Many of us came of age in a generation taught that the requirements for faithful discipleship with Jesus were daily Bible study, prayer, and witnessing. The first two could be done in private, the last required a foray into the public square.

Personal witnessing was the natural outflow of filling the well of one’s spirit with regular prayer and Bible study. It was also a necessary part of mission outreach. When Adventists gathered in a city for a youth conference, a noted speaker would come to inspire the youth, workshops would be held on techniques of witnessing, and the armies of youth, rightly trained, would take to the streets to apply what they had learned. They would sweep through the malls and parks, often in matching T-shirts, to hand out literature to startled shoppers and pedestrians.

It was urgent to get the information into the hands of the public. The belief in the power of the message to persuade was implicit. Our job was simply to spread the literature “like the leaves of autumn” and trust that the Holy Spirit would take it from there. But we were also taught that if we had the opportunity to witness to someone and didn’t take it, the responsibility for their soul would be on us in the Judgment. The sight of people stuffing the literature into the nearest trash bin was not cause for an adjustment of techniques. It simply meant that they had hardened their hearts against the entreaties of the Spirit.

As a summer youth pastor in California in the ‘70s, I received training in evangelistic outreach methods. These were usually modeled after Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ tactics. Conference youth ministry leaders were constantly refining their methods and creating handouts, brochures, pins, and other materials that could be used in witnessing efforts. I tried my best, gamely going where I had not gone before. But my heart was not in it.

I wasn’t sure why I was so reluctant to witness. After all, I was a religion and journalism double major. I had been involved in religious activities in high school and my year at Newbold College in England working in the Gate, a Christian music and conversation center, had enlivened and confirmed my love for Christ.

My my junior year in college, I knew that being a pastor was not my calling. I hoped to parlay my fascination with religion and its meaning into an academic career, and that my love of writing could somehow be of use in drawing people to Jesus.

In the classroom I found my vocation, my calling. In teaching religion, communications, ethics, and philosophy courses, I was able to speak freely of the spiritual life and, when asked, “give answer to the hope that was within me.” With my students, I got involved with feeding the homeless in Washington, DC, working alongside local activists. Our campus organization also supported students working for Big Brother/Big Sister programs and we often spoke at local churches and academies in the Columbia Union Conference. I found this a solace for my soul because it was personal, direct, and authentic.

I taught a college course on “Persuasion and Propaganda” for many years. It helped me understand why I am crosswise with most public evangelism methods. First, I recognized how powerful crowds can be in swaying individuals to give up their will. The methods that many evangelists use is on the spectrum from persuasion to propaganda, with some tools differing only in degree from coercion. A skilled evangelist can produce ends, no matter the means used.

Second, I was not convinced that television was an effective means of evangelism. I agreed with Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “The medium is the message.” That is, if television is primarily an entertainment medium, then no matter what goes into it, entertainment will come out of it. The medium itself changes the message. Granting that television can draw millions of people world-wide to the same event and unite them momentarily in sympathy or excitement, it does not allow for the natural intimacy when people honestly share face to face about the Spirit’s movement in their hearts.

I am moved by dramas I see on television. When the writing is superb, the actors fully invested in their characters, the direction, cinematography, lighting, and music are inspired, the experience can bring tears of appreciation to my eyes. Likewise, the concerts I’ve attended in which the musicians are not only consummate artists, but they create a communion for thousands of people—those moments are spiritual ones for me. But I am a spectator, deeply involved, but still a person watching, listening, appreciating—at a distance.

I have realized that Jesus calls us to use the talents we have in the ways that are true to who we are. Like many teachers, I am an introvert. I could walk into a classroom with joy, engage every student as I was able, sparkle, be effervescent, draw them into rich discussions, and then gratefully return to my office where I could study, research, and write. Teaching provided opportunities to be a listener in a natural movement of empathy. When appropriate, I prayed with students and, when asked, gave advice—although the longer I was a teacher, the more reluctant I was to tell students what they should do. That too, was witnessing.

I began this essay recalling how prayer, Bible study, and witnessing were set before us young butterflies while yet in our cocoons. I still believe in and practice the first two, realizing that “practice” is the operative word for my stumbling efforts. But my understanding of evangelism and witnessing has necessarily evolved over the years.

In the past two years, and more, of the pandemic, my social ties were loosened in person and strengthened online. I have only been to church once in more than 120 Sabbaths, and that was for the memorial service of a beloved church member who died of COVID. I write poetry and post it online. I Zoom with a friend in England once a week. I keep up a sporadic correspondence with friends around the world. My family and my online Sabbath School class are my confidants. All this witnesses to the lifelines God throws to me daily.

I leave the science and art of persuasion to others. I reach out to read, understand, and experience the ways and means that people up and down the centuries have used to come into the presence of the holy. When I walk every morning before dawn, I witness the beautiful complexity of life in the forest. I breathe in, I breathe out. What I take in gives me a reason to give back to people as I can. What I learn teaches me what I can pass along.

We witness to and we witness for. We are witnesses to the ways God’s presence shimmers in and out of our lives. We are witnesses to God’s absence also. We are witnesses for Jesus when the Spirit calls us, giving us the words to say that will bring healing and hope to others and to ourselves.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at [email protected]