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Witnessing and
Knowing What to Say.

Abstract: We often fear witnessing opportunities because we are not sure what to say. This is a result of our ongoing fond feeling that witnessing always includes a Bible study and the sharing of spiritual truth regardless of how prepared and open the person might be to it. Instead of being blessed, individuals who already feel condemned in themselves, read in our words further condemnation, and therefore become offended and more closed to the gospel than being more open to it.

Another major fear in witnessing, is worrying about what to say. Should I share a Bible verse? Should I give my personal testimony? Should a mini Bible study be given on some distinctive truth if the opportunity arises? All of these could be appropriate, and have undoubtedly been done with good and blessed success. But there is an easier BETTER way—to start the conversation at least—which has been used with good success, and will work in ALL situations.

Simply put, instead of worrying about what to say, or worrying about what Bible verse to share, prayerfully look for ways to AFFIRM the other person. Let me put it another way: Look for ways to genuinely let the other person know you recognize them as a person of value.

I wish I could say this was my idea—it isn’t, it comes from the book Taking Men Alive by Charles Trumbull—who establishes what he refers to as the “honest commendation” principle in relating a story regarding a time when his father Clay was traveling on a train across the state of Connecticut. Sitting next to him was a man who occasionally drank whiskey from a bottle that he pulled out of his suitcase. The man also offered a drink to Trumbull’s father, which the latter kindly refused. This went on for some time and the father always said “no.” Finally, after another refusal, the man turned to his father and said: “Don’t you ever drink?”

Needless to say, this was THE “opportunity” Trumbull’s father had been waiting for, and one would expect he would have taken advanatage of the moment to respond to this man’s felt needs and given a mini study on temperance and the evils of alcohol. Most of us certainly would have anyway.

Which of course raises the question of what is the best way to respond to people’s felt needs (“felt needs” refers to areas in people’s lives where they need help, be it overcoming smoking, failed marriages, etc.). Churches put on “felt needs” seminars all the time, and undoubtedly provide real assistance to the people attending. Church members do the same things frequently on an individual basis. And sometimes really good things result. But what is the best way to respond? If they have come to a seminar on overcoming smoking, for example, it can be assumed that they are wanting to stop smoking.

But should we approach the man on the street or bus in the same way? Often the person on the street becomes highly offended, particularly if he or she doesn’t come from a Christian background, and would accuse us of condemning them if they were to openly share their feelings with us.

Jesus had a similar situation when he was working with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He was resting by the well at midday—providentially arriving there to meet the woman—and asked her for help. Without going into detail, in the end He asked her to get her husband, to which she confessed that she had no husband. Of course, and Jesus who knew everything told her that she not only had no husband, she had been married five times, and was presently living with a man outside of marriage. Now if that wasn’t condemning, especially in the context of her society, I don’t know what is.

Do you think someone would be happy to have their past failures described in such detail in our day and be happy to know us? I doubt it. But the Samaritan woman would later go and tell the people at the village, “Come see the man who knows all about me.” What a strange testimony, but it brought the whole village out.

When I was younger and reading this story, I used to think, “If I only knew about everyone, just think of the witnessing I could do.” But God in mercy didn’t give me that ability, because not knowing the secret that Trumbull discloses, I would have used the knowledge to condemn people and they would have become highly offended and more resistant to the gospel.

The Samaritan women had come to the well during the hot part of the day because EVERYONE knew about her, and EVERYONE was talking about her—they would be talking about her in our day too—and she wanted to avoid the stares and the muted conversations going on when she came around. There was nothing new about people knowing about her background.

But Jesus affirmed her—recognized her as a person of value—in seeking her help in obtaining water from the well. His words, and I think demeanor too, showed that He valued her in spite of what He knew, and she went and testified to the people in the village about the man who knew all about her.

The man sitting next to Trumbull queried him: “Don’t you ever drink?”
“No, my friend. I do not,” replied Trumbull.
“I guess you think I’m a pretty rough fellow,” said the man.

This was the opportune moment, and Trumbull who must have been praying for divine wisdom, wisely responded, “I think you are a very generous-hearted fellow.” He paused and then continued: “But I tell you frankly, I don’t think your whiskey-drinking is the best thing about you.”

The seatmate thoughtfully responded, “Well, I don’t believe it is.”
“Why do you keep it up, then,” asked Trumbull?

From that wise response came an extended conversation in which the young man spoke of his background, his family, the prayers of his mother, his falling in with bad company, etc., and eventually, his desire for something better.

Condemnation at the opportune moment would have ended the conversation. Most of us would have condemned the young man, not because we wanted to, but because FAILING TO AFFIRM IN A POSITIVE WAY, the person being witnessed to would have read in our words condemnation since they ALREADY FELT CONDEMNED WITHIN THEMSELVES and therefore assumed we also condemned them.

The important thing for now is recognizing that finding ways to affirm people is the BEST way to start when witnessing. Of course you don’t want your conversation to end there, and it may take time to get to spiritual matters, but if they are convinced you see them as a person of value and that you care about THEM, they will open their hearts to a conversation about other things—spiritual things, the Lord willing—eventually.

I believe this principle of “honest commendation” or affirmation, is the MOST IMPORTANT thing I have learned about witnessing. I will write more on this next time.

Happy witnessing


Should this be the first time you are reading these short essays on witnessing, you will find more of them either in the Christian Witnessing Works group on facebook or at path2prayer.com. Consider joining the group on facebook and please invite others to join the group. Thank you for only using them for personal purposes and asking me for other purposes. 12/12/2007