Monday, May 02, 2022

Anonymous Asks (195)

“Sometimes Christians comment about the need to be saved on unrelated YouTube videos. These comments get many thumbs up, but also make many people angry. Are they useful ways to witness?”

Each block near where I work has two or three parking meters. On the one I use most frequently someone has scratched “You need Jesus. Pray every day.” I have a friend who makes it his habit to attend protests, rallies, parades and major gatherings all over the city carrying a sign with a Bible verse on it. Then there is the classic “John 3:16” meme that has appeared for years in various forms at televised sporting events.

Like those YouTube comments from Christians that show up out of the blue where nobody is asking for them, these are all unsolicited expressions of faith in unexpected places intended to make people think about eternity.

Shots in the Dark

Are such spiritual ‘shots in the dark’ a good thing? They certainly can be. I find it refreshing to drive through the countryside and find that someone has rented an unused billboard to post a verse about Jesus. I don’t doubt that these unexpected confrontations with truth may sometimes be part of the process in bringing people to Christ. However, as our questioner points out, unsolicited expressions of personal opinion also have a tendency to draw heat. Is it really ideal for believers to witness in ways they know are likely to provoke public ire?

Let’s first distinguish between legal and illegal ways of witnessing. I’m all for witnessing illegally when the government makes it a crime to talk about your beliefs at all, but there is no value in witnessing illegally when you can do it while playing by the existing rules. Defacing public property is not the way to go even if the message you are sending is God’s own word. Renting or holding up a sign is still perfectly legal in most places, and sports venues often allow people to do it provided the message is not offensive, but it must be conceded that even the most discreetly religious sign will annoy some people. Then again, if picketers, protesters and advertisers are allowed to carry placards to which many object, what is one more variety in the mix? Many of the objections made to public expressions of faith are neither consistent nor reasonable.

Straddling the Fence

As for the YouTube comments on unrelated videos, I am on the fence. On the one hand it’s a relief from the snark, trolling and profanity which are so common in comment sections. On the other hand, random, unsolicited comments about Christ are not necessarily an irritant just because they are religious in nature, but because they are not on point. They are spam. They have nothing to do with the matter at hand. They are like the stranger who interrupts an ongoing conversation with a hearty “How about those Pirates, eh?” Almost everyone instinctively wishes he would just go away, not because the Pirates are a terrible team, but because they weren’t what you were talking about. The stranger is acting like an insensitive, tone-deaf child.

Christians need to be courageous about taking a stand for Christ, but courage needs to be tempered with a measure of discernment. Paul writes, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” If I may paraphrase, “Don’t barge in like a klutz. Look for situations where you are likely to get a hearing rather than ones where you are not.” Sensitivity to circumstances and audience is in order.

Direction from the Gospels

There is also some direction for witnesses in the gospels. The Lord Jesus reminded his disciples “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Sometimes you don’t know you are dealing with members of the animal kingdom until the pearls are already out there, but you can certainly avoid giving them a second opportunity to mock and sneer at precious truth. Jesus also told his disciples that once the message had been rejected, they were to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against the unresponsive individuals. The application for Christians trying to witness online: fly your colors, but don’t hang around where your audience makes it clear you are not wanted.

There is also a principle implicit in the fact that when God puts his word out there in the world, it is most effective when embodied; that is to say, when it comes with a living, breathing witness and interpreter. When a flood was coming, he sent a preacher of righteousness. When God gave the law to Moses, he gave the priesthood and Levites to explain it. If there was any further doubt, he sent prophets. And when he wanted to reveal himself most perfectly, he sent his own Son veiled in human flesh. Short version: don’t just do a drive-by, drop a verse or a Jesus meme in a comment section, and head for the hills. The most useful testimony will come through ongoing personal interaction with the other commenters. Don’t be afraid to show readers and viewers the real person behind your comments.

Ready to be Riled

There will always be people who are eager to take offense at any reminder of God, Christ or coming judgment. Sometimes this is because they are under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and struggling with a sense of guilt. We cannot stop witnessing publicly just because of a few outliers with undisclosed spiritual baggage or an unusual predisposition to become furious at the drop of a hat.

But other times the ire of people who encounter expressions of faith is simply a legitimate response to the fact that our interjection is intrusive. I note that when Paul entered a new town, he automatically gravitated toward locations where a little bit of religious discussion would not be out of place: synagogues, places of prayer, marketplaces and public venues where men gathered to converse. When hostility to the message became the general rule, he made his exit. He did not keep coming back where he had been told he wasn’t wanted.

By the time it gets to that point, we can be fairly sure our message has been heard as clearly as it ever will be.

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