A friend recently emailed and asked what my thoughts were on the Christian practice of telling our "personal testimony." I thought I would answer him here since it might be a helpful discussion for everyone to think through. After my conversion (1990) I was asked to tell my testimony in several different contexts - especially youth groups. Following the popular format of the day I shared how bad I was, how I met Jesus, and how different I was after. What I found was that people, especially youth, were more interested in the sordid and morbid details of my previous life than they were of my new life, and even less interested in the Jesus who brought about the change. I eventually stopped telling my testimony in that way, and focused more on finding the best way to help people see the gospel itself, not just what it has accomplished in one man's life.
In short, I have two main problems with the Christian testimony. My main problem is that many testimonies, at least as they seem to be popularly told today, make more of the change a person experienced than the One who brought about such change. Sometimes this is intentional because, let's face it - most people like to be the topic of conversation. But often listeners overlook Jesus in a Christian's testimony because they are simply gravitating to the one they think is the central character in the story.
But another problem is that an argument from personal experience carries very little weight these days; much less weight than we are led to believe by some church leaders and evangelism training. Your radical transformation, at least as much as can be seen by others, is not very different from the stories told by the disciples of Jenny Craig, Scientology, veganism, or Mac computers. "My life is so different now. So better. I am a new person!" There are converts to something everywhere all sharing their personal testimony, pointing to the power and truth of whatever it is that has brought about transformation.
The only way to make a clear distinction between your Christian testimony and someone else's story of transformation is via a direct appeal to the gospel itself. We have to make sure that Christ is the central character in our story, and that we are not merely sharing our experience, but the gospel; that God in Christ reconciles the world to himself, establishing an everlasting Kingdom in which our sins are forgiven and the image of God is restored in us.
I am not suggesting that we abandon the practice of telling our stories. We should! Our stories can help people see the gospel at work, but the gospel must be clear. So yes, I am in favor of Christians sharing their testimony so long as we are careful to:
1. Make Jesus the central character in your story, and/or the gospel your point. Your story is anecdotal. The people you talk to need to understand that your experience is what the gospel does, and is not the gospel itself. Your story fits into the larger story of God's work of redemption. In a very real sense, Jesus is the central character in your story.
2. Tell the truth. I was once in an evangelism class where the professor actually instructed the students to "jazz up" their former lives to make their story of transformation more exciting. (He was apparently not impressed with the stories of young adults who came to know Christ early, or were protected by God from gross sin in their youth. He missed that the grace of God preserving and protecting the young from temptation and sin is an incredible testimony.)
Think of it this way. One man was considered scum by his family and neighbors, while another was a stand-up guy who was widely respected as virtuous and valuable. But both men were under the curse of the law, and in need of God's grace. Their testimonies are the same in that they both discovered the triumph of God's grace over sin and death. One man saw that his unrighteousness was foolishness, while the other saw his morality as absolutely lacking. Both men had to repent and believe the gospel in order to enter the Kingdom. What makes your testimony worth hearing is not the dramatic outward transformation, but the eternal transaction between Father and Son on your behalf.
3. Know how to talk about the gospel. This is what I always tell our people at Redeemer. The key to being an evangelist is not a script, nor a diagnostic question, and it's definitely not a banana. The key to the discipline of evangelism is a theological and experiential knowledge of the gospel. Without this a testimony is just you talking about yourself. We are holding a Saturday Seminar on Evangelism at Redeemer in February and will cover some of the theological and practical issues involved.
What are your thoughts on the testimony? How is it misused, abused, or used well?