To open my presence here, I’m posting I have a series of commentaries to offer on the process of modern evangelism and its relation (or rather, in practice, lack thereof) to apologetics. This was previously posted on one of my own blogs, but makes for a good start here as well.
We’ll begin with a thesis that I want to not only rock the boat with, but perhaps sink it as well:
Personal testimony is a damaging, destructive, and undesirable form of evangelism that ought to be abandoned.
This is a hard thesis to swallow, I know. Every evangelistic program makes personal testimony the centerpiece of evangelism. “Jesus can change your life, like he did mine” is the theme of every evangelist from Billy Graham on down the line. But let’s face it, for all the respect Graham and others may have accrued, it is clear that their practices have in the long run produced a raft of shallow converts (who sometimes “walk the aisle” and “make a decision” multiple times in their lives) and a church that is slowly dying in the West, and may well disappear in the next 30 years. As the saying goes, it is not so much foolish to do something that does not work, but to do it again and again expecting different and better results.
Here I’d like to start by explaining why personal testimony has been, and always will be, such a regrettable and ultimately useless (in the long run) evangelistic practice. Over the next five weekdays I’ll present five reasons why personal testimony needs to be abandoned as a practice in evangelism. Then I’ll move to describing what I think needs to be put in its place.
Background to start: Some years back I wrote an article for the Christian Research Journal titled “When Apologetics Was Evangelism” which you can read at here. I’ll be referring to it frequently in these next few essays; in part what I say here is an update to, and continuation of, what I wrote there, after some years of reflection. I’ll still allow that personal testimony can have a certain limited use — inasmuch as it is a form of evidence, albeit of the weakest, most questionable sort – but I’ll further develop in later essays some points about how I think evangelism should be conducted (obviously – no secret here – with a far more apologetic slant). For today, though, here is one of five reasons why personal testimony should be generally banished from our evangelistic arsenal.
Reason One: It has enabled the illogical, absurd argument that Christianity’s truth claims can be gauged by the behavior of confessed Christians.
We’ve seen it time and time again from all the doubting sources – one of the most recent ones is William Lobdell, author of Losing My Religion.
Here’s how it goes, simply put: Benny Hinn or Jim Bakker or my Christian Aunt Fannie did this or that or other nasty thing, and how can we believe in a religion where the people do that? It’s an absurd argument, for it is patent that just because Bakker ripped off millions, or Aunt Fannie kicked her cat, has no bearing on whether Jesus rose from the dead in first century Palestine. It may tell us how sincerely such Christians believe in and adhere to their system, or apply it to their lives, but it has zero effect on determining the factual basis for that belief.
And of course, no atheist seems to gauge the truth of their belief based on the actions of Stalin; contrarily, they may raise the specter of Bakker or Aunt Fannie, but if they do, why aren’t St. Francis or William Wilberforce or my nice Aunt Susie an argument for Christianity? Are they going to convert if we count the noses and find more good than bad? Then switch back if “bad” gains numbers, and back again when “good” is more numerous, and on and on? Somehow, I don’t think so.
We can go on about the obvious illogic of the argument for a while – it also runs into the matter of some who try to use the likes of Jim Jones as disconfirming evidence! — but the main point here, today, is that this sort of argument has been enabled by the use of personal testimony as an evangelistic tool. When, “Jesus changed my life” becomes one’s argument for someone to convert, “well, he obviously didn’t change so and so very well” becomes a legitimate counter. It isn’t sound as a response, for the reasons noted above. And obviously, I am not saying people would not make this sort of absurd argument anyway, even without personal testimony playing such an important role: These critics don’t need our help to make illogical arguments and do quite well on their own with them. But the point carries a lot more force when it is assumed that changing of life and behavior is the basis for conversion – and the primary basis at that, as is presented in modern evangelism.
If I am right here, it may be justly asked why it is that some people have had their lives changed as a result of becoming Christians. There’s an answer for that, and it has little to do with whether personal testimony is a valid means of evangelism: It is inevitable that giving someone a purpose for living – as inevitably, even a watered-down form of Christianity can do – will give them new direction, new purpose, and a new lease on life. With that of course will come something that can be made into what we call a personal testimony. But this doesn’t really give personal testimony a leg up as a tool for evangelism, because what people are “converting” to in these situations is more like an emotional experience and a guarantee of a changed life than a contractual or covenantal commitment to Christ as Lord.
I venture to say that some such people may not even have crossed the line into salvation; but such would be beyond what can be rightly judged, in general, and it is safest to say what is in evidence, in the very least, which is that we get from these conversions mostly shallow converts with no epistemic basis for their life in Christ.
And that, in turn, shall be the focus of my second reason for abandoning the practice of personal testimony, which will be posted next time.