Don’t Just Share Your Testimony

I can’t remember anyone ever asking me for the evidences for the resurrection or a list of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus or examples of intelligent design in our physical universe. But I can remember several instances when someone inquired about “how I became religious.” People want to hear about my experiences more than my convictions. Perhaps that’s due to our experience-obsessed culture. Or maybe it’s always been the case that people like to compare their lives with others.

I think, at one point, I stopped presenting evidences, arguments, and proofs and only offered experiences. That was, after all, what people had asked for. I was even told by older Christians, “People might reject your arguments, but they can never deny your testimony.” Remarkably, however, they did deny my testimony—quite regularly. They dismissed it with the imbibed mantra, “What is true for you is not true for me.”

Apostle Paul Model

Is there another way to think about sharing my testimony? Should I have given up on that evangelistic tactic altogether? Are there better ways to “make the most of every opportunity” (Col. 4:5)?

As is so often the case, when all else failed, I resorted to the Bible. It’s amazing how much that book has to offer about living the Christian life.

I recalled several evangelism training seminars that pointed me to Acts 26 where Paul “shared his testimony.” I was encouraged (and I think I’ve used this passage to encourage others) to craft a testimony that described what my life was like before coming to faith, the circumstances through which I came to faith, and how my life is different now that I have come to faith. But that is exactly what people dismissed with the “true for you but not for me” speech.

So I read the text a bit more carefully. Indeed, Acts 26 records Paul sharing his testimony. But it’s more than the three-fold model I was instructed to follow. Paul wove together a tapestry of his experiences, pre-evangelistic prompters, doctrinal elements, apologetic arguments, and even a call for a decision. While Agrippa did not respond as Paul had hoped (and prayed!—see his comment in verse 29), and accused Paul of losing his mind (v. 24), the king didn’t offer any dismissive, relativistic gibberish about “true for you but not for me.”

Note that the text calls Paul’s speech a “defense” (v. 1). That’s probably a better description than a “testimony,” and offering a defense is probably a better goal for us than merely sharing our story.

Consider these four ingredients in Paul’s speech:

1. Pre-evangelistic plausibility

Toward the beginning, he asked, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead” (v. 8)? He wanted them to see that his line of argument fit with beliefs they already held. This is a crucial step for many people. Sometimes they need to own up to their faith positions and see that ours are not that different. Some people need to consider that something might be true before they accept that it is true.

2. Selective details about his experience

Paul told about his upbringing (v. 4-5), his recent opposition to the gospel (v. 9-11), his Damascus road drama (v. 12-18), and some (but not many) details of what happened after his conversion (v. 20-21). Any recounting of an event is selective. You can’t include everything—and people don’t want to hear it all. In some instances you may have five minutes to tell your story, though in most cases you will only have one or two minutes. For that reason, it’s worth thinking through several different-length messages: the one-minute “elevator” version, the two-minute “walking down the hallway together” version, the three-minute “over a cup of coffee” version, and so on.

If people ask for more, then it’s time to elaborate—with one eye on them and the other on the clock. If they show signs of losing interest, it’s time to move toward dialogue and away from soliloquy. Paul’s situation allowed for a longer presentation. Our short statements could open doors for fuller explanations.

3. Doctrinal statements of gospel components

Paul wove into his narrative the fact that his message calls people “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (17), provides “forgiveness of sins” (18), leads to “a place among those who are sanctified” (18), requires “faith in” Jesus (18), includes the need for “repentance” (20), and must be validated by “deeds” (20). It is not manipulative for us to follow Paul’s example and intertwine our experiences with what we learned along the way. Statements that begin with “here’s what happened,” “here’s what I learned,” and “here’s what I understood” can all be included in our defense.

4. Apologetic arguments

Paul attempted to persuade (not merely inform) Agrippa and “all who were listening” (29) that his message was “nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen” (22). His message implied, “You should believe this because it’s reasonable,” not, “You should appreciate this and celebrate diversity because it’s my experience and knowing of a lot of different perspectives will make you a well-rounded person.” If we only tell of subjective experiences, we are unwittingly adopting our culture’s relativistic worldview. But if we also express objective truth, we tacitly call for a decision.

How to Prepare Your Defense

If you’re thinking this defense might take some preparation, you’re right. Very few of us could be this brilliant right on the spot. We don’t even have any indication from the text that Paul came up with this spontaneously. While it might be best to sound unrehearsed, some diligent forethought and practice is appropriate.

Here are a few more suggestions as you make your defense:

1. Use paper and pen

There’s nothing like writing things down to move toward clarity. Even though you’ll eventually deliver this message orally (without written notes), the starting point should be in writing.

2. Remember and edit

Make a list of all the events and details that factored in the path God used in your life. Then start crossing things off the list. Decide which events were really pivotal and which ones were merely incidental. Prioritize those details that clarify the gospel message.

3. Recall lessons and corrections

Which facts, evidences, and arguments corrected your wrong thinking about God, Jesus, and eternal life? Weave those into your story with phrases like, “I never understood that . . .” or “I found out that . . .” or “I realized I had been wrong about . . .”

4. Combine truth and goodness

The gospel is true, but it’s also good. People need to hear about both. A good defense helps hearers understand and appreciate, become informed and hungry, and say, “Now I understand,” as well as, “How can I experience that?” We need to tell people what caused us to believe but we also need to say, “Here’s why I’m glad that I did.”

These short defenses could pave the way for longer discussions. As those dialogues convey our salvation message, we want people to know it includes repentance, forgiveness, fulfillment of prophecy, and eternal life, as well as joy, relief, comfort, power to live a good life, hope, and a host of other benefits.

By God’s grace, some people may respond better than Agrippa did to Paul.

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  • Phil Weingart

    It is good to be able to give a formal defense, and those who can, should. However, not everybody is equipped to defend the faith on that level, and a great deal of damage gets done by those who think they can but do it poorly.

    Everybody, on the other hand, can tell their own story, and most conversions are the result of personal interaction.

    Please encourage people to learn better how to defend the faith — but please, do not attempt to discourage them from telling their story. Testimonials are powerful.

    • Al

      As Randy gives a list of things to think about when preparing to tell your story I don’t know why you would think that he is discouraging testimonials. The whole article is about preparing yourself to give your testimony in a meaningful and relevant way to those listening.

    • Darren Blair

      As an actual member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (that is, the Mormons)?

      I’ve lost track of the number of times a mainline Christian has tried to “save” me, only to be so completely lacking in basic Christian history and theology that I had to turn around and teach them about what it was that they were supposed to believe.

      The most common thing for me to have to teach them is how the Bible was compiled. I keep running into mainline Christians who think that the books in the Bible are in the order that they were initially written in rather than thematic order. Even basic concepts like “Markan Priority” are initially lost on them.

      From there, I’ve met maybe 1 in 20 who can defend the three-in-one Trinity model without referring to the Johannine Comma.

      So yeah – it might behoove more would-be witnessers to do a little bit of homework first.

      • Al

        @Darren. I’m not sure how being about to teach the intricacies of the compilation of the Bible and the Trinity in detail (which remains a mystery to everyone save the Trinity of course) is really going to help you to meet Jesus. Essentially, we come to faith by encountering Jesus as Saviour and Lord as a reality in our lives. All the theology in the world won’t change hearts or make us new: that’s the work of God.
        A testimony is the story of how someone has experienced that saving grace for themselves. Explaining your experience of Jesus is very different from defending the intricacies of theology and I don’t think the latter is what Randy is talking about here. Explaining how you came to faith, rather than just the mechanics of the act itself, takes preparation. How do I explain to someone how I knew that I would never be good enough to come to Christ and needed help to do this? Why did I decide that Christianity makes the most sense of the world I observe and live in? How can I believe in a God of love when I experience suffering in my own life? Questions like that are personal responses to big questions and they are part of my testimony. They can touch on the intellectual but they are not primarily about academic issues.
        Some people are particularly gifted in tackling complicated theological concepts and explaining them but those answers don’t have to relate to personal testimony.
        What Jesus does is transform you – how can that not be relevant to someone listening? It is not a dry academic experience to encounter the living Lord which is why every Christian has a valuable testimony to share whether or not they are intellectually gifted.
        The question is: how do we tell our story in the way which makes the most sense to our hearers? There is no point speaking what can amount to a foreign language (what is the blood of the Lamb? What does that mean to someone who has never heard of animal sacrifices?) – preparation to tell their testimony is a different but important part of being a witnessing Christian than preparing to defend doctrine.
        Darren, I’m sorry you haven’t found a Christian who can effectively share what meeting Christ for themselves means to them but a personal testimony is not designed to answer those questions.

        • Darren Blair

          I’m an MBA, with a specialization in marketing.

          One of the first principles of selling is that a good seller should know what they’re selling.

          A salesperson could have all the faith and belief in the world about what it is that they’re selling, but if they can’t answer the questions that the would-be customer is asking, then they’ve just lost the sale.

          From a theological standpoint, if a person can’t actually define what they believe, then what confidence should the person that they’re witnessing to have in just what they’re selling?

          • Divanshu

            @Darren Blair: No hard feelings but I am not agree with this thought of comparing ‘The Gospel’ with salesperson’s product.

            Bible says, 2 Cor. 5:20-“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ,…”.
            It is our responsibility to share our ‘Testimony’ faithfully and with clear conscious. At the same time, we should remember our job is just to share ‘The Gospel’ with other person though we should be well prepared for that, as he has shared good points in this article, how to prepare your testimony.
            But we should remember it is not how intellectually we share our testimony or the sort of words we use to make it dramatic/interesting story to convert any person. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, which brings conviction and take that person to the cross.
            So, we should share our testimony lovingly and with compassion, knowing that God is the one who can change the person’s heart/beliefs through his Spirit.

            If any disagreements, please feel free to write me back.

            • Darren Blair

              Thing is, when you’re witnessing to someone, you’re trying to “sell” them on the gospel.

              Not too terribly many people realize that.

  • Jim Korth

    Well said. The problem of people telling “their story” is just that… it is “their story.” Others can stand up and tell “their story” of how their lives were changed by Scientology, Buddhism, Mormonism, or a host of other things. Then it turns into the :”what’s true for you…” issue. Paul weaves Gospel truth throughout his testimony and believers can do the same by indicating that before coming to Christ I was a lost sinner in need of salvation, I came to recognize that God’s Son atoned for my sin by His death and resurrection, and since that time I’ve lived with the tension of being simultaneously a sinner and a saint, but I have the blessed assurance of abundant and eternal life.

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  • zKatherine

    Very good advice. We all must be ready to give a defense of what we believe. Person testimony makes the Truth relatable to people’s every day lives. I’ve also begun note taking and now have flashcards handy with references on the Trinity, salvation, and common mistranslations found in the New World Translation so I am always prepared for the next knock on my door by Jehovah’s Witnesses (they come quite frequently).

  • Nancy Guthrie

    I like this goal: “to clarify the gospel message.” It seems to me that our story has the ability to have lasting impact to the degree we use it to tell God’s story—our words have the ability to bring life to the extent they are infused with God’s word.

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