Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 1: The Destructive Practice of Personal Testimony

To open the Tekton Ticker, 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. 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 . 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 tomorrow.


  1. Reading the Lives of the Saints gives examples of true Christian piety. Contemporary evangelicalism, with its loss of the mysteries of the Church, has lost the grace to produce such piety. This statement is strong, but not unfounded. Evangelicalism has never produced one like St. John Maximovitch or St. Seraphim of Sarov.

    You know I'm a fan of your work, JP. In one of your articles you noted, correctly, that divine inspiration can be found in the Fathers of the Church, though not of the absolute sense of Scripture. It is this divine inspiration which enables Orthodox Christians to look at the consensus of the holy fathers to discover true Christian doctrine.

    Small note: "St." Francis was in a state of prelest, spiritual delusion. His "good works" were clearly driven by pride and a pretention towards equality with Christ. For example, his statement that he knew of no sin he had not atoned for by confession and penance. St. Nectarios of Aegina would be a better example. ;)

  2. Howdy Kabane,

    Good comment, What you're describing here is an exhortational use of testimony, which I think is just fine and is also in accord with what the NT does when it uses life events of Jesus and others. Using testimony within the Body to encourage believers -- that's legitimate. Using testimony to covert non-believers -- that's where I see a problem.

    And you're likely very right here -- though as a hardcore introvert, I don't draw inspiration from such things easily, I can see where others would.

    Never heard that before about Francis but I'm not surprised someone said it. :)

  3. Well, Paul gave his testimony in Acts 22...we know how that turned out. Again in Acts was always in defense of himself, and not really evangelism.

  4. @Trusty: Yes, as I note in the CRI article, those are not personal testimonies as we know them. Paul is being required to defend his personal ethos before a court. He doesn't say, "Because my life was changed like this, yours can be too."

  5. This sounds a lot like personal testimony to me:

    18 And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.
    19 However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."
    20 And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.
    (Mar 5:18-20 NKJ)

  6. It's not...for one thing, it's testifying to a miracle, which is hard evidence. For another, there's no hint the man was told to say how Jesus made him a better person (wouldn't work anyway, since as I state in the CRI article, they believed personality was static; that alone means there could never have been PT in a modern sense).

    Thank you for noting that one, though, I'm sure someone will bring it up again.

  7. I appreciate this article. This tendency in evangelism is reflective, I think, of a broader tendency within evangelicalism away from dealing with true knowledge as the foundation for true belief and towards seeing subjective experiences as constitutive of the life of faith. While it is certainly true that the biblical "knowing" involves both historical truth and subjective experience, the former grounds and makes possible the latter, not the other way around. Dallas Willard has written about this sort of thing in various places, most recently his 2009 book "Knowing Christ Today," which makes a strong case for the reality and centrality of spiritual knowledge, and his message is aimed at both believers and those who adhere to a rather narrow, materialistic, "scientific" definition of knowledge.

    I've been a fan of your work for a while, JP - you were, after all, the reason I first heard about N. T. Wright - and I'm glad to see you expanding your formats and developing new blogs.

  8. @Rory: Thanks for the good word! I might have to look into that Willard book, too.