Why “Just 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.”

And 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—at all. First of all, 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 basing his argument 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 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 describe in mere words. And it is also often (but not always) the experience of God that first draws us to Him, before we have any real knowledge to back it up.

But it is still just a feeling. I can tell another person what I’ve experienced, but I can’t transfer that feeling to them as if I was exposing someone 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.”

I will go even further and say that it will almost never provide the cogent force necessary to overcome intellectual barriers. If I am talking to a Buddhist who claims to have experienced Nirvana and I am only able to respond by describing my feelings of what my encounter with God felt like, 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? The answer, of course, is no.

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 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 what’s traditionally been called “brain-washing.”

It should be obvious by now that 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 really want to convince people that Christianity is true. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with telling your story. Humans are storytellers by nature. It’s how we connect. It’s how we learn about each other and how we form communities.

But 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 is backed up by reality. 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 continue to play by the post-modernist’s rules and buy into the idea that our experiences and feelings are equivalent to objective truth.

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

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Comments

  1. says

    “It’s not rocket science, but it does take a serious commitment to learning why we believe what we believe.” Well put, Leslie, very well put.

    And on mountain-top experiences I think of two as standing out, one Old Testament and one New Testament.

    When Moses came down from the mountain, he literally glowed. He also physically carried the word of God with him to deliver to God’s people.

    When Jesus experienced transfiguration on the mountain, Peter, James and John basked in his glow, but also heard the very words of God the Father about God the Son.

    Experiences with the Word, accompanied by experience in God’s word. That appears to be the key to evangelism. Thanks for helping me think this through today, Leslie.

    Tim

  2. Howard Walker says

    In such situations I tend to take a more pragmatic approach. I tell the person how Christian faith and joining a faith community have changed my life for the better. You can’t argue with results.

    As for the more difficult apologetics questions I will admit to their not being open to proof in the scientific sense.

    I’m attempting to sell them a world view. For me, with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, this is the most honest way to go about it. But then, I don’t know how many conversions I can notch into the grip of Witness, my evangelical six-shooter.

    • lckeeney says

      Howard, it’s true that you can’t argue with results (we American are pragmatists after all :) but Scientology gets results too.

      I agree that people are sometimes so committed to the post-modern idea of there not being one absolute truth that the challenge is changing their entire worldview. Often it’s a matter of getting them to admit that there is such a thing as one single truth that corresponds to reality. And while it is possible to do that, it usually involves hours of Socratic conversation and lots of coffee!

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. says

    Agreed, but it does take much work. You have to really know what your talking about because people of the world will throw any kind of question at you and we always have to be prepared to give an answer.
    I’m a baby, a year old in the faith and I’ve hit pause on going further into conversation with, say an atheist or a muslim, until I’m prepared to not look like all I have is personal experience backing me up.
    Personal experience is what I’ve lead with but now, it looks like I’ll have a different approach to work on!

    • says

      Amal, when I am stumped by a question I just tell the person I need to look up the subject and get back top them. If they asked the question honestly and in good faith, they typically take that response well. If all they wanted to do was engage in a game of gotcha, then I’m not all that concerned with how they take it.

      Blessings as you grown in Christ, Amal!

      Tim

    • says

      You have to really know what your talking about because people of the world will throw any kind of question at you and we always have to be prepared to give an answer.

      Amal, you might want to read a book like Greg Koukl’s Tactics. (Some of the most important material is summarised in a talk on YouTube.) It is, in fact, possible to engage in a rewarding way with people who hold different convictions than you and are more experienced or knowledgeable than you.

    • lckeeney says

      Amal,

      I agree with Tim and Thomas. It’s OK to say that you’re new to the faith and don’t have all the answers yet. The important thing is to be committed to growing and learning (which it sounds like you are), rather than being content with the idea that your story is all you need.

      There are great books out there, just make sure they’re by reputable scholars. It just takes time, prayer, and help from the Holy Spirit.

      Thanks letting us help you in your journey.

    • says

      Checked out your blog, Howard. Looking good!

      Tim

      P.S. Leslie was one of the ones whose support and encouragement got me started blogging eventually too.

      • lckeeney says

        You guys both make it worthwhile. I’ve put both of you in my Google Reader. (Tim, I don’t know how I missed putting you in here before, but you’re in now)

  4. says

    Thank you for this thought provoking post.
    It really is a question how one could claim that the experience of the Christian is true, and that of someone from another religion not! Reading books on the subject can help, but that remains a method of witnessing – something from the outside! I believe rather spending more time in the Word itself and in the presence of God, and really knowing Him personally in a personal relationship is our anchor. When we do witness and give testimony of our own experience of faith, and it is questioned, the case is not ours. That is when the Holy Spirit kicks in! Trying to be prepared beforehand on whatever we could be doubted for is futile. Mark 13:11 comes to mind: “…do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
    And that brings us full circle to testify of our own personal experience. But then we have to have an honest real testimony of real experience of God!
    God bless!
    Herman of bibledifferences.net

  5. John from down under says

    Great post and it pretty much sums up how I feel about testimonies.

    I’d be interested to know though, what would your response be to those who use Mark 5:18-19 as justification for story telling as a form of “evidentiary aplogetics”?

    • lckeeney says

      John,

      I am certainly not against story-telling. It is often (as in the verse you described), the first thing we do to start a communication. I think humans are natural story-tellers and am involved in something called “imaginative apologetics” in which story (and the other arts) are used to prepare the heart for the gospel.

      But in a post-modern world, in which all our stories are “true for us,” we need MORE than just our story. So I am not averse to story-telling as a way of sharing the gospel, but am convinced that in a post-modern world, it is not enough. We also need a reason why our truth is THE truth.

    • Rob says

      Regarding those who would make the point that Mark 5:18-19 makes the case for story telling as a format for evidentiary apologetics, I would offer the following point:

      The text does not reveal that Jesus ever implored the man to “repent and believe the gospel”. Given that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16), then we should concluded that this deliverance from demonic possession was just that, a good work done for him by The Lord. There is no evidence in the text that a salvific conversion of the soul took place. Therefore, the command of Jesus to tell him to “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19 NASB) was not a command to go tell your story of coming to repentance and faith in an eternal salvific way. It would be rightly understood that the man’s testimony would be one of thanks unto God and an attestation as to the power of Jesus Christ. Testimonies are not wrong, they are just not “the gospel”.

      It is important to remember here is that giving thanks to God is not only expect of believers, but from all men. One of the chief indictments against man is that they did not give thanks unto God. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:21 NASB). It would be completely in line with the whole counsel of Scripture to expect Jesus to have commanded the man to witness and give thanks to God regardless as to wether or not his heart was regenerate at that point.

  6. Ed Kornkven says

    Thank you for much food for thought. I feel left with a false dichotomy however, one that could be dangerous. How did Paul know that his Damascus Road experience with Jesus was real? Chocolate? Paul, as a New Testament writer who never walked with Jesus before the resurrection, seemed to place a lot of emphasis on his experience, especially with the Holy Spirit. One may be giving post-modernists the home field advantage by discussing experience, but isn’t meeting people where they are and in terms they value part of reaching into a culture? I wonder if the reason we are often hesitant to share out of our experience is because we have so little of it to share. I would suggest that what we need is to be powerful in both the truth content of our message and our experience of it and to ask God for more of both. I need that anyway.

    • lckeeney says

      Ed,

      I agree that we should talk about both experience and what I’ll call “evidence.” And I don’t think we stop telling our story; you’re absolutely right, Paul told his story all the time, but he also used reason (showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecy) and evidence (how many people Jesus appeared to after his death). One theme of this blog is that we need both head and heart to effectively live out God’s kingdom.

      People will often need to hear our story first, but eventually they will need more.

  7. says

    Some people will believe because of experience. Having them learning more evidence may not change that. It will just strengthen their experience. For them, it would be hypocritical if they portrayed evidence instead experience as the core of their belief. Whether or not experience should be the core of their belief is another matter of debate.

  8. The_L says

    You can’t win people over to your perspective on religion, or anything, by talking. People are inundated with stories nowadays. Turn on the TV or Internet, bam, stories. Live theater? Stories. Cinema? Stories. People can hear what others think about anything, anywhere, all the time.

    So don’t talk. Listen. And when people are ready to ask, then you open your mouth. But only then. :)

    • lckeeney says

      I totally agree. Sometimes what happens is that in trying to keep posts short, I assume things that shouldn’t be assumed. I think the best of people and ASSUME that they have the good sense not to start a conversation about Christianity until someone has asked them. Then a reader reminds me that this isn’t always the case.

      Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Mike says

    What evidence do you have that the “just share your story” approach “does not work…at all”? Anecdotal evidence and short-term observation suggest that it does work, at least sometimes. (E.g., many people seem to convert in response to shared testimonies at camps, and such; and many of the same people, even years later, will say that the testimonies they heard were the deciding factor in their conversion.) Maybe your view is that it *shouldn’t* work; but that is obviously different from saying that it *doesn’t* work. And I think that it is irresponsible to declare that it doesn’t work without some solid evidence to support that claim.

    • lckeeney says

      Mike,

      What I meant is that it doesn’t work in a post-modern worldview, when a person believes that there is no one truth and that everyone’s truth is different depending on their story. I have had many people say to me that Christianity is fine “for me” but people can believe whatever makes them happy because there is no one truth.

      You’re right that many people have been (and continue to be) converted by personal testimonies; I was referring to the idea that it doesn’t work for a person with a consistent post-modern worldview. I should have made that clearer.

  10. aimai says

    I don’t mean to be rude…but I’m not sure that what I consider courtesy is what you guys consider courtesy given the posts here. I mean, look, amal upthread explains that he was convinced of the truth of his beliefs by something so personal and numinous that he literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about in a factual, historical sense. That’s fine–lots of religions depend on feeling and the ineffable to catch and hold their adherents. But then other posters, and the original poster herself, come along and assure him that its “perfectly fine” to retreat back to silence and admit ignorance of the “reality” because good evangelical subjects will be tolerant of his need to run home and check his book for facts and answers. And those bad ones–playing “gotcha?” well… is the message “blank them if they won’t accept as proof whatever I offer, when I offer it?”

    Is that harsh? Look at it from my perspective. I’m not an unbeliever. I’m a believer in lots of things which don’t happen to include the historical truth of Christianity in all its many forms. I’m also quite knowledgeable in the history of religions generally and Christianity in particular. Amal, or some other enthusiast comes up to me and asks me if I’d like to know why he believes what he believes? I say yes and first I get what Kenney acknowledges to be a totally untestable and irrelevant story about a personal experience. Then when challenged on the details of the historical existence of Jesus I either get a ton of “facts” which are not actually terribly factual–the “number of people Jesus is said to have raised from the dead? The “fact” that Moses was said to look all shiny when he came down from the Mount?” These are obviously no different from any other stories about people and demigods which predate (or are absent from) the historical record.

    If you want to believe then believe–lots of people do believe lots of different religions. But if you begin your interactions with people not already predisposed to be easily persuaded you are doomed to failure whether your method includes self revelation (“I’ve never been happier!”) or focuses on “the facts” presented to you in a document cobbled together from various sources and placed together at the Council of Nicea.

    aimai

    • lckeeney says

      Aimai,

      I don’t think I can address all of your concerns adequately here. The written word isn’t nearly as effective as being in the same room with someone, but I want to address a few things:

      It sounds from your comment that you’ve had some experience with either pushy Christians who think they can argue you into faith or some really bad apologetics. (I’m not familiar with using the “number of people Jesus is said to have raised from the dead or the “fact” that Moses was said to look all shiny when he came down from the Mount” as evidence for the historical truth of Christianity. In fact, I’d be interested in who said this :)

      If these are the kinds of experiences you or your friends have had, then you have every reason to be skeptical.

      One thing I would challenge you on is the statement that “these are obviously no different from any other stories about people and demigods which predate (or are absent from) the historical record.” A lot of good scholarship has generally disproven that Jesus’ resurrection’s was based on pagan myths.

      Finally, I want to heartily agree with your observation that “if you begin your interactions with people not already predisposed to be easily persuaded you are doomed to failure.” One thing I firmly believe is that a person cannot be talked into faith unless both their heads and hearts are ready.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  11. Dana says

    I agree with the point of this article in principle.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of people, if asked to give an explanation for why their religious belief is correct, will give incredibly bad reasons. As a young doubting believer, hearing other believers tell me why Christianity was true left me inevitably LESS persuaded, because I could tell a bad argument when I heard it, and when all the arguments for Christianity you hear are bad arguments, that seems like a good reason to think Christianity is false! No arguments at all, and a discussion of people’s experiences, would have done me more good.

    And what Christians are likely to learn, if they go off to study apologetics, is just going to be a larger pile of bad arguments, and more confidence in the strength of those bad arguments, because unfortunately those who teach apologetics don’t tend to teach real critical thinking skills. Apologeticists are too often willing to cite any old piece of crap argument so long as its conclusion is the one they want to push for.

    Just because Christianity is true doesn’t mean that the average believer is going to be able to give a respectable argument for its truth. I believe all kinds of scientific claims are true, but I can’t give a respectable argument for those either–I tell you to go talk to a scientist.

  12. lckeeney says

    Dana,

    Many good apologists will agree with you that apologetics has been done very badly by a lot of people. (Although isn’t that the case with many things?) I admire you for being able to recognize a bad argument when you heard it, because a lot of people can’t do that either. There are, actually, many defenses of Christianity (and even for the existence of God), that I think are “crap,” as well. (I won’t list them here, but I have occasionally talked about them in previous posts)

    One of the premises of this blog is that faith is both a head and heart matter. Unless both are ready, all the words in the world won’t convince someone. Thanks for your honest feedback and don’t let anyone try to foist a bad argument on you. :)

  13. says

    There’s a really good book (unfortunately now out of print) called Dialogical Apologetics by David C. Clark that advocates a person-and-service focused approach that emphasizes listening and give-and-take dialog that mixes personal story and apologetics as needed for each relationship and also holds the growth of people–BOTH of the dialog partners–rather than numbers of conversions as the goal. (He does not minimize the desirability of conversions, just recognizes that ultimately that is inherent in the process and dependent on God.)

  14. Rob says

    I must give a hearty “Amen” to the point of this article. You hit it right on the money by making the point that the gospel is NOT our story. It is the story of what the triune God has done for His glory and the redemption of man through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I must, however, offer a differing perspective on your comment as the efficacy of evidence where you said the following:

    “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…”

    While I would agree that God the Holy Spirit does offer us “logical, rational, and winsome ways to demonstrate that Christianity is the best explanation”, I would suggest that these are assurances to the new (or old) convert rather than a “magic bullet” to convince him to convert himself to Christ. This conversion of a spiritually dead, evil, God-hating heart (Gen 8:21, Ps 51:5, Rom 1:29-32, Eph 2:1) is a miracle that rivals the creation of the Universe. This is the work of God the Holy Spirit (Ezek 36:25-27, John 1:12-13, 6:44, 6:65, Acts 13:48) and never the work of man’s reason and logic.

    I would suggest that men rightly find comfort in reasonable and logical explanations of their new found belief, but that man is incapable of executing his conversion to Christ (Phil 1:29, 2 Thes 2:13) upon discovery of such explanations. Therefore, in as much as the presentation of the gospel is not to be confused with the telling of one own story of conversion, it should also not be confused with the delivery of well-reasoned, and logical explanations. The Apostle Paul clearly avoided such wisdom in preaching the gospel; “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.” (1 Corinthians 1:21 ESV). The offer of “evidence” to an unbeliever sets the unbeliever in the position of judge and jury as to the claims of Scripture. We have amble reason to know that God is not to be judged by His creatures. “And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (Job 40:1, 2 ESV). “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?” (Romans 9:20 NASB).

    The most well-intention evangelist will stray from the pure gospel message whenever his compassion for man exceeds his passion for God. The pure gospel will always be offensive to the unbeliever. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-24 ESV). But it is this very offense that must be delivered to the unbeliever in order to rip any false hope of self-righteousness from their hands. Far too often our sensitivity to man’s “feelings” prevents the delivery of a pure gospel message. A gospel preacher would so well to remind himself often of the eternity of Hell when considering the plight of the unbeliever, and “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men…” (2 Corinthians 5:11 NASB).

What do you think?