Stories have sticking power. When Greeks of old studied Homer’s Odyssey their ideals, intuitions, and eventually their behavior were shaped by the narrative. The sequence of action, dialogue, thoughts, description and suspense unfold in such a way as to capture attention and move the soul. This is true when we read the Chronicles of Narnia with our children or when we listen to a colleague retell her story of sprinting through the JFK Airport terminal to catch a plane just moments before the door was shut. Stories communicate.
True as this is for entertainment and education, it is equally applicable to the activity of evangelism. Communicating an answer for our redemptive hope requires a variety of approaches, one of which—an especially important one—is articulating our personal conversion story, or what we more commonly call a “testimony.” In what follows, I would like to offer some thoughts on how testimonies can serve your gospel witness.
The Conversion Testimony
The “conversion” testimony is told by one who has come to faith as an adult (or at least an adolescent) and testifies to the reality of missing God’s standard. It includes a firsthand account of hopelessness and despair, underscoring the darkness of sin, before explaining how Jesus’ death and resurrection provided salvation. Here is an overview of the three components of which the conversion testimony normally consists.
1. Past. Explain what it felt like to be lost. Be honest and don’t hesitate to express vulnerability as you convey the dreadful angst of sin. However, be careful that you don’t glory in it, giving undue detail to lascivious behavior. Whether it is a lack of purpose, fear of death, or burden of guilt, put your finger on whatever most troubled you as an unbeliever.
2. Point of conversion. Like Paul the Apostle who contrasts the bad news of sin with the good news of Jesus, this is when you employ the adversative phrase “but God” (e.g. Eph 2:4), transitioning from your lost estate to the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the holy moment when time stands still and the angels observe with wonder. Because it is the heart of your testimony, this element must not be reduced to general terms such as “I heard the good news” or “I accepted Jesus.” Rather, you must explicate the centrality of Jesus’ “death” and “resurrection.” It is appropriate to unpack the meaning of these terms, but at the very least we need to specify what God has accomplished in history through his Son, the Christ.
3. Present and Hope for the Future. Having been justified in Christ and indwelt by his Spirit, we now possess a living hope that lasts for eternity. Yes, we continue to struggle as fallen creatures and at times even suffer, but heaven’s morning has been initiated and earth’s vain shadows flee under Christ’s reign. Such is the reality that now defines and enables us to lift our heads in hope.
Christian Life Testimony
So what about the person who was fortunate enough to be spared from a life of debauchery, who was converted at age five at Vacation Bible School? Can such people share a personal testimony? Yes, indeed. My wife belongs to this category. Of course she was a sinner at age four and-a-half, but to talk about stealing her sister’s pencil while watching a Veggie Tales episode, awful as it is, doesn’t exactly illustrate the repugnance of sin. In which case, such a person might tell the conversion story of her parents. Bearing in mind the principles explained above, here is the outline for such a testimony:
A. Telling Your Parents’ Conversion Story
1. What they were prior to Christ
2. Point of conversion (articulate the gospel)
3. What they are now in Christ
If you chose to tell your parents’ conversion story, you can (and should) still testify to God’s work in your own life. The scope and sequence or your story may look something like the following:
B. My rebellion may not be overt, but it is still severe.
1. I am a rebel because I still sin
2. God taught me early on . . . (articulate the gospel)
3. As a result of God’s redemptive grace I now have hope. . .
Finally, Keep in Mind
It would be a mistake to juxtapose the genres of narrative and didactic teaching. They are not adversaries, but stand together in the choir of divine revelation proclaiming the same Christ-centered message of salvation. The difference is one of style: narrative portraying the visual dimensions of truth and didactic emphasizing the logical. While necessarily relying on both of these modes, personal testimonies generally accentuate the visual and are therefore especially useful in illuminating the minds and hearts of those who are less familiar with abstract propositions of Christian doctrine. The illustrative nature of stories, whether biblical or our own, are therefore particularly suited to communicating among the un-churched.
When I am teaching on evangelism, I typically challenge folks to craft two testimonies: a thirty second version and one that is three minutes in length. I know, thirty seconds seems unrealistic, but it’s actually quite simple when you give it some thought. Remember, the point of pain, how the gospel provides salvation, and God’s enduring hope which defines you in the present and future. I would suggest composing the longer version first and then cut it down accordingly.
Finally, keep in mind the following do’s and don’ts.
- No funky God stories. Perhaps you have had a vision of the third heaven. If so, wonderful, but your conversion testimony is not the proper place to talk about it.
- Don’t be long-winded. This is why there is benefit in writing your story down beforehand. Of course you’ll want to deliver it without notes, but first putting it in writing will force you to concentrate on the precise wording and hopefully realize a greater measure of intentionality.
- Don’t be condescending. Remember Paul’s exhortation, “The goal of our instruction is love from pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5).
- Don’t sound churchy. Tribal language that employs nomenclature from the evangelical subculture (such as the phrase “accepting Jesus into one’s heart”) should be eliminated.
- Be clear. We who have the greatest message in the world should be the clearest communicators.
- Be concise. As mentioned above, having a couple of versions of your testimony will allow you to speak into a small window of opportunity as well as larger ones.
- Be God-centered. If you find yourself talking about yourself to the exclusion of God, you have a problem. Your explanation of the gospel and the hope that you now possess should make much of Jesus’ death, resurrection and the persons of the Triune God.
- Be faithful. We do the possible and God does the impossible. This means that we share honestly and with humility about our encounter with divine grace, and God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, extends new life. Remember, God did it in your life, which means he can also do so for others.