Witness. What is it? This is the question that is presented in the fourth sign-post of Prodigal Christianity. The answer is not quite so easy, though, to present. We think, in our churches, that we know what it means to be a witness, to witness to people, and to get involved in witnessing to others about the gospel. These are phrases that we hear frequently in the more conservative evangelical congregations. It has become our vocabulary and our own set of idioms. And, as a result, not only do others not know what we are talking about, but neither do we.
Witness and post-Christendom
David and Geoff continue the pattern of the previous signposts by first presenting the reality in which we live. Using a pop-culture story, they point out that the term “witness” is more than just someone who observed something. Being a witness is a participatory role. When you are a “witness” for someone or something, you are actively involved in making that someone or something known to everyone around you. For our world today, our “witness” as the church of Jesus has fallen flat. The authors write
Jesus came proclaiming and making present the Kingdom of God. But where is the evidence of this new in-breaking of God’s kingdom? And where is the witness? This kingdom sometimes seems like another failed media campaign, a message that is simply not true. pg 49
From a personal experience, the authors point out that there is a hunger for truth in a world where truth is presented as relative and fleeting. But people want more than just a passive presentation, they want an engaging witness that entices encounter with God.
From here, David and Geoff present the two responses that have arisen within the established Christian churches to address this problem. Now, I’ll say that, while I appreciate this discussion on what is not working, the way it is presented generalizes and stereotypes the two positions. I’m fairly sure there is a lot more nuance in two presented “camps” than the rather stark black-and-white choices. Perhaps there should be some acknowledgement of that spectrum in the text. But, while Fitch and Holsclaw have some decent criticism of McClaren, it is a McClaren image that helps me to frame this. The two positions are extremes on the spectral line between the two positions. But what if there is something that is not on that line, not on that spectrum, but other? This image, presented in McClaren’s A New Kind of Christian has helped me to phrase this kind of conversation.
One side: Defending the Truth
So, the authors present the spectrum that Christians caught up in Christendom find themselves split between or somewhere along the spectrum. On one hand, we have the defenders of the truth. To give witness means to become apologists in the truest sense of the word. In the many realms of science, politics, philosophy, etc., witnesses of the Kingdom need to give a defense for their world view to proclaim the truth boldly. While truth is important and we cannot deny it, this has the unfortunate effect of making the gospel more of an intellectual exercise of accepting a set of facts and information and accepting them as “absolute”. Additionally, because of the necessity of accepting propositional truth, the methodology of witness becomes a distant, unrelational confrontation and not in keeping with incarnation (signpost 3).
Flip Side: Conversation
On the flip side, is a more listening posture. Rather than propositional declarations and hard-lined defenses, we have Christians who engage in the process of conversation about issues and topics. And, just like defending the faith is good, these conversations are good. They are opportunities for people to question, explore, seek, and even wrestle with doubts in an environment that was non-threatening. However, on this end of the spectrum, there is an inactivity that happens. A lot of conversation goes on, a lot of listening and wrestling, but very little gets done. Here is where my previous critique comes to play in that I believe that the Emergent community does act in some ways. However, I understand what Geoff and David are saying. If there is nothing to stand on and everything is subject to conversation, there is no launch pad then into action. How can you act on something if it still is being talked about?
With these two ends of the spectrum, Fitch and Holsclaw present the key “prepositions”. ” More than a pronouncement of the truth or a conversation about the truth, the church is called to be a witness to the truth. (p 58)” Pronouncement declares with no argument or conversation. Conversation is open but with nothing to stand on. Witness, however, points to something actively and, as the authors point out, actually make it real to those who are receiving the witness.
A Third Option: Incarnational Witness
It is at this point that I started whispering silent “amens” while I read. Witness, for Fitch and Holsclaw, is not something you say or talk about, it is something you are. It is “an entire way of life that points to and embodies the reality of Kingdom in the world (p 59)”. In many, many conversations I’ve had over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to express that, if we want to truly tell the world about Jesus, about the Kingdom, about this in-breaking new reality, our best method for doing so is for ourselves to embody it in our every day lives. What we do and who we are give witness to God’s Kingdom. I was glad to see that the authors pointed out that this is not something we do on our own but it is something that is only possible through the Spirit that indwells us. It is when we are in this position of actually living the Kingdom in our daily lives, empowered by the Kingdom to do so, that we are then “qualified to give evidence”. To speak about the Kingdom and not actually be able to demonstrate it disqualifies us as witness.
By living the life of the Kingdom, we point to that Kingdom from where we are. We are in that “far away country”, living in a way that gives witness to the existence of the Kingdom that we call home. This simple act of being present, of being available, of living life in and among people, gives the witness to the Kingdom. Again, the emphasis is that such life is available only by the Spirit, but we are the ones who, by living that way, testify to the world who we are and, more specifically, who God is and his redemptive plan for the world.
Witness is Social
Up to this point in this “signpost”, witness seems to be something that is done individually. It is something that, on my own, I can do and I can be a witness. But the authors don’t leave it like that. They point out that, as part of that witness, there is reconciliation both vertically and horizontally and so it is inherently a social act. I cannot be a witness on my own about a Kingdom where people are taken care of, where justice reigns, and where relationships are healed if I am the only person doing it. Community is necessary for this witness and, therefore, witness MUST be a social event. This is a very necessary point for our very individualized society. It speaks counter-culturally to say that, no, we cannot stand on our own. It is through the community that we get the glimpse of the Kingdom. The love incarnated in Jesus finds its truest expression in the relationships between people.
One thing that I appreciate about this book is how the authors tie each part together. With this chapter on witness, they point back to the other signposts to show how witness plays a role in all three. Living differently in a post-Christian world is a witness. Living while pointing towards God and God’s mission is a witness. Living in and among people as the incarnate body of Christ is a witness. All the signposts work together, to this point, in a synergy. But we cannot witness without knowing to what we are witnessing.
So, David and Geoff wrap up these first 4 signposts with an important point. They point out that God is already at work. God’s Spirit is not contained within the church building or limited to only the presence of believers, it is out and moving in the world around us. If we are to be witnesses, we need to be able to see what God is already doing and already involved in. This takes patient, thoughtful, prayerful discernment. Like the early church had to do at the Jerusalem Council, we need to discern and recognize the Spirit moving and then acknowledge that movement as witness in our own actions and lives.
Prodigal Missional/Prodigal Anabaptism
Now that we know what we are to do as witnesses, we can move forward to the next signpost, that of Scripture and its role in the prodigal Christianity. But in this chapter on witness, I heard a lot of the Anabaptist and missional thought that I’ve come to treasure, thought that is more than just another church program but a way of life. I heard John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and the radical witness to the powers of living life counter-culturally and exposing injustice for what it is. I heard Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society with actions and deeds that entice and demand questions from those who observe, and answers and words to those questions that give meaning to the life presented. And I heard Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed with a subversion of the society and culture by living a radically different life. And I heard, above all, the witness of my own personal ancestors through the years who have lived life against the grain in their Mennonite communities, showing the world a different-flavored life that, while peculiar and strange, pointed to something radically different and how those same Mennonites engaged the world around them in 1W service, voluntary service, and in submitting to injustice because of their radical views.
While what was the church method and means 60 years ago wasn’t wrong, I think it is time for those of us who have understood this radical witness to encourage other Christians around us seeking to know what it looks like. It is time for us to enter that strange, foreign country, following the prodigal God, and witnessing to that same God’s work at redeeming and reclaiming the world.
My final admonition: read this book. We need this kind of teaching today.