Witness and Dialogue: Essential Elements in Christian Ministry Part 2 of 5 — Witnessing

By on February 28, 2024

The primary meaning of the English word “witness” indicates a person with first-hand knowledge of a fact or event. Witnesses testify in a court of law about discernible truth pertaining to a particular case, and their observations are taken as “testimony” or solemn affirmation. In matters of religion, persons witness, by declaring what they “know” to be the truth, from their own experience. In recent years, the word has come to denote a specific affirmation of faith, which is intended to encourage prospective new believers to make a similar declaration, so that people are said to witness to others by “sharing” their beliefs. By extension, the actions of believers can be said to be “good” or “bad” witness according to their consonance with assured norms of Christian (or Muslim, etc.) behaviour. Both the Greek and Arabic for witness have acquired profound religious significance by mistreating a person who offers the ultimate affirmation of assurance by dying for the faith: martyros and shahid.

Still in this third millennium of grace, Christians are dying for their faith in Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere, while millions suffer persecution because of their serene conviction that the truth they know in their hearts is worth more than the transitory benefits of denial. The blood of the martyrs has indeed been the seed of the church among peoples like the Jang Bor of the Upper Nile, where half a century of war has set a scene of death and sorrow as thousands turned to faith in Christ, and even to martyrdom at the hands of a ruthless enemy. But most Christians live in more tranquil contexts, whether they are in the spiritually tepid regions influenced by the secular movement called Enlightenment, vibrant multi-faith societies or small missionary outposts. Christian witness in these various milieu will naturally show some diversity, but there must be some broad, inclusive characteristics that we can ascribe to witness generally so that we can assess its relationship to dialogue.

Whether they are lonely sentinels on the frontiers of faith or busy executives in large urban parishes, bishops or laypeople, youth or elders, men or women Christians live their witness in their daily lifestyles as they speak and act ‘in their everyday surroundings. Our witness is not only what we say and how we say it, it is also what we do and how we do it. If we speak through loudspeakers and safely sidestep the risk of dialogue, at the same time we forego any chance of explaining our message. And we cannot evade the observation and judgment which our intrusion into other people’s lives will necessarily invite. Our words may be vigorous and inspirational, but our audience will measure the sincerity and effectiveness of our message m the balance of our deeds.

“Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (Rm 10:17) Christians need to understand the teachings of the church so they can have a ready answer “to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you”; yet we must give our account “with gentleness and reverence.” (I P 3:15) It is imperative for Christians to understand their faith in order to explain to others (and themselves) why they persist in following Jesus. If even a few people listen to a street preacher long enough to kindle their interest, it is their Christian neighbours who will in most cases be called to respond to their queries. It is not enough to baptize or dedicate infants and sit for a few hours in a pew every week; Christians need to prepare themselves for serious discussion, with people who may be hostile, suspicious, curious or perhaps sympathetic. All these Witness and Dialogue: Essentials in Christian Ministry enquirers will listen carefully to the replies, measuring them for logic and plausibility. The presentation of the Christian case is therefore important, but it is even more important to live according to the message.

Christian doctrine seems elaborate to many, Christians as well as others.

Besides the marvellous stories of Easter and Pentecost, Christians preach complex ideas like incarnation and redemption. These concepts are central to the Christian message, and anybody who would claim to be a follower of Jesus has to have some notion of their import or risk serious embarrassment and disappointment. Catechesis is therefore a critical component of the Church’s witness, both in the reception of new converts and in the education of the children of parents who are already in the church. Nevertheless, we must insist that even in training, practice is more important than fluency.

Earnest simplicity always evokes more conviction among the faithful and more respect among their neighbours than eloquent teaching diluted by a casual or impious lifestyle.

Witness is an individual responsibility, requiring each believer to show that the gospel makes a real difference in daily life. Witness is also a collective responsibility, and the church is the community of believers who are called out of the society to bear common testimony to the good news about Jesus.

Attendance at communal activities like worship services and study groups helps each person to broaden awareness and deepen faith, and the regular assembly of a congregation offers the surrounding community its own evidence of solidarity and commitment. Of course, the way a parish works together and serves its members also provides a discernible measure of its engagement.

Equally important, especially in today’s pluralistic societies, is the nurturing of mutual respect and family affection among the various expressions of Christian faith which may be present, even when the total number of Christians is very small. Charity begins at home, and if the Christians cannot show love for one another in keeping with Jesus’ own prayer (Jn 17), they will have little success in witnessing to the love of God in the wider population. An exchange of greetings is a good beginning, but vigorous evidence of interdenominational harmony will generally be indispensable in persuading outsiders that the church is an authentic instrument of love for God and neighbour. Here again, it will be necessary for believers to understand their differences so they can confirm one another’s witness to the essential truth which they claim to share.

Christian witness, then, is the means by which Jesus’ followers prove the authenticity of their faith, to themselves, to one another and to their neighbours. Oral witness will certainly entail verbal exposition of a variety of types, from monologues like sermons or lectures through discreet conversations to group discussions. Witness will also involve our actions and attitudes as these give substance to what we say. In every situation, Christians are called to speak the truth (as they understand it) and to act in love and to the extent that they can influence the situation, to have peaceful; with everyone else. Circumstances will occasionally be so adverse that witness will lead to suffering and even death. Whether they must live in constant danger or in relative comfort, sincere Christians will respond to their faith by loving God and their neighbours and encouraging similar positive behaviour from those around them.

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt 5: 16)





  • Stuart E Brown

    The Rev Dr Stuart E Brown is a retired priest, formerly the Principal of the Kootenay School of Ministry

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