Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 5
Problem: Personal testimony evangelism requires building a “ten ton bridge” to present the Gospel.
The presentation of personal testimony implies an invitation to examine our lives to see if Christianity is true. That in turn implies that the person has to know us well in order to know, or be more sure, that Christianity is true.
And what’s that mean in turn? It means that any actual decision for the Gospel can be forestalled by someone on the pretense of getting to know us better (though they may not tell us that). Or, it can cause us to hedge in presentation, thinking that a person doesn't know us well enough to present the Gospel to them.
Of course, there are those who will make a decision, as it is said, based on knowing us for just a little while; just as people make snap decisions every day for every reason. But we don’t regard such decisions as well-informed or judicious in other contexts, so why here?
The Apostles didn’t have to play the “get to know you” game to evangelize. Yes, they did know their audiences, generally, as Jews or Greeks, but they certainly did not think they had to get to know them as friends – build that 10 ton bridge – before they started preaching.
In the next two entries, I’ll lay out my positive case for how evangelism should be done, and I’ll be considering what adjustments do need to be made for modern culture in light of the NT example. We have some modern preachers who think “street preaching” is the way we should go, and in one sense, I think they are correct – but only in principle, not in application. We’ll get to that starting next week.
For now, I’d like to close this section of the series with a remark about personal testimony and what it is, exactly. A reader reminded me that it would be a good idea to define terms, and I’ll do that. I’ll also sum up what role if any I think personal testimony can have in evangelism.
What is personal testimony? Personal testimony is often seen as having two aspects. One is what is sometimes called “lifestyle evangelism” – setting an example that makes others wonder what motivates you.
This is NOT what I mean by “personal testimony”. This fits in with the “city on a hill” teaching, which we have noted is a sort of passive form of evangelism (see our earlier entry) and is perfectly legitimate. I would not even call this “personal testimony,” technically: It’s not really “personal” and it isn’t “testimony” in a strict legal sense.
Aside from “city on a hill” instructions (Matt. 5:16), there’s validation for this method in Titus 2:7 and especially 1 Peter 2:12. In Biblical terms, the example Christians set was one which the honor-minded ancients would be concerned with, especially given that society’s tendency to keep deviant groups under a microscope. (We’re under one too, now, but for different reasons; still, the directive for this sort of “testimony” applies.) And of course, we have books like Christianity on Trial that use an apologetic in which it is shown that the Christian worldview has benefited mankind.
The other aspect of what is called “personal testimony” – which I do have in mind – is a verbal or written presentation in which we conclude, “Jesus caused me to change X way, and this is why you too should be a Christian.” This is the type of personal testimony I believe needs to be generally abandoned, being subject to the serious weaknesses I have outlined in this series.
When should I use personal testimony, if at all? I would restrict its use to times when a person asks us a question like, “What has Christianity done for you?” or “How has it changed you?” Or, when their own life is in disarray and they need a change. However, even at such times, we should present personal testimony within the frame of being a change in worldview and outlook as a result of the factual rising of Jesus from the dead. I’m not saying you need to give a drug addict all the standard arguments for the empty tomb – just make it clear that the historic Resurrection is what’s behind the worldview change, and indicate that this is a claim that will have to be considered, for it is what makes the worldview valid.
That’s the end of the first aspect of this series – next week, we turn to a positive case for how evangelism ought to be conducted.