaps there is a person who is already on your heart. Pray for that person and for God to create an opportunity to take a step toward faith sharing.
- Watch. Once you have prayed, keep watch. Ask God regularly: "Help me see who you are bringing me. Give me eyes of compassion. Let me know who it is and when I can take the next step." Remember the wisdom of the serpent.
- Reach out. Once you have a sense about who that person is and have sensed God preparing the relationship, find ways to reach out to the person in nonthreatening ways. Ask him or her to have coffee or to go to lunch. If this person is already someone you spend time with, reach out by asking nonthreatening yet searching questions, such as: "How are you feeling about life right now? What is working? What is missing?" If you do not know the person well, these questions will be too personal. Keep the conversation at a more basic level, but keep listening for clues to their heart.
- Listen. Listen well. This is so seldom done in our harried and hurried culture that it almost seems like a lost skill. Simply by listening you are demonstrating love. Listen for clues to the condition of the person's heart. What is he or she longing for? Struggling with? The best thing to ask yourself privately is, "Where do I think God is working in this person's life?" It may be healing from a divorce, the joy of a new job, or the grief of losing a loved one. Whatever it is, try to discover what the person cares about.
- Connect. It is at this stage that your understanding of the gospel (our God reigns and our God is with us) comes into play. If you have discerned what is pressing on the person's heart, try to connect his or her situation with the message of the gospel. Let's say you sense that a friend is struggling with grief over the loss of a loved one. Ask yourself, How does the gospel apply to her (or his) situation?
There are many ways, but three come to mind. First, Jesus defeated death; second, God stands with us in our darkness; and third, God can do great things through our pain. If the relationship is strong enough to bear it, you may want to make those connections verbally by asking questions such as, "What is giving you hope right now? What keeps you going?" If the person is open, you will probably get a long answer. Try to continue making connections between the person's condition and the good news you know—without preaching. You are in a dialogue at this stage. At some point you might be able to more explicitly draw the connection between what is happening in his or her life and what God has done and will do.
- Share. At some point you might be asked to tell your story or share your thoughts. If that happens, do not be afraid. There are some false narratives that prevent people from sharing their faith. While each of these is worth examining, let me simply say this: God is not asking us to be perfect or have all of the answers. God is asking us to invite people into an interactive life with the Trinity. The kingdom is not in trouble, as I like to say. It does not need a PR expert. The kingdom is just waiting for people to give it a chance.
Please forgive my non-pastoral tone, but I would simply say: "Get over it. Let go of your inhibitions." Remember Peter's advice: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is hi you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15-16). What I love about this verse is that it does not say: "You must go to seminary and study systematic theology, church history, apologetics and philosophy. Only then will you be fit to witness." It simply says, "Be prepared to tell people why you have hope—and do it with gentleness and respect." This means explaining how the message of the gospel has intersected your life.
This is not a time to explain. Just tell your story, how you came to know God, how God has been at work in your life. Be honest. Let the person know that you are not perfect, that you have struggled, but you nonetheless have put your confidence in God.
- Invite. At a certain point in your relationship, invite the person to join with you and other Christ-followers in some capacity. It may be in church. This is usually not very threatening, but it can be for some. You might want to invite him or her to spend time with you and some of your Christian friends in a social setting (dinner or a movie), and perhaps even a small-group Bible study. Some people find it less threatening to be with a group of five or six in a home than in a church with five hundred strangers. Another idea is to invite your friend to join you and other apprentices in a service project. This can be a powerful witness.
Above all, keep praying for this person. And be prepared for it to take time. The average time between when someone first begins seeking and when he or she actually makes a commitment of faith is 28 months. At a certain point you should invite the person to church or help him or her find a church. Though we may experience a key moment we call conversion, in truth we go through many conversions and develop new facets of our life with God, and the church is the only place that can do this.
Finally, trust God. The journey this person is on will have twists and turns you and I could never imagine, just as mine did. God will bring the right people at the right time. For now, you are privileged to be one person on that journey, telling your story and pointing your friend to the God who reigns.
—Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love, by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.