When Gospel Witness Is as Simple as Being Present with People

by Sandra Van Opstal

evangelism, gospel witness, Chicago, Sandra Van OpstalMaralee was my mentor the day that we went out to share our faith on the streets of our west-side neighborhood. Our congregation, Grace and Peace Community, was convening local churches for a movement of gospel proclamation called Revive. Revive was both a movement of 24-hour prayer and witness.

In old-school fashion, we set up a 4,000-square-foot tent out on the site of our future church building. Although the building was only a mile from our current location and it was also an under-resourced community, the burdens and blessings were very different than ours. We had to listen to the community and learn from them in a new way.

Maralee had been out almost every day listening to people’s stories, learning from them, and responding with good news into their particular experience. As we spoke with Anna, who had been hurt by the church, bold words came from a place of knowledge and experience. Maralee had also been burnt by churches who chose to judge her for her choices. Maralee knew exactly what Anna meant when she expressed her angst about being with Christians even though she was curious about Jesus and faith.

Anna deeply longed for friends since she had just moved to Chicago. She expressed her desire to know more about God and her connection to faith coming from a family with religious roots. Maralee listened. It wasn’t brain surgery or solving the answer to world peace; it was a simple act of connecting with someone’s humanity and affirming their experience.

Maralee had dozens of conversations with people in our community, and many of them went on to become of part of Grace and Peace and disciple. To some, Maralee could seem like an energetic, young Christian, but she is a mentor to me. Proclaiming the good news of freedom in Christ is not for professionals; it is for the willing.

Witness allows our own experiences with God to touch the experiences of others. It’s about being present! Witness is most effective when we allow ourselves to take “place” seriously. Maralee was the best person to communicate the gospel to Anna. Having someone “fly in” for a week and talk about Jesus with my neighbors does not honor the true calling of making disciples.

Jesus did not call us to a series of “drive bys” where we could shoot quotes of scripture at people. He called us to be witnesses to the things He has done in our lives that show us the true nature of who He is. God invites us to be present wherever He has placed us. He empowers us to love our neighbor as a way of loving Him. Here are the most valuable things my mentor taught me:

  1. Share life with your friends. Be your full self wherever God has placed you.
  2. Ask God to give you an opportunity to share from life’s experiences. Especially hard ones.
  3. Be courageous and move the conversation forward when an opportunity presents itself.


Sandra Maria Van Opstal (@sandravanopstal) is the executive pastor of Grace and Peace Community in Chicago, and is the author of The Next Worship and a regular contributor to CT publications. A community development practitioner and activist, she is passionate about creating atmospheres that mobilize for reconciliation and justice. She frequently consults and speaks internationally on topics of racial identity and mission.