Monday, September 09, 2013

Why Telling Your Story is NOT the Best Way
to Share the Gospel

Anyone who’s ever taken a class on how to share their faith has heard some well-intentioned teacher say, “You don’t need to learn a lot of big words. Just tell them your story. Just tell them how Jesus changed your life. No one can argue with that.”

Then everyone sighs a big sigh of relief because they thought they’d have to spend time learning how to answer hard questions. Questions like “how do you know Jesus rose from the dead?” Or “how do you know the Bible’s inspired?”

I understand why this method of what we used to call “witnessing” is popular. Well-meaning pastors realize that people are scared to tell people about Jesus, and they want to find an easy method that they can use to teach their congregation how to share their faith without actually having to ask them to do anything—at least anything hard.

The problem with this method is that it doesn’t work anymore. It might have worked 20 or 30 years ago,  but in 2013 any post-modern worth his salt will respond “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” And well he should. If the person sharing his faith is saying that you should try this because it worked for him—if he is basing his argument for following Christ on his own experience—then it’s only fair that the person responding should be able to say that his experience is just as valid.

In a way, the Christian who uses only his own experience to tell non-Christians about Jesus is giving the post-modern the home-field advantage. He is implicitly agreeing that what matters most is personal experience, not truth.

In her essay for Come Let us Reason ( B&H Academic 2012), Toni Allen writes that women, especially, “tend to depend on their experience and emotional connection with God as the primary justification for the beliefs they hold.”

Now, I’m the first person to say that the mountain-top experiences we have with God are amazing, mind-blowing, and unable to be described in mere words. And it is also often the experience of God that first draws us to Him, before we have any kind of knowledge to back it up. Many people experience God before they ever come into contact with the historical evidence for the resurrection .
But it is still just my (or your) feeling. I can tell another person what I’ve experienced, but I can’t transfer that feeling to them as if I was exposing them to the flu. As Allen says “our experience may play an important role when sharing Christ with non-believers, but it may not provide the cogent force necessary to overcome intellectual barriers to faith.”

Let’s put it this way: If I’m talking to a Buddhist who claims to have experienced Nirvana and I am only able to respond by describing my own experience of encountering Jesus, what differentiates my experience from his? Do I have any evidence that what I encountered was the one true God while his experience was just some kind of meditative high?


And while we’re at it, how do I know that the transcendent experience I had while worshipping wasn’t just an emotional overload brought on by endorphins, chocolate, and looking at pictures of puppies or starving children. I can’t really even use the argument that I know Jesus is real because He’s changed my life. Lives can be changed by any number of things, including anti-depressants, hypnosis, twelve-step programs, and watching “What Not to Wear.”

Telling someone that all they have to do to effectively share the gospel is to tell the story of how Jesus changed their life is doing a disservice to Christians who want a robust understanding of why Christianity is true. And it can be damaging to the Christian with atheist friends who continue to challenge his faith.

Of course we need to tell our stories. Humans are storytellers by nature. It’s how we connect. It’s how we learn about each other and how we form communities. The problem is that in a post-modern context, one story does not correspond to truth any more than another.

While telling our story will often be the first thing we do when we begin sharing the gospel, it has to be backed up with good apologetics. “How do we know Christ was raised from the dead? How do we know the gospels are reliable? How do we know that the high we get from singing repetitive worship choruses is any different from what a Muslim experiences at evening prayers?

These are the questions that apologetics answers. And no matter how much that well-meaning pastor wants to make talking about Jesus easy, it’s not. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a serious commitment to learning why we believe what we believe.

As Christians, we have truth on our side. Not the kind of truth that makes us arrogant (hopefully), but the kind of truth that corresponds with what is real. There are good arguments for the existence of God and good evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. There are logical, rational, winsome ways to demonstrate that Christianity is the best explanation for most of what goes on in the world, including why evil exists and why people suffer, but a million opportunities will be missed if we let post-modernism make the rules.

So the next time some well-meaning Christian tells you that all you have to do to share the gospel is to tell people your story, ask him how he knows it’s all true?

About Leslie Keeney
Leslie Keeney is getting her Masters of Philosophical Studies at Liberty University. She is interested in moral apologetics, and how myth, narrative, and pop culture can reveal the best of man’s universal moral intuition. She is both modern and post-modern (and the postmodern part means she’s OK with the paradox). Leslie lives in Lynchburg with her husband, two kids, and two cats. You can connect with her on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. Leslie blogs at The Ruthless Monk.

This is a guest post from the Christian Apologetics Allianceanswering seekers, equipping Christians & demonstrating the truth of the Christian worldview. Original post here.


Raj said...

I think I agree with the contents of the post but not the title. Stories in some Indian/Asian contexts may be the best way to share your faith. Now this of course assumes that the story you share includes the core contents of the Gospels - not just some weepy-eyed fluff.

So anyway, I think that this is what it all boils down to... you know how people say "Location, location, location"? Well here we have "Context, context, context" and so there has to be a appropriate fitness between the evangelistic method used and the context you are in. Any method is the best method provided the context is appropriate.

Ok. Thanks,
~ Raj

Paul Taylor said...

"How do we know that the high we get from singing repetitive worship choruses is any different from what a Muslim experiences at evening prayers?"

Getting a high from repetitive singing has nothing to do with true worship of God. I doubt you can support it with any kind of Biblical apologetics.

Ex N1hilo said...

Christianity is the story of the Redeemer. Really, the whole universe and its history is. The redeemed individual is a small part of this story. "He must increase, but I must decrease."

MaryLou said...

It's interesting that the author notes that telling one's story isn't going to impress the post-modern audience because people think that what is true for one person isn't true for another.

I took a course entitled Gospel, Church and Culture last year in which the professor noted that relativism was indeed part of the post-modern worldview. However, he also noted that, while post-moderns reject metanarratives like that of the Gospel, many of them are constantly looking for "something that works" in their lives.

For that reason, they will listen to someone else's story with the hope that, whatever "worked" in that person's life might "work" in theirs. Therefore, many post-moderns are interested in individual stories.

I think it is just as Raj says -- it depends on the person. One manner of witnessing might be effective with one person, but not with another. Therefore, I wouldn't throw out the method of personal witness entirely.

I do agree with the author, however, when she says we need to back up our experiences with good apologetic arguments. Experiential evidence has merit, but cannot stand on its own because anybody can get a spiritual high -- like the Mormon who feels that "warmth in his bosom" or the Satanist who thinks Lucifer is cool. Feelings alone are not reliable because the devil will be glad to provide them to keep people off-track.

Brian Auten said...

Also check out Alister McGrath's book Mere Apologetics. It makes a good case for the proper role of story in doing apologetics.

But then again, there is the blurring of terms that is possible here. "Just telling your story" is much different than "using story"—the importance is giving reasons why something is true. Story (i.e., "my personal journey") alone doesn't provide reasons to believe it is true above other personal stories.

Marvin Torgeson said...

I think writing articles to confuse the Christian on whether or not their testimony (story) is valid or not valid is disappointing.
Just because Satan has false conversions does not mean we cease to offer the true gospel in hope of true conversions. Simply because we have a myriad of testimonies leading to false conclusions about God, does not devalue the necessity of true testimonies and sharing them.
I thought high powered apologists would know this.

None of us can say for certain that "my personal story doesn't provide reasons to believe"; that is pure guesswork. The whole idea of apologetics in 1 pet 3:15 is not the professional apologist, but the average believer who is giving a reason for the HOPE that is within them. Giving a personal reason for hope that is based upon the saving grace of Jesus Christ is pure apologetics. Professionalizing it then castigating personal testimony of a non-professional apologist is just bad theology and a mis-use of apologetics.

So, I decided to close up the apologetics sites and open my bible and behold 1Co 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Wow, the folly and foolishness of what we preach. Now when the grace of God's forgiveness is embedded in my testimony, the necessity of my coming to Christ embedded in Christ's call to believe and repent, I am wrapped up in the gospel and the gospel in my personal testimony. It all may be folly to the unbeliever, but that's where professional apologetics misses the mark as demonstrated by some posts here. You cannot take your cues from what the unbeliever wants to hear, nor from the lies that he tells himself and then tells you.

I enjoy Alister McGrath too, but I dont need permission from him or anyone else to incorporate personal testimony when and where I deem it good to present it.

Witnessing encounters rarely turn into a debate or a polemic discourse, they are personal encounters with people that want to be heard, but use defense tactics such as stale old arguments from some thing they heard or read. Launching the apologetic missile without discerning your unbelievers intent will just lead to rattling swords. On too many apologetics sites I see this as children at play with a new toy called "apologetics" and they want to prove they can play the logician and out-smartem. In the mean time the apologist has not even come close to the gospel presentation so they have injected futile apologetics banter in the place of impotent (so called) personal testimony and they still walk away with no conversions. Go figure. All that logic, evidence, reasoning and still just as inert as the damnable personal testimony. I say, we have a lot of growing up to do in apologetics and articles like this one display that immaturity. Do not take offense, I am included in that group as well.

Phil Ensor said...

Same as what they do in the army. De-programme. Re-programme.

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