In Christianese, there’s hardly a word that pulls more weight than witness. It acts as a verb, noun, and more in evangelicals’ jargon. But in recent years, they clearly care less and less about it or its importance. They only use it to justify their worst behavior. Today, let’s explore what this term means and how evangelicals use it.
(From introduction: One example of how one set of Amway uplines behave in private.)
(This post first went live on Patreon on 11/2/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and should be available now!)
Christianese 101: Witness
We have lost our witness — the witness that convicts others and strongly testifies that God is still God and is very, very real. We have lost the witness that demonstrates that God is a personal God in a very impersonal world. The witness that says, “What I do proves God exists.” [The Coming Perfect Storm; someone also reprinted it here so I archived it off]
In basic Christianese, witness can perform many roles as a word. Catholics talk about it as well and use it in similar ways, but this is mostly an evangelical word. For the most part, they seem to get the idea of a witness from the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 15, the author talks about Jesus having appeared after his resurrection to “more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living.” The author then goes on to discuss the possibility of Christians being false witnesses if their god never held a resurrection of the dead.
(If it had happened, by the way, chances are his assertion would be true. Experts place this chapter at about 55 CE. Weird how not a single mother’s son of them wrote a damn thing about it in those intervening two decades, isn’t it?)
As a noun, witness means something similar to the secular sense of it: Someone who was present for an event or situation. Examples:
- “. . . [T]hat’s one of the ways that they are able to build relationships necessary in order to be a gospel witness.” [Russell Moore]
- “A humble and hospitable approach to the sacra pagina holds great promise, for personal study and discipleship but especially for community worship, witness, and discernment.” [Uniting Grace]
The event/situation that evangelicals think they witnessed can vary, but it usually involves Jesus and his supposed resurrection, their god’s nature, the Bible’s supposed veracity, etc.
Evangelicals then warp that noun into an action word. As a verb, it means something similar to personal evangelism. Examples:
- “But, anyway, we went witnessing at a large campus recently with some friends.” [Mark Cahill Ministries]
- “I tried to witness to some of my friends, and rebuked my brother for his cussing; but my own life was far from right with God.” [Mark Bullen]
- “We will briefly examine a few approaches to witnessing and possible hindrances.” [Preparing for the Kingdom]
- “It is well for us to be reminded that our supreme task is to Witness.” [A reeeeeally old Bible study by H.F.S. Adams]
- This entire thread at Puritan Board
From there, evangelicals turn the word into a personal quality. It encapsulates their credibility as Christians, their law-abiding nature, and their quality as evangelists all at once. This is likely the sense of the word that evangelicals use most often. Examples:
- “There is another argument that could say, especially when you are living in an ancient world where a lot of meat was being sacrificed to idols, that the way that a Christian could maintain his or her witness is not to be eating meat at all.” [Russell Moore]
- “Does it damage our witness to express vocal support for Trump? Probably — but how much; and how much is too much?” [Tom Gilson]
- “[O]thers are saying Christians have tarnished their witness and worse.” [Chris McCombs]
- “It may be that Christians have lost our witness in this culture entirely because we have lost the unshakable confidence our fathers had.” [Dorman Followwill]
- “At any time, but certainly in this moment of fracture and antagonism, the church’s best witness is a practiced unity in the body of Christ visible enough to a watching world.” [Christian Courier]
As you might tell, a lot of evangelicals are really hung up on the idea of losing their witness.
But they’re not hung up on it enough.
How to cultivate a good witness, according to evangelicals
When it comes to cultivating a good witness, evangelicals make the same mistakes they do around love and compassion. They forget that it’s the targets of their efforts who label them loving or unloving, kind or cruel. Similarly, it’s the people observing them who decide if they’re credible evangelists for their religion. By slicing out the necessity of input from outsiders, evangelicals can run right off the rails. (Ironically, these folks also drastically oppose self-ID for trans people.)
Even so, evangelicals find themselves torn constantly by their opposing, downright-dualistic needs to dominate others and to sell their only product (active membership in their own group). That’s how you find downright crazymaking posts in the Christ-o-sphere like this one, written around the beginning of the pandemic. Author Levi Secord, a basic fundagelical culture warrior pastor, wonders aloud:
Is this really the best way to shape our witness? Is submission to worldly reasoning and unlawful secular authority the hallmarks of a faithful testimony? While Christians making these arguments may care for the souls of the lost, they may also just be afraid of what the cool kids will think of them. What message does our submission send? And to whom does this witness really appeal?
Obviously, the answer—to him, arrived-at in his own echo chamber of a mind—is to defy mask regulations and closures. That’s obviously the best way to cultivate a great witness with normies. Yep yep.
An evangelical writing for The Gospel Coalition (TGC) dilutes the idea of being a witness as far as he can by conflating it with the credibility of evangelicals in general:
Our witness is not primarily a matter of individual Christian reputation but a matter of our corporate, congregational reputation.
He’s just upset that individual evangelicals are distancing themselves from their more obnoxious brethren. He feels that this distancing makes recruitment more difficult for the rest of ’em. But he’s not the only person thinking that. The Christian Courier guy thinks so too.
No, really: How to cultivate a good witness, according to evangelicals…
Most guides online about having “a good witness” are really just evangelism guides. They only consider witness as a verb. But a few actually tackle the question of how to cultivate a good witness.
At InterVarsity Collegiate Ministries, we find a 5-point listicle about how to “improve your witness on campus.” Here it is:
- “Unplug and be available. [. . .] Take time to engage people who sit next to you in class or on the bus.”
- “Stop complaining. [. . .] Sometimes it sounds like students try to outdo one another in the complaint department.”
- “Pray for encounters. [. . .] Ask God to place people into your daily life who might be open to spiritual conversations about Jesus and the gospel. Greet people with the prayerful expectation that you might start an amazing conversation together.”
- “Learn to ask questions and practice active listening. [. . .] You’ll be surprised at ways you will be able to respond as they in turn ask you what you think.”
- “Reflect God’s heart for people as you learn his ways. [. . .] If you commit to getting to know God’s Word, you will find yourself not only listening to the people you meet, but also caring for them deeply. You will ache for them to know Jesus and become a part of God’s kingdom and a community of believers, on campus and in a local church.”
The author of that post, Jeff Yourison, notably doesn’t mention how many converts he’s scored in his (long) lifetime using these principles. But the goal for him, as he reveals in his last paragraph, is really just encouraging college students to open sales conversations anywhere at any time with anyone.
9Marks, a Calvinist evangelism umbrella group, offers only three items:
- “Be present.” That means get out into the community so you’re seen.
- “Be faithful.” In other words, act like you’re following your own behavioral rules.
- “Be together.” Hang out often with other TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Do good deeds with them that the community at large will notice. That way, “our witness might be amplified.”
…And how to destroy a good witness, according to evangelicals
Only a few listicles add in a caveat about hypocrisy. Raising Everyday Disciples makes that very clear in their very first listicle item, “Being a Witness Involves Both Word and Deed.”
Our good deeds don’t save us, but are our proper response to the saving grace given to us. Then in turn, people see our good deeds and are drawn to this glorious God that we serve!
The fact that we can care about and enjoy the same things as our non-Christian neighbors (in the world ) without being conformed by sinful ways of living or thinking ( not of the world) shows our neighbors the transformative effects of the gospel.
Otherwise, evangelicals only talk about destroying their witness in articles that specifically address that situation. A blog called Empowering Everyday Women describes seven points of hypocrisy that “undermine” Christians’ witness. These include the usual suspects: Vulgarity, judgementalism, shows of anger and mean-spiritedness, arrogance, materialism, and something they call “being unrepentant.” It just means owning your mistakes and apologizing/making amends for any harm you cause. (An evangelical mommy blog, Mom’s Devotions, takes a similar view. So does Restore the Paths.)
Considering how obvious it is to us that hypocrisy destroys Christians’ witness, evangelicals don’t tend to think like that. They’re immersed in hypocrisy 24/7/365, so they don’t understand what a dealbreaker it is for outsiders. Any time they confront that fact, they tend to fall back on a listen to what I say, not what I do exhortation like my Evil Ex Biff did back in college. In fact, a writer for Table Talk magazine, Jonathan Landry Cruse, asserts that “getting caught in a sin” is bad, but “failing to witness at all” is far worse. He thinks it builds a Christian’s witness to confess their sins to their sales targets.
Yeah, Biff thought that too. I bet these two have similar sales success.
Wait. Wait just a damn minute. Isn’t being a good witness just lifestyle evangelism?!?
Yes, yes it is. In fact, it is exactly like lifestyle evangelism.
That’s another Christianese term. It means Jesusing very obtrusively in one’s everyday life in the hopes that someone will ask what makes them what makes them, I dunno, so DIFFERENT I guess. That question opens the door for a sales pitch.
So in lifestyle evangelism, the Christian salesperson never starts with an active sales pitch. Instead, they just use their product in a way that normies can easily see. The idea here is that the normies will be drawn in to this display like flies to honey. As TGC puts it in their guide to witnessing at work:
Though we are called to profess our faith to others, to give a spoken account for the hope within us, we are also called to practice our faith before others. Yes, we witness by our words, but we also witness by our work. The excellence of our work often gives us the credibility to speak of the excellence of our Lord Jesus and to share the good news with our coworkers.
Even if Christians’ awesome witness doesn’t ever raise any questions, they can still rest assured that they planted a seed. That means they slip Jesus roofies into their observers’ metaphorical drinks. One day, that seed will totally grow and flower into openness to a sales pitch. Here’s how Word, Life, Light describes this process:
A personal example for me of an invisible seed growing in my life would be the quiet witness of a family who I spent time with as a teenager during my conversion. They did not impose their beliefs on me, but simply invited me to join them for Mass when I would like. I went along at first, just noticing what was going on but not really changing my external actions at that point. I was just taking it all in. But silently and slowly, something was changing in me.
The best evangelism remains that by our love—for the Lord, for each other, and for the lost—that an unbelieving world will be attracted to our Savior. Like Jesus, when we demonstrate selfless, stubborn, sacrificial love, we will have the undeniable effect that Jesus had: the world will be both repulsed yet attracted by God’s irresistible love in us.
Coffee’s for closers only. A-ALWAYS, B-BE, C-CLOSING. Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!
But if evangelicals call it building a witness, which implies that at some point verb-form witnessing will definitely happen, then that’s okay, I suppose.
Slicing the lifeline to outside feedback
As I mentioned, evangelicals keep forgetting that they’re not the ones deciding if they have good witnesses or bad ones. They’re not the ones who decide if they’re building a good witness or destroying one. That right belongs to those folks outside their tribe who engage and encounter them.
We’ve already seen one fundagelical culture warrior today contorting himself into knots to justify his refusal to wear a mask. He decides that this refusal totes for realsies marks a great witness for him and his tribemates. It’s almost like he set out to demonstrate those Bible verses that evangelicals all hate to apply to themselves:
The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. [Proverbs 12:15]
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. [Proverbs 14:12]
There is a way which seems right to a person, But its end is the way of death. [Proverbs 16:25]
Similarly, evangelicals always find a way to ignore rules they don’t want to follow. And because they are self-justified and respect no outside authorities in these matters, they never fail at the task. Even Jesus always agrees with them! Amazing, innit?
But there is one group that notices where this self-justification leads. Dysfunctional authoritarians know their own, and they hear these siren calls. Whenever evangelicals pat themselves on the back for having such wonderful witnesses, it repulses most normies, who see them as hypocrites and worse. But it attracts existing Christians who yearn for an ideology that allows them to trample and mistreat others with Jesus’ very own permission slip.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
They sure like slamming heathens with these verses, but—like with the ones about fools—this condemnation applies to them so much better. Evangelicals have far, far more to fear from any good and loving gods than any of us do.
What a truly good evangelical witness would mean
Here’s the funny thing, though:
If evangelicals consistently displayed a good witness to us heathens, that’d really be something to consider, wouldn’t it?
Imagine millions of Christians who weren’t total hypocrites. For a moment, imagine evangelicals who weren’t part of their tribe in the first place because they just wanna abuse and control others, or to get cheap-n-easy tickets out of Hell (what their leaders call “fire insurance,” and approve wholly as an evangelism tactic), or to take advantage of all the cheap substitutes evangelicalism offers its adherents. Imagine millions of Christians banding together to end hunger, poverty, human trafficking, hate crimes, and more.
With their numbers, a consistent good witness would be world-changing for sure. Alas, they can’t even react like decent human beings to horrific natural disasters and violent conflicts.
Of course, I wouldn’t consider it slam-dunk evidence that a real god animates their religion, but I’d sure be curious about how such terrible, misogynistic, exclusionary social rules resulted in so much compassion, charity, and kindness. I’d wonder how such an obvious victim-blaming, fear-oriented mess of a religion resulted in consistent rule-following and law-abiding.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. A truly consistent, reliable, and good witness is out of evangelicals’ reach. It always has been. In the real world, evangelicals are largely hypocrites.
And evangelicals don’t even care
In recent years, evangelicals have only grown less and less interested even in pretending to want to show the world a good witness. Just look to any encounter they have with normies on social media for evidence there.
They aren’t acting like the ambassadors of a living god. Hell, they aren’t even acting like competent salespeople. And indeed, they can’t.
Instead, they increasingly act like enraged, tribalistic narcissists defending their turf and trying to vanquish their enemies. The only time they display any kindness to others is when they want to score sales.
Don’t make any mistakes, however: To an extent, they’ve always been like this. Decades ago, they scored endless sales and growth despite their hypocrisy. Their product was mandatory back then, so they could get away with ignoring their rules and acting like sacks of rancid assholes to everyone they perceive as inferior to themselves.
But nowadays, it’s more important than ever that evangelicals demonstrate that they actually believe what they say they do. And they’ve completely dropped the ball there. In response to outsiders’ increased scrutiny and criticism of their behavior, they’ve decided to act out even worse and relabel their behavior as a good witness—when it’s really the dead opposite!
In a lot of ways, that’s why Christianity is in decline. That’s why nobody—not even evangelical survey houses—gives evangelicals even half a chance of recovering their former cultural dominance. Overall, they’re terrible people with terrible groups who do terrible things to themselves and others, and if there’s a choice about hanging out with them, people tend to decline the opportunity.
This world understands hate, wrath, tribalism, and control-lust very well. After all, we all deal with it every day. We know the propaganda talking-points and methods of those consumed by these things.
What really stops people in their tracks is genuine love.
If, as a general group, evangelicals glowed with genuine love, it’d be tough to argue with. Nobody’d have any problem with evangelicals at all if they actually possessed the qualities they self-identify as having.
But it’d take a miracle for that to happen. And no gods seem interested in helping them out there.
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