Tom Pittman's WebLog

2013 August 6 -- Telling Your Story

When I had a lot more income to give away, I got myself on a number of "major donor" lists. The revenue departments of these ministries have a business model that encourages them to engage their donors in "relationships". Maybe that works for the average guy with more dollars than sense, but it usually just turns me off. I try to pay more attention to what God is telling me to do with the money He has entrusted to my care, than what the money-hungry fundraisers say.

One these organizations works with college students. Most of what they do is probably OK, but a recent mailing from them got up my behindside. Their theme is "Telling His Story by Telling Yours." The problem is, it's unBiblical.

I won't say it doesn't get converts. Perhaps it does -- especially in today's post-modern culture. The essense of post-modernism is that there is no such thing as true or false, just personal stories and power plays. The "Telling Your Story" program accepts that nonsense as valid and plays into it. Another common phrase in the same framework is "People don't care how much you know until the know how much you care." It resonates with church people, because they all are MBTI Feelers. Their highest value is "relationship" by which they mean affirmation, "caring" for each other (at least on the surface). Of course you can never know what's true in that environment. Feelers don't care what's true. Like the bishop in that forgetable disaster flick, hope is more important than the truth. The American churches are run by and for the exclusive benefit of Feelers, Thinkers need not apply. So the Thinkers stay home.

I'm not one of those Feelers. Half of the people in this country are Thinkers, not Feelers. We are not welcome in the churches unless we agree to check our brains at the door. If all the gospel I ever heard was people "telling their story," I would probably be an atheist today. The atheists say they care about the truth. Most of them do, nevermind that they don't know what's true. Science is (or at least was) about what is true. Curiously, so is the Bible, but you'd never get a Feeler to tell you that. They want to believe it, but like the bishop, they don't really care. So you want to tell your story? Great! It's your story, it doesn't matter if it's true, it's your truth, I have mine, everybody has their own truth, all different. What hogwash! If you go to a theater for a $10 flick, and you hand the cashier a $20, you expect $10 in change, not $5 or $2. It doesn't matter that in "his truth" or in "his story" $5 + $10 = $20, the real truth is that $10 + $10 = $20, and nobody can tell you different. Even if you are a card-carrying post-modern, some things are absolutely true. Math is one of them, at least when you are buying and selling using your own money. There are other absolutes, although it might be inconvenient to accept them.

The Bible is about absolute Truth, the Real World out there, and the eternal universe beyond it. Like that woman answering the bishop, "you are talking about our lives here." Jesus trained 12 men to be his church leaders after he was gone. Did he fail to teach them properly? If he's God Incarnate, then he knew exactly what they should be saying when they evangelized the world, and he knew exactly how to teach them to do that. I believe nothing less of him. So it is very instructive to look at what they did when they evangelized. There are 20 instances in the book of Acts where somebody was speaking to one or more unbelievers to encourage them to become Christians, and we know by direct quotation what was said. In ALL 20 instances, not once did anyone "tell his story." Not once did anybody say "God loves you." Not once! Why is that? Did the Apostles screw up? Did Jesus bungle his training sessions? I don't think so. The church grew by leaps and bounds during that time, far faster than what happens when we tell people "our story" or that God loves them.

I think we Americans are the ones who have screwed up. We need to get back to the message that Peter and Stephen and Philip and Paul preached. When Paul preached to pagans, he started with the Creator God. The atheists today may ridicule a Creation message, but it's because we Christians have not done our homework. Neither have they. Check it out: There is no primary evidence for evolution, only people who don't know any better repeating pseudo-scientific old wives tales. Check it out. Guys (Thinkers, most of them male) care about the truth, but you need the truth to give to them.

The mailing from this ministry did mention a few verses in Acts where Paul "told his story," but they neglected to report what was going on at that time. Four times Paul was on trial for his life (perhaps more) but those four times we are told what he said, and those four times he told his story in court. He was making a defense for his own life using the proper form of legal defense in court, not preaching the gospel the way he preferred. When you are on trial, you say what your lawyer tells you to say -- the truth of course, but you must fit the legal requirements of the court. When Paul was not in chains and not on trial, he gave a completely different message.

There is another problem with evangelism by "telling your story." Jesus taught that anyone who wanted to be his disciple "must deny himself." Telling my story puts the focus on me. That's not self-denial, it's self aggrandizing. It may be fun to be the center of attention, but it's not Christian.


Dennis said:
I don't know what the conservative protestant church taught as the method for evangelism before the personal testimony became so popular. I've even heard pastors and teachers recommend it *because* it is subjective. It is hard to argue with someone else's personal experience. Paul tried to tell his story in Acts 22.  That is the example most modern evangelists give for telling your testimony. What I've seen is personal testimony generally puts the focus on the person telling their story which is self-ish rather than the focus being on Jesus. I've also been turned off by testimonies that go on and on about their life of sin and spend very little time on the conversion and results of the conversion. I don't see any flaw in your reasoning, but quite a bit of grinding about R'ism. :-)  If you're trying to persuade people a little less grinding on the R'ism and more positive reasons why this is a bad approach would help. Even better would be to give an alternative. Unfortunately, an alternative would undoubtedly require people to learn something about the Bible and apologetics.

Good points all. I guess the "grinding about R'ism" is (ahem) "telling my story" in an impersonal way. It's my hammer, to which the whole world looks like a nail. I didn't think it was that pronounced here, but maybe so. It does seem to me that telling your own story is [self-]affirming, while a gospel of repentance is clearly disaffirming.

The problem with proclaiming a subjective message is that it's irrelevant to everybody else. You like apple pie? Great. I like cherry. Great. You have your "truth" and I have mine and there is no overlap, because there are no absolutes. Hogwash. Some things are absolutely true. 10+10=20 is absolute. That there is a Creator God who has a right to our obedience is an absolute.

I think the best alternative(s) would be to take Scripture as instructive, and do it the way we are told the early Christians did it. Different people need to hear different messages. The early Christians did that. With people who knew Scripture (the Jews), Peter was generally confrontational. They knew they were wrong, and he said so, then invited them to repent. With "God-fearers" who knew less about the Bible but wanted to, the message generally told what Jesus did (died and resurrected) before inviting repentance. With pagans (almost everybody in our culture today qualifies as pagan) Paul started with the Creator God. This is important, because pretty much everybody knows in their heart that what they see in the world didn't happen by chance. And because He is Creator, God has the right to demand our obedience and worship. But you need to answer the Darwinists. I think "The Question" has stood the test of time very well. Hard-core atheists are like hard-core Muslims or Mormons or Buddhists; they won't be convinced until their own religion fails, and you probably won't be there when that happens. Clearly state the gospel ("Jesus is the Creator, he died for our sins and was resurrected, and he is coming again as Judge, so repent"), then let God do the convincing in His time.

Do we need more reasons why telling your story is a bad approach? Besides that it is not what the Bible teaches, and it puts the focus on the person "telling his story" rather than on Jesus, and it makes the message irrelevant to everybody who doesn't happen to like that flavor? I can't think of any others right now, but I probably will in the next week or so...

Acts 22 is one of those four times when Paul was on trial for his life, and was constrained by the requirements of the legal system. As an example of what we should do in court when we are arrested for being Christians, it's great. A personal story shows that we are real people, not monsters. But aside from the court appearances, the other 20 times that we are told what was said, the 20 times in evangelistic settings (not on trial in court), not once did anybody ever "tell their story." Not once. Claiming Acts 22 (or 26, as this ministry did) as normative for evangelization is to take it out of context. That's bad exegesis, and they should know it.

Tom Pittman -- 13 Aug 7


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