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Witnessing "Rules of Engagement"

By Bill McKeever

Christians have been given a great commission to spread the gospel message. However, in light of this mandate, are we as believers held to certain “rules of engagement”? Or are we free to behave in any manner that suits us as long as the message is being proclaimed? Noting that the Gospel is offensive by its very nature, some insist that taking undue pains to avoid being offensive is not necessary and perhaps even cowardly. Some take a more conservative method and try to avoid any approach that may be in the least offensive to the hearer. On one hand we have some who like to emulate the thunderous prophet approach while others seek a more low-key relational approach. Extremes in both of these approaches offer problems. On one hand we can excel at giving answers but with little or no gentleness and respect; and on the other hand, we excel at offering gentleness and respect, but give no answers.

Sadly, different witnessing styles have caused a great amount of division among Christians. It is interesting to note that Jesus used the illustration of a fisherman when he instructed his disciples to proclaim the Good News. I admit that I am not an avid fisherman, but I am very aware that there are many ways in which to catch fish. Some prefer a hook and line, some a net, and in some cases, dynamite is the preferred approach. There is no question that all of the above methods can be effective, but can any one method be utilized at all times? If not, shouldn’t different circumstances cause us to be open to different methodologies?

Is “biblical” always expedient?

Christians have traditionally turned to the Bible when it comes to how we should believe and act. The Bible gives numerous examples of God’s people engaging the culture with the message of truth. The Old Testament is replete with accounts of prophets being sent among the people to warn them of impending judgment. Many today feel that emulating their behavior is the biblical thing to do.

However, in Isaiah 20:3, God commanded Isaiah to walk “naked and barefoot” for three years in order to demonstrate what was to eventually befall those who would be captured by the king of Assyria. A person could easily emulate this behavior today and claim to be “biblical,” but is it expedient?

In the book of Acts we read about the Apostle Paul attending synagogue meetings in order to “reason” with the Jews about his message of the resurrected Messiah. While I have often wished that I could address a congregation of Mormons at the local ward, I am not so naive to think that an attempt to do so without an invitation would be asking to be charged with trespassing. What was certainly permissible in Paul’s day would not work very well today, regardless of the fact that we can find biblical examples for certain methodologies.

Still, it was this same Paul who, in his epistle to the Ephesians, encouraged believers to expose the “unfruitful works of darkness.” We know what we are supposed to do; the big question is, how do we do it? In many countries around the world, the freedoms we take for granted are nonexistent. Though no one has the right to cry fire in a crowded theater without just cause, we should never think that the freedom to express what we believe to be true negates the possibility that we might express it badly. In other words, good intentions can sometimes yield bad methodology.

Temple Square

Over five million people visit Temple Square each year. Its popularity makes it a veritable haven for Christians to distribute tracts and street witness to those who visit downtown Salt Lake City. Like Paul, they go to where the target audience is. Naturally, Mormons do not like this kind of attention and often speak harshly of those who would attempt to speak with them or hand them printed material. For many Mormons this is nothing more than a continuation of the persecution that the Mormons experienced back in the 1830s and 40s.

In my opinion, any Mormon who holds such a view is being just a bit hypocritical. After all, there is no denying that Mormon missionaries have often found street corners and sidewalks in front of churches to be prime locations to disseminate what they believe is true. While doing this is not inherently wrong, are we really to believe that absolutely no one is offended when Mormon missionaries proselytize near other churches or, for that matter, at our front doors?

Some have insisted that Temple Square should be off limits and that witnessing efforts in downtown Salt Lake City only serve to agitate and offend rather than convert. Such a conclusion ignores the simple fact that Mormons in general do not like criticism of any kind. Carrying this thought to its logical conclusion would also mean that we should refrain from saying anything anywhere lest we risk offense. This type of reasoning also fails to take into account that many who visit Temple Square are not Mormons. I have often spoken with tourists on Temple Square who are visiting out of sheer curiosity, and many of them were very thankful that I took the time to explain some of aspects of Mormonism that would never be brought up on an official tour.

Is it wrong to use signs to get a message across?

To be sure, there is a wide variety of methods used by Christians at Temple Square. While most of the witnessing around Temple Square involves handing out literature and an occasional discussion, there are some groups who use more aggressive tactics. For instance, during the 2002 Winter Olympics, some showed their displeasure with Mormonism by using bullhorns and huge signs. This has also occurred at LDS general conferences. While those who utilize them staunchly defend these methods, some Christians see this as a detriment. They feel signs are usually associated with protests; in their minds, any association with “picketing” leaves a negative image of the Christian faith.

I would be the first to agree that diverse situations call for different methods. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses often meet in stadiums once a year for district conventions. Participants are not allowed to speak with Christians before or after such an event, so concerned Christians utilize signs to display messages, web site addresses, and phone numbers, hoping that questioning members will check out the information in the privacy of their own homes. In light of such circumstances, denouncing all use of signs would be a mistake, since in this case, it is the only means available to get the message out.

During the 6-week open house held for the San Diego Temple, we had so many Christians want to volunteer that we utilized the “Life Chain” approach used to call attention to the crime of abortion. Several identical signs were printed that read, “Be not deceived, Mormonism is not Christianity.” This truthful message was easy to defend and worked well to inform thousands of motorists who happen to be driving by.

Street Preaching

Preaching the gospel in public places is certainly a part of our Christian heritage. While it is not my particular style, I have noticed that some of those who use this method of expression are quite good at it. One of the ingredients that make me draw that conclusion is sensing that the speaker has a genuine compassion for those he/she is trying to reach.

Several years ago I was visiting my cousin in New York. We decided to go into the city and spent the morning near the New York Stock Exchange. Across the street from where many of the traders stood taking their break was a young man with a portable speaker and microphone. His message was simple; place your trust in the living God and not in man’s riches. He was good. He properly used scripture, and you could tell that he was genuinely concerned for his listeners. Amazingly, most of those standing outside to get a breath of fresh air or to “grab a smoke” politely listened. While some may not fully appreciate that style, it would be difficult to condemn it from the Bible.

I’ve seen this same approach used at Temple Square. Again, those who impress me the most are those who demonstrate a heartfelt compassion for the people to whom they are speaking. However, there are some who give the appearance that they have nothing but disdain for the Mormons. Using insults, calling people names, denigrating the Mormon scriptures, and abusing the Mormon undergarments make their message of “love” difficult to comprehend when their body language contradicts what they feel are positive intentions.

Especially disturbing is when Christians who behave badly are confronted by fellow Christians, and in turn, are treated with the same contempt they give to the Mormons. Rather than give heed to good counsel, they ignore the biblical call to speak the truth the love and therefore fail to edify the Body of Christ. Convinced they are “on a mission,” their pride brings further reproach on His name and gives further reason for Mormons to feel that this “persecution” lends credence to the authenticity of Mormonism.

Taking the offense without being offensive

As mentioned earlier, the gospel message is, in and of itself, offensive. That being the case, we should not go out of our way to hinder our efforts by acting in a way that undermines what we are trying to accomplish.

I am very sensitive to the charge of hatred; the last thing I want to do is express myself in such a way that gives credence to that charge. Though we hear this accusation on a continual basis, I am pleased to report that no Mormon has yet to present a solid case that show exactly that what we have written or said was actually hateful. (Let me also say that I am fully aware that many Mormons use the ad hominem much too freely. We have no reason to take seriously any Mormon who thinks honest criticism is akin to bigotry.)

Gentleness and respect

Given the fact that Mormons are already primed to believe that anyone who disagrees with them also has animosity towards them, it does no good to play into their presuppositions.

During the San Diego temple open house, we had plenty of time to get to know personally many of the LDS volunteers. One of them was an elderly traffic guard who one day accidentally got some sunscreen in his eye. I immediately had someone run to get him a wet cloth while I stayed to make sure he was OK. To me it was no big deal. It was just a case of common decency. When the open house ended, this man-made it a point to come up to me and offer his comments regarding his experience. He said that he was actually “terrified” (his word) by all of the stories he heard at his church regarding the potential behavior they could expect from the “anti-Mormons.” Though he had been told to expect “violence” (again, his word), he wanted to make sure that I knew that none of his fears came to pass and that it was a pleasure working near us. Our demeanor alone sent a message to him that his church did not always tell the truth.

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, they had an amazing amount of freedom with very few restrictions. So too we have an amazing amount of freedom to creatively spread the gospel with very few restrictions.

Ephesians 4:15 — It goes without saying that our message must be truthful. We must do our best to stick to the facts. Anybody can make an honest mistake, but there is no excuse for purposely embellishing or sensationalizing our message.

I have received many emails from those claiming to be “non-Mormons” who write to complain about our efforts. It is often not hard to discern through their words that they are Mormons trying to conceal their church affiliation. Just as I find it offensive when Mormons purposely attempt to deceive, we must never entertain the same method. Sometimes there is a temptation on the part of some to act as if they are completely ignorant of Mormonism in order to talk to Mormon missionaries. This is neither right nor necessary. I have found that many Mormons have no problem speaking about their faith as long as they feel they are being treated fairly.

The truth we adhere to must be presented in love. It is not enough to merely say our efforts are motivated by love — it must be demonstrated. This is not to imply that we will never come across Mormons who feel that disagreement automatically means intolerance and intolerance means bigotry. However, erroneously equating disagreement with hatred is their problem, not ours. It becomes our problem when we give them a real cause to assume this.

Colossians 4:6 — While our speech is to always be gracious, it must also carry with it the attributes of salt. This can be taken a couple of ways. As a seasoning, salt has a way of adding flavor to that which is bland. Hopefully, we can present an enticing message that offers hope and fulfillment without compromising its truth. However, salt is also an irritant. We cannot lose sight of the fact that discussing flaws in people’s religious beliefs is akin to pouring salt in an open wound. They may react adversely to the sting, but our motives must always be to heal, not merely to hurt.

1 Peter 3:15 — When confronting our culture, we must have plausible reasons as to why our worldview should be preferred. It is not merely enough to quote bumper stickers that say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Such explanations are neither compelling nor do they convince a person who seeks real answers. In some respects many Christians are pretty good at explaining their faith, but too many times the last half of this passage is overlooked. While we are told to be ready to give an answer regarding our hope, we must be gentle and respectful in the way we give it. Any behavior that falls short of this cannot be justified and should not be excused.

Jude 3 — We must earnestly contend for the faith. There is no shame in being passionate about what you believe. However, some see the word contend only in a negative way. Actually it simply means to strive in opposition or to engage in controversy or debate. One of its synonyms is to discuss. It is quite possible to debate (discuss) an issue without the veins in your neck popping out. A general rule is “Contend for the faith without being contentious.”

Admittedly, trying to consistently follow the above guidelines can be difficult. Mormons are human and oftentimes do not follow the same rules when it comes to defending their own faith. I have often said that even if I could be convinced that Mormonism is true, I would have a difficult time sitting in a pew next to some Mormons who have gone out of their way to treat me badly. Turning this around, would a Mormon want to sit next to me should he be convinced of Mormonism’s error? These are questions we must consider when sharing our faith.

What are you trying to accomplish?

Over the years I have seen many witnessing styles. Some methods are good while others are downright shameful. Whether we are having a casual conversation with a Mormon neighbor or trying to reach Mormons in a public place, foremost in our minds should be the question, “What are we trying to accomplish?” Do we merely want to make the Mormon mad, are we looking to pick a fight, or do we sincerely want the Holy Spirit to use our words and actions as a means to see souls saved? The answer to these questions will determine our demeanor.

In writing this I hope I don’t give the impression that “my way” is the only way. I am eager to learn different strategies and approaches in order to spread the gospel. We are fishers of men, and just as there are several ways to fish, there are several ways to present Gospel truths. We must strive to use methods that are Christ-honoring and, in turn, will yield the best results. However, no matter which method is employed, we have no excuse when we bypass the few biblical guidelines God has given us. As faithful ambassadors, we must not overlook the biblical parameters set before us.

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