22 July 2008

Witnessing: mess-ups, regrets, pastoral leadership

by Dan Phillips

I was thinking of creating a new Pyro tag: "Regrets." By year's end, many posts would bear that tag (also retroactively), most of them carrying the same byline.

One would come from last Friday. I saw a movie, and was wedged in next to a dad and his daughter. Chatting with him afterwards, I completely bobbled an opportunity to talk with him expressly about Christ. We came close, touched on related subjects; but "close" doesn't count, and there really isn't any good reason for it. (I'm forcing myself to tell you this.)

It may not have been a golden opportunity, like Philip and the eunuch. But it was certainly silver, and it was certainly an opportunity, and I certainly botched it.

But that was the only time I've messed up like that.

{Soundtrack: gales of laughter}

But seriously, I think of another time. This was decades ago, and I was a brand-new Christian. I was eager to share Christ at every opportunity. This time, I was talking with a neighbor lady. She asked me some questions, I forget what. I responded that I didn't know all the answers, but I knew One who did.

Then she asked me what my parents thought of my pastor. I thought it an abrupt change of topic, but I went with it. There was more conversation along that line, then that was it.

I eventually muzzily realized that it wasn't a change of topic — to her. Unable to see the capitalization in my head, she thought that "the One" who I believed had all the answers was my pastor. She didn't get that I was talking about Jesus. Ungh. Thirty-five years later, I still regret my obtuseness.

These are just two of many such stories I could tell.

Why am I telling you this? Three reasons.

One, it's an exercise of that transparency-thing we talked about a while back. Leading to...

Two, it's also sort of a conscience thing. I know I've shared conversations where I (allege that I) have let fly some witty or devastating remark. I also know that readers might have the impression that Phil, Frank, and I never mess up, never are flummoxed, never botch opportunities, never make fools of ourselves, never are like trout on flat, dry rocks, our mouths opening and closing but nothing of any value coming out.

Now, I'm right there with you about Frank and Phil. But conscience constrains me to tell you that for every sparkling or (suitably) withering remark I've made (and relayed to you, Gentle Reader), there are at least a dozen or two... er... less-stellar moments. Times when I've had not one clue what to say, or have said the wrong thing. Times I came on inappropriately strong and heavy-handed, or let ripe opportunities slip altogether, because I was afraid of coming on too strong or heavy-handed.

I don't want to be perceived like a pastor I know of, who I've virtually never heard tell a story that didn't make everyone else look like idiots, and himself like a brilliant, holy sage. I like talking about those times when I've found le bon mot, because they were rare treats on a pretty dismal landscape. But honesty compels me to mention the other times, as well.

If that encourages you — and I hope it does — be encouraged. Leading to...

Three, I'm thinking ahead to pastoral leadership in evangelism. I'm thinking how I would feel a terrible hypocrite if I tried to press anyone else to do anything I'd not done myself. How I can't reproach truckers, security guards, bookstore clerks, or everyone else for not witnessing to folks when I hadn't done as I should myself.

And I'm thinking that part of the solution will be going out and doing it with the folks — even as I did with my first church, a hundred years ago.

And I'm thinking that that means that my sheep — who I hope will be able to find in me some kind of example such as the Lord calls pastors to be in 1 Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:7, and 1 Peter 5:3 — will see me stumped, they'll see me flummoxed, they'll see me give lame answers (or none at all), they'll see me mess up one way or another. They'll find that what I already will have told them was true: I'm not a prophet, not Pope Pinhead XIV, not always able to give the perfect magisterial, sagacious Word From Above on everything.

And I'm thinking I'm going to have to be A-OK with that.

And so will they.

Dan Phillips's signature


Johnny Dialectic said...

Thanks be to God that it is not the perfection of our words, but the power of the Spirit through the words (1 Cor. 2:4) that makes a holy transaction.

We are, of course, duty bound to prepare ourselves to give an answer, to make the most of every opportunity, etc. But we're not to wait for some standard to be reached before striking out. "It is better to begin awkwardly than not to begin at all." (Torrey)

Webmaster said...

Dan, I've missed so many missed opportunities in my life that I'm ashamed even to think about them.

I found your confession encouraging, and I want you to know that. For myself, I desire not only transparency, but real change.

Thanks, brother.

DJP said...

For myself, I desire not only transparency, but real change.

Hear, hear. Echoing that prayer.

Bo Salisbury said...

Thanks for the close-up...

Richard Baxter put it this way:

We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.

I think you make an important point in painting an accurate picture of yourself, in order to let others know that they are not some sort of freaks, because they don't always shine when opportunity arises. We are flawed... messed up... that's a central feature of the Gospel message and I think the consciousness of our own flaws and faults, bleeds through and lends some authenticity to our witness. We are being sanctified... that's good theology. Jesus would illustrate those truths with a picture. Why not a self-portrait of humility, as well?

david rudd said...

good post, dan.

Tim Bushong said...

Amen Dan- I too love to relate those moments of evangelistic clarity (especially when I was physically exhausted- "My grace is sufficient for you..."), while skimming over the Mr. Fumbletoes that also occurs.

This is an encouraging post, and amen to the "real change" prayer.

I'm forwarding it to the other elders in our church right now...

Tim Brown said...

When I was growing up, we had a really sweet neighbor lady. I used to run next door and open the garage door for her when she pulled her brand new '60 chevy into the drive.

Many years later, she had told my mother she wanted to see me. I never did make it over there. I wanted to share the gospel with her. I never made it over. She died not long after that.

Of course, I've messed up plenty of times since then, but that is one I have never forgotten. Now, I know God is Sovereign, but still He has told me to share the gospel.

We all do things like this. I hate it when I do it, I know what is right to do but I struggle with it.

Yes, I too desire real change, not just transparency.

Jerry said...

This past Sunday morning, while running around getting everything ready for worship, I realized that a new family had moved in next door to the church, and that a man was sitting outside.

I grabbed a New Testament, a small devotional guide, and a tract. Additionally, I grabbed a Spanish tract (New Mexico, what are the odds?) and headed across the parking lot.

As I said "Hello", he responded in Spanish and it became quite obvious that our conversation would be very short. I handed him the Spanish tract, and gave a bit of an invitation to come to the "Iglesia" (our Spanish language sister congregation.

Just then, one of the Spanish language deacons pulled into the parking lot. I went over to his car, and even though this gentlemen speaks very little English I was able to let him know what I had just done.

We walked over to the fence, and informed the neighbor that the "Norte Americano pastor" had concern for him and wanted to welcome him. He then launched into a full presentation of the Gospel, to which rapt attention was paid.

You never know exactly how God will use these feeble attempts to share His love.

Caleb Kolstad said...


Rick Frueh said...

A very encouraging post.

I was saved watching Billy Graham on televison while recouperating from a street fight injury. Months later I was called to preach, but during the interum I had many black friends in the inner city right outside NYC. I was new at sharing Christ, and I beat around the bush to these friends.

My first week at Bible College I received a phone call telling me that my best friend had been shot to death. It still haunts me to this day.

ChiefsSuperfan said...

If these are confession posts, I have to add mine. I feel an awful lot more comfortable sharing the Gospel from the pulpit than one-on-one.

Most the people in my church won't have the same opportunity as I do, to fill their evangelism quota with easy marks. Virtually all their chances to share are nervous, person-to-person exchanges.

So, it is when Paul tells us preacher-types to do the work of an evangelist does He simply mean up front of a large group doing what everyone there knows your supposed to do? Or...

Well, you know where I'm going with this. Us preachers are lions in the pulpit and lambs out of it (er...no, in my case sometimes a blithering dweeb).

Please, each of you as you read my comment, pray by name for the salvation of our neighbors and good friends, Dennis and Kathy. They have a professing believer who lives next to them that likes to talk a lot about evangelism but certainly is not the poster child for it (me, of course).

DJP said...

Oh boy, I hear you.

That text, btw, does give me the impression that evangelism was not timid Timothy's "thing." Hence, "do the work of." Not being "my gift" isn't a note from Mom.

Anonymous said...

Dan: thanks for an outstanding post - one that touched me down deep.

If I may offer some small comfort - when I look at my own missed opportunities, I see I can put them into two categories: those I missed because I didn't see them, and those I missed out of fear, or worse.

The first group, those I didn't recognize, I smack myself in the forehead like a V-8 commercial and say "Why didn't I see...?" There's a limit to how much you can bash yourself over those. Your story from 35 years ago is like that. If you didn't see it, you didn't see it.

It's the second group that hurts me more: the missed opportunities to share the Gospel with someone because it was inconvenient at the time. Because I was afraid of losing a friend. Because I was afraid of offending someone. Because it was my day off. Because I was in a bad mood. Because it would cost me something. Because it would be awkward. THOSE I can kick myself over for a lifetime. Those missed opportunities are the ones that are going to cause me a lot of discomfort when I face Christ, knowing I'm just not going to have a good explanation for them.

A couple of weeks ago, two Jehovah's Witnesses came knocking at my front door during church (we're meeting in my living room right now), and I was determined not to have another one of those moments. I interrupted my lesson to greet these two at the door (one of my flock tells me I was salivating as I watched them walk up my driveway), Bible in hand. For a good fifteen or twenty minutes, these two young men got to hear the real Gospel. I was pleased to find out that not only did my church not mind the interruption, but were actually praying for me and for the two young men the whole time. Did I mention that I really love my church?

We need to do that, Dan. We - all of us reading this - need to be praying for each other, to see opportunities when they arise, and to be bold and sensitive as we take those opportunities, and to diligently prepare for them so we're ready. I'll do that for you; can I count on you to do that for me?

This Saturday, I'm going to be conducting a funeral. I have no reason to believe the young man we're burying is saved; he was the younger brother of a close friend who himself is not saved (yes, I do have friends, and even good friends, who are unredeemed), and nearly everyone attending is in the same condition. There is no easy way for a pastor to do this. I'd certainly be grateful for the supportive prayers of yourself and others, so that I would have the right words, and proclaim the genuine Gospel to a lot of good friends who need to hear it. I don't want this to be another of those missed opportunities we're talking about. Thank you, and thank you all -

- Keith

robert.johnson4 said...

I cannot begin to tell you what a help this post has been/will be to me. I "teach" a young couples Bible study group and recently went through a lengthy series on evangelism; not a program, but just looking at what the Scriptures have to say about it, why we do it, why we don't want to. Through the weeks, I thought several times how useful it would be to organize class events to put us in the community finding opportunities. Your post will serve as a word that it's time to put those good ideas to work. Thanks a ton!

DJP said...

Keith — thanks. You out-transparentized me.

I will pray for you. My first-ever funeral was for a young man (A) who gave no evidence of being saved, but (B) whose family were certain beyond doubt that he was saved. Not sure which would be more difficult; I thanked God it wasn't my place to decide his current whereabouts, but to preach Christ to the church's only-ever (during my pastorate) SRO crowd.

Anonymous said...

Dan, as a pastor I teach others to evangelize, to open their mouths and to give an answer to the hope they possess, but I also let them know that every time I am internally shaking in my boots. Yes, I know God is Sovereign, but I also know that I am a doofus (www.dictionary.com says a doofus is an incompetent and stupid, though well-meaning, person) who tends to speak at times like I have five marbles in my mouth or I get words out of order a the most critical time.

So, just to let you know Dan... You are in good company!!!

~Mark said...

It never fails to freak me out when God does something like this. Just last night and a little this morning I found myself reliving "dropped ball" moments and asking God to help me be more effective at evangelism 'cause I feel like I'm so bad at it.

'Course, this bad self-examination was brought to you by the letter "S", in which somebody gets saved everyday because I should be SO effective.

I have had the blessing of leading some people to Christ, but often ask myself if there shouldn't be a whole lot more, and if I'm the reason it isn't happening through me.

I much appreciate hearing that I'm not alone in missed opportunities, thanks for sharing this Dan.

On a side, but related note, I've had talks with a couple of close friends about how encouraging it is when people who God has saved share their horrible, dark backgrounds. That it gives so much hope to so many, yet after 15 years of being saved I'm still afraid to "let it all hang out" about my past for fear of the reaction I'd get.

I've shared with some individuals in private settings, but with the platform of a radio station and the internet I wonder if I shouldn't be sharing more than I do.

~Mark said...

By the way, to share a moment...

it's a long tale to tell so I must nutshell it for now. God clearly gave me a job at a limousine company back in 1994, while I was still a young on fire Christian. When Alanis Morrisette hit the charts and became a star I found myself really drawn to much of her music. Many people I knew at the time just wrote her off as "an angry lesbian", I connected with much of what she was singing because I knew it was just the outcry of a broken and bitter heart.

Oddly enough, I found myself praying for her every single day, many times a day. I didn't plan it, but I'd wake up and think of her and start praying, and that would happen all day.

This went on for a very long time, and I had gotten to the point where when business slowed I decided that I needed more money, and if I couldn't get it that I should leave. So I left for another limo company that offered more money.

(This despite the fact that the first lesson God drummed into me in very real, hands-on fashion was of Matthew 6:33)

5 days after I switched companies, ms. Morrisette came to town to film a movie. The company that handled her transportation? The one I'd just left.

For years I agonized over the possibility that God had been preparing my heart and hers for an opportunity to share the gospel with her, and that I'd blown her chance at salvation.

That taught me a dear lesson in making big life decisions based on money and my doubt that my daily needs would be handled by God.

DJP said...

It is ironic.


David said...

"And I'm thinking that part of the solution will be going out and doing it with the folks — even as I did with my first church, a hundred years ago."

You're one of the few pastors (even though you aren't one yet) who says that. I hope in your new church you will stand by that comment.

BlackCalvinist aka G.R.A.C.E. Preecha said...


*tries to forget a missed opportunity on July 4.....*

Doug Short said...

My church is doing Backyard Bible Clubs right now (VBS where we go to them rather than them come to us). We purposely chose a very depressed trailer park to do them in so that we might be obedient and serve the poor, the fatherless and the widow. Last night a woman came up to our group and began talking to us non-stop. Unfortunately she had no teeth and, we could not understand a thing she was saying!

I was all too happy to allow one of the women in our group to handle this though I could tell that she was bewildered as to what this lady was saying. A few minutes later, however, she was bringing this dear woman over to talk to me. The woman (I found out her name was Cathy) began talking a mile a minute to me in an unintelligible tongue- but the woman in my group, by this time, had become adept at deciphering what Cathy was saying and was translating for me. With an inner groan (I say this to my shame), I realized it was my turn.

Cathy and I stood face to face for some time, with her talking in, what I thought was, gibberish. And while I stood there I went from feeling bothered by this interruption to realizing that I was standing before Christ whom I am to serve. First waves of guilt over my attitude and then waves of love for her came over me and then....understanding! I began to understand what she was saying and she was, to my amazement, quite lucid!

She explained to me that she had placed faith in Christ some years back but had not been in church for some time. But as I asked her to explain what His death and resurrection meant, she understood the forgiveness of past sins but not of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. She said "No one has ever said this to me before, I'll have to think on that a while."

She said that she only intended on taking the trash out but then something compelled her to come over and speak to us. "I don't know what it was" she said. I told her "Yes you do Cathy." She replied, "You're right, it was God."

She then began sharing of her husbands death 10 years ago, her having to live in a shelter, her two teen children, etc. We talked for a good 45 minutes and then, before I knew it she went and got her 13 year old son who I was able to share the Gospel with (he openly rejected but I pray for Charles' salvation).

I have invited Cathy into our home this coming Sunday night- but she informed me that I need to pick her up from her job at Hardee's to get her there. :)

Oh, the shame I feel at the inner groan I felt at "having to deal" with this woman "talking gibberish."

Lord, forgive the hypocrite that I am and thank you for the grace that you display in using me anyway- oftentimes pushing those who need to be served in my path that I might not avoid them no matter how hard I try! Oh, the wonder of God's amazing grace!

Kent Brandenburg said...

I don't think scheduling evangelism can replace the spontaneous moments that God brings into our paths during which we are to open our mouths boldly as we ought to speak, but it is a way to fulfill God's mandate. Those are those ones that I will miss, where that effectual door has been opened unto me. Again, it doesn't replace the evangelism that must occur with my neighbor, co-worker, relative, or fellow student, but it does show initiative in spreading the glory of God to the nations. Not only do I submit to the Holy Spirit by doing such, but I also have a great opportunity, like the 70 that Jesus sent out, to fellowship in the worship of the gospel with another believer. It's an excellent discipleship opportunity to train someone else to evangelize. I'm only adding this to what Dan has said about going out with my people. Not that evangelism should be seen as grunt work or as jumping first into the mud pit, but if I expect them to jump, I want to jump in first.

~Mark said...

"It is ironic.


*moan* LOL! :)

His Chosen Instruments said...

Thanks for your encouraging post. My dad was a preacher (living with the Lord now) and I marveled at how he could speak with anyone about God- the store clerk, guy at the gas station, bank lady, ALL of the neighbors. Sometimes I feel a little like Moses- who am I? My brother/sister is more qualified than I to speak boldly and clearly in His name. Unlike Moses, though, I've followed that feeling too often rather than following His calling.
Thanks for the reminder. It hit the right nerve and resonated to my heart.
-Sincerely In Him, Shaun

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DJP said...

"Second Life."

{ blank stare }

CR said...

Thanks for the great post Dan. This is a post that should be flooded with a 100 comments but it doesn't look like it will be.

I think there are two big reasons for witnessing mess-ups. The first chief reason is that many of us don't know how to share the gospel. And for discussion purposes, I am just going to focus on doctrinally sound teaching and leadership because obvious doctrinally bad churches are not going to proclaim the gospel well and I'm assuming we are talking about believers.

But one of the chief reasons why many believers don't share the gospel is because they don't know how. You would think that going to a good church would solve that problem, but it doesn't. Just because one embraces good teaching doesn't mean that they are equipped to share the gospel.

It is THE responsibility of the pastor and the rest of the leadership to equip their local church on how to do this. And if the leadership looks at their local body and cannot say with confidence, "you know, about 75 - 80% of this body knows how to proclaim the gospel" then that should concern them. The leadership needs to be working and praying that a sizeable majority of their congregations know how to share the gospel.

Another chief reason why we don't share the gospel is because Jesus is marginal in our lives. This was a revelation to me some time ago, but you can go to church regularly, go to Bible studies, give offerings and our relationship to Christ can still be marginal.

Now, granted, some of us have shy personalities and have trouble saying hi, never mind sharing the gospel, but the fact is, the reason why most of us are afraid or uncomfortable to share is because our faith is so marginal in our lives. Yes, we go to church, and do all that other stuff, but when we go to our jobs our recreation, Jesus is just put on pause. So, when we try to to share or see an opportunity to share, we are not as comfortable and the person we try to share with, sees that discomfort and completely dismisses us.

So, I think the solution is the leadership equipping their body to proclaim the gospel, and for us to pray regularly each day to bring us opportunities to share and be a blessing to others (here's the scary thing, when we do, the Lord answers, which is probably one of the reasons why many of us don't) and for Christ not to be something marginal.

Warning - we may have to pass up that promotion or teaching tenureship if we do.

I just wanted to say when I say "us" I am really including myself.

candyinsierras said...

I just want to say that I know we all have regrets and missed opportunities, and I am the worst of the worst when it comes to witnessing, but God is still sovereign and we know He works despite us. That reality gives me hope when I really beat myself up over lost opportunities, regrets, or important people in my life dying without knowing whether they were saved or not.

Speaking of opportunities, please pray because I am hoping to visit my daughter in early August down in Hollywood. I have hoped she would visit Grace Community Church but it hasn't worked out so far. She is not a Christian. I told my daughter that I don't care what I do most of the time when and if I go there (I will not have a vehicle), but the only thing I want to do is visit Grace Community Church which is only about 12 mi from her home (which, could mean the moon as far as freeways and such). She has Sundays off and I hope she will go with me.

CR said...

Candy: I told my daughter that I don't care what I do most of the time when and if I go there (I will not have a vehicle), but the only thing I want to do is visit Grace Community Church which is only about 12 mi from her home (which, could mean the moon as far as freeways and such). She has Sundays off and I hope she will go with me.

If she doesn't want to go and take you there then I vote for Phil Johnson picking you up at your daughter's place and taking you there.

There it's settled!

Seriously though, we would hope that your daughter would take you there and join you, but I have to believe there is some kind of ministry for visitors to pick you up. I would call them for a back-up plan.

That way, you convey to your daughter, that the Lord's Day is important to you especially for worship and if she is not going to join you, then, you are going to go anyway.

candyinsierras said...

I will go to church for sure, and it sounds like she is looking into public transportation for us both to go. Yay! Her car is not a happy car these days. If it takes me visiting L.A. for her to go to church, just that is so worth going to L.A. (I hate L.A.)

I hope to meet the Johnson's if they are in town, and introduce my daughter. My daughter would fit right into the weird humor that Phil exhibits.

I didn't want to hijack the conversation, but I still wonder if my mother accepted the Lord at the last few minutes of her life and I will not know until eternity. I still wonder if I could have done more, said more or prayed more, so I really want to be there for my daughter in this regard.

~Mark said...

I have to believe that in some circumstances we think we've messed up but only because we don't know the whole plan.

Gilbert said...


"I just want to say that I know we all have regrets and missed opportunities, and I am the worst of the worst when it comes to witnessing, but God is still sovereign and we know He works despite us."

I'm not sure yet whether Dan's post encourages me, or shames me. If you deny the Son, you deny the Father, and I have---here it is---NO, repeat, NO excuse for not just witnessing/preaching the Gospel to those whom I claim I care for and love who clearly don't know Him, and those who I am not sure of.

Yesterday, I worked from home the first half of the day, and as I left to head to my brick-and-mortar work location the second half, I met my neighbor who was visually upset. She just discovered she has some serious health problems, a serious undervoltage problem in her home which fried most of her stuff in it, lost her job, has bad relational problems with some relatives, and her loved dog has redeveloped serious health problems. She said she'd talk it over with her pastor, but I don't know if she really KNOWS Jesus. All I could do was listen, say I'm sorry, listen, tell her I'd pray for her and to trust God with these problems, one at a time, and if I could help with the electrical or whatever, I'd do what I could...never mentioning Jesus at any point. I felt I heinously blew a "gimme".

Not often do I feel that I'm completely effective; usually I wind up feeling like Cent would clown me, Dan would hit me with a sword, and Phil would say "Nuts to you!" in many attempts if they graded me. I just want the Gospel to come out correctly, simply, humbly, not flowery...I pray for God through Jesus Christ to just speak the words through me, just give me the words to say...I know what they are.

Becky, a slave of Christ said...

First, on the light side: One of the things I enjoy about reading blogs is all of the great new words I run across…foreign and domestic. In this post, you used a phrase, the meaning of which I found in Wikipedia’s article, List of French words and phrases used by English speakers,

bon mot “well-chosen word(s), particularly a witty remark”

And (not to give you a case of swollen head) I found “never are like trout on flat, dry rocks, our mouths opening and closing but nothing of any value coming out” to be a particularly witty remark. It made me laugh; great image!

And now, to the heart of the matter: I appreciate your honesty, Dan. It is extremely difficult to go public with our weaknesses and sins (our pride battles against us). I love what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” That verse comforts me and gives me hope.

I am guilty of the same. I have had plenty of occasions when I failed to present the Truth to people who needed to hear it. I recently witnessed to a couple of young boys who had never been exposed to the Gospel. I related some truth to them, but afterwards realized that I had only quoted one Bible verse! I was not happy; God’s Word changes hearts, not my words. I am praying that God will send someone else to clean up after me, because these boys were strangers; I know He can do that. I am also thinking I need to have some formal evangelism training, so I will have all of my ducks in a row. I know the truth, but I need to be able to wield it like a soldier.

And last, to Candy: Have you been to Grace before? If you haven’t, and your town (like mine) doesn’t have churches the size of Detroit, you are in for an adventure. If you are sitting on one side of the church, the folks near you are the size you would expect, but those on the other side are like ants. Big place; awesome worship; truth abounds; God is glorified...and that about sizes it up.

Anonymous said...

"And I'm thinking that that means that my sheep — who I hope will be able to find in me some kind of example such as the Lord calls pastors to be..."
-Those that can, do. Those that can't, Preach :)
It's always encouraging to hear of "mess-ups" - makes us mere mortals feel like we could give it a shot :)