Jim Peterson is one of my favorite thinkers about bearing witness effectively. His books Living Proof and Church Without Walls have done a lot to shape my own thinking about how the Kingdom is expanded. I’d like to offer three of his anecdotes from Living Proof without comment.
In the introduction he tells of being on a passenger ship to Brazil, where he is about to begin his missionary efforts there. Early in the trip he meet three other missionaries, and he wonders aloud what they can do to bear witness to the sixty passengers aboard. A few hours later they come to tell him they’ve obtained permission from the captain to hold a service—for the sailors! He replies,
“Your consciences were pricked by what we talked about. So now you’ve spotted the unfortunate sailors who never go to church and have planned a service for them. That is good, but I don’t think we can escape from our responsibility to the passengers.”
They got the point, but they had already committed themselves to conducting a service for the crew. The captain posted a notice in the crew’s quarters, and arrangements had been made to use the galley. I agreed to attend, but not to speak.
The four of us arrived in the galley on schedule. It was empty. Occasionally a sailor would have to go through the room in the course of his duties. He would dart through quickly, obviously intent on not getting caught. Finally one sailor came in and sat down. He was a Baptist. So we had the service: four missionaries and one Baptist sailor!
Petersen’s friends were chagrined, and conceded that they should make an effort to reach the passengers. Then they had an idea:
There was an elderly Christian couple among the passengers. It was the husband’s birthday, so the three missionaries organized an old-fashioned sing to commemorate the occasion. Sensing what was coming and not wanting to jeopardize my relationships with the people I was getting to know, I felt it wiser to stay away. When the time came for the program, I was up on the third deck. One other passenger was up there enjoying the night air. We began discussing the New Testament I had taken along to read.
Down below we could hear the old songs: “Suwannee River”, “My Old Kentucky Home”; then it was “Rock of Ages”, another hymn, a pause. And so it went. Hymn, then testimonies, and finally a message.
When it was over my three friends were euphoric. They had succeeded in “preaching” to virtually all the passengers. Naturally, they called another sing for two nights later. Once again I went to the third deck, but this time there were sixty others up there with me. They weren’t about to get caught twice!
But at this point Petersen himself is still guided by standard evangelical thinking about sharing the gospel. Not long after arriving in Brazil, one of the most secular modern societies on earth, he meets Osvaldo.
Osvaldo was one of the first Brazilians I talked to about Christ. He was working as an industrial chemist when I looked him up. We knew each other through his brother, with whom I had studied the Scriptures while I was in language study. Osvaldo was curious about what was going on because he couldn’t imagine his brother becoming involved in anything religious. His brother just wasn’t that kind of person. So, when I invited Osvaldo to dinner in our home he eagerly accepted.
The conversation began with Osvaldo asking questions about our motives for being in Brazil and about what was happening between his brother and me. The best way I could think of to answer his questions was to explain the gospel to him. I got a piece of chalk and a Bible and used the wooden floor as a chalkboard. I spend the next two hours showing him a favorite diagram I often used to explain the message. I was quite satisfied with my performance, and when I finally finished I leaned back to observe his reaction, certain that he would be on the verge of repentance.
Instead, he gazed at my illustration, then at me. He was puzzled. “Do you mean to tell me that this is why you came all the way to Brazil—to tell people that?”
This and many other similar encounters completely changed Petersen’s thinking about the nature of evangelism. While flipping through the book in search of these anecdotes I found this nice one-paragraph summary of the approach he eventually adopted, namely reading through the book of John with inquirers.
This approach to the gospel is so basic and simple. Who is Jesus? Take a look for yourself. If you don’t believe, we understand that. But let’s go to the Bible with this single question in order to research the answer. You don’t accept the Bible? We understand that, too. We begin on this basis—and count on Christ’s superiority to accomplish the rest.