This week, John Leonard is shaking the tree on how we view “our testimony” in regard to evangelism. In the Reformed world, it’s pretty common to make the point that “our testimony isn’t the gospel.” That’s not new. But that’s not where Leonard is going with this one…
“Testimonies are powerful. They are so powerful that Luke tells Paul’s testimony three separate times in Acts. In our work, few things have been more compelling than the testimonies of converts from Islam. Testimonies show that God is at work in people’s lives today and puts real-life experience on the Christian faith. But there are major differences between the testimonies given in traditional evangelism and the testimonies given as the result of a normal, real, authentic approach to evangelism. In a traditional testimony you’re often sharing a story that took place in the past—and for some of us it’s the distant past.
My story is now almost forty years old. I know we sing the hymn “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” but I don’t think many people—young or old—are very interested in it. If the intent of our testimony is to show how God is at work today, aren’t we undermining that truth with a story of God’s grace that’s so old? Secondly, why do most testimonies—including mine above—end when we “accept Christ”? Shouldn’t that be the beginning of a long and fascinating story of what Christ is doing with the life that I gave him? Imagine yourself at a fiftieth wedding anniversary. The husband gets up and tells an endearing story about how he met his bride. He entertains us with funny stories of the wedding day. Then the wife shares her charming stories about their meeting and the wedding. Wouldn’t you consider it strange if they say nothing about how much the other means to them now, after all those years together? The past is important, but what you want to hear and what you are there to celebrate is the fifty years that this man and this woman have had together. What makes anniversaries special is when both the husband and the wife tell each other how much they still love one another, even after fifty years. Likewise, the best testimony is one that lets those of us listening know that you love Jesus now more than you ever have, because you know he loves you more than you ever realized. We speak about the present state of our relationship to Christ. Traditional evangelism has only one testimony to tell—“how I came to Christ.” Once everyone has heard it, there isn’t much more to say.”
This is where Leonard is often so good, then how do you apply this to your daily life and evangelistic endeavors….well, he’s glad you asked!
It’s not about how the process started; it’s about how God is continuing that process. You don’t have one testimony—you have hundreds of testimonies because you have a story of how God is at work throughout your life and how he continues to be, even at this moment. You can never tell the whole story in one sitting; you simply pick a part of the story to tell.
In a normal, real approach to evangelism, the real question is which testimony do you give? You share the one that’s most relevant to the person you’re speaking with. If he’s having a problem with his marriage, you tell him about how God has, and is, converting your understanding of marriage. If her problem is with a parent, you share how God is converting your understanding of what it means to be a son or daughter. Many times, this means sharing the most recent way the Lord has been working in that area of your life.
Finally, this “new” approach to testimonies helps get rid of another old stereotype and makes the testimony, potentially, more effective.
The traditional approach to testimonies dichotomizes our life into a “before Christ” and an “after Christ” period. This can lead to testimony envy, where we wish we had a horrible past so that we could say how good God is in rescuing us from such a life. In a real approach to evangelism, the old self is not followed by the new self, but they are parallel.
When we speak about our Christian experience as a distant past event—where our life is divided into a bad part and a good part—we give people the impression that we are good, instead of showing them how God is good. Getting real means you come alongside the person you’re speaking with and identify with them and their problems. I am not an alcoholic and I have never done drugs. But as a fellow sinner, I have some idea how alcoholics and drug addicts feel. I’m not an alcoholic not because I’ve been transformed by Christ in that area, but because I don’t like alcohol. I don’t like the taste and I’m not going to drink something I don’t like just to feel good at some point later on. No, I am not a drunk. But I am a hedonist. If alcohol tasted like chocolate, I’d be a drunk. The reason I don’t do drugs is not because I’m a Christian—and it would sound pious if I could say it—but the truth is, I don’t do drugs because I’m a coward. I don’t want to go to jail and I don’t like needles. Nonetheless, I know the drives for pleasures I shouldn’t indulge in and the power of lust in my heart—whether it’s for power, money, pride, or a host of other sins. I know that out-of-control feeling when you believe there’s no power in you to stop—but thank God, Jesus has his hand on me; he calms the rage and craving inside me. I need Jesus to save me right now, more than I ever have at any other time in my life.
In a real testimony, you make it clear that your life right now would be a mess if it wasn’t for Jesus—that you would be in the exact same position as the person you are speaking to (and in some ways, still are), if it weren’t for Jesus. You’re not good, but Jesus is great. It is a different kind of testimony. It is not a testimony of your goodness. It is a testimony of God’s grace.
Questions for Thought or Discussion:
1. Think about a time when you gave your “testimony” about Jesus work in your life to someone…when did it stop? Do you stop at the wedding day? Think about other times you’ve heard someone’s testimony….is Leonard’s picture accurate?
2. Regardless of what you think of his illustration, how does his picture of talking about God’s work in your life being very current help with evangelism? Does it make evangelism to a friend harder or easier?