I can't remember anyone ever asking me for the evidences for the resurrection or a list of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus or examples of intelligent design in our physical universe. But I can remember several instances when someone inquired about "how I became religious." People want to hear about my experiences more than my convictions. Perhaps that's due to our experience-obsessed culture. Or maybe it's always been the case that people like to compare their lives with others.
I think, at one point, I stopped presenting evidences, arguments, and proofs and only offered experiences. That was, after all, what people had asked for. I was even told by older Christians, "People might reject your arguments, but they can never deny your testimony." Remarkably, however, they did deny my testimony---quite regularly. They dismissed it with the imbibed mantra, "What is true for you is not true for me."
Apostle Paul Model
Is there another way to think about sharing my testimony? Should I have given up on that evangelistic tactic altogether? Are there better ways to "make the most of every opportunity" (Col. 4:5)?
As is so often the case, when all else failed, I resorted to the Bible. It's amazing how much that book has to offer about living the Christian life.
I recalled several evangelism training seminars that pointed me to Acts 26 where Paul "shared his testimony." I was encouraged (and I think I've used this passage to encourage others) to craft a testimony that described what my life was like before coming to faith, the circumstances through which I came to faith, and how my life is different now that I have come to faith. But that is exactly what people dismissed with the "true for you but not for me" speech.
So I read the text a bit more carefully. Indeed, Acts 26 records Paul sharing his testimony. But it's more than the three-fold model I was instructed to follow. Paul wove together a tapestry of his experiences, pre-evangelistic prompters, doctrinal elements, apologetic arguments, and even a call for a decision. While Agrippa did not respond as Paul had hoped (and prayed!---see his comment in verse 29), and accused Paul of losing his mind (v. 24), the king didn't offer any dismissive, relativistic gibberish about "true for you but not for me."
Note that the text calls Paul's speech a "defense" (v. 1). That's probably a better description than a "testimony," and offering a defense is probably a better goal for us than merely sharing our story.
Consider these four ingredients in Paul's speech:
1. Pre-evangelistic plausibility
Toward the beginning, he asked, "Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead" (v. 8)? He wanted them to see that his line of argument fit with beliefs they already held. This is a crucial step for many people. Sometimes they need to own up to their faith positions and see that ours are not that different. Some people need to consider that something might be true before they accept that it is true.
2. Selective details about his experience
Paul told about his upbringing (v. 4-5), his recent opposition to the gospel (v. 9-11), his Damascus road drama (v. 12-18), and some (but not many) details of what happened after his conversion (v. 20-21). Any recounting of an event is selective. You can't include everything---and people don't want to hear it all. In some instances you may have five minutes to tell your story, though in most cases you will only have one or two minutes. For that reason, it's worth thinking through several different-length messages: the one-minute "elevator" version, the two-minute "walking down the hallway together" version, the three-minute "over a cup of coffee" version, and so on.
If people ask for more, then it's time to elaborate---with one eye on them and the other on the clock. If they show signs of losing interest, it's time to move toward dialogue and away from soliloquy. Paul's situation allowed for a longer presentation. Our short statements could open doors for fuller explanations.
3. Doctrinal statements of gospel components
Paul wove into his narrative the fact that his message calls people "from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God" (17), provides "forgiveness of sins" (18), leads to "a place among those who are sanctified" (18), requires "faith in" Jesus (18), includes the need for "repentance" (20), and must be validated by "deeds" (20). It is not manipulative for us to follow Paul's example and intertwine our experiences with what we learned along the way. Statements that begin with "here's what happened," "here's what I learned," and "here's what I understood" can all be included in our defense.
4. Apologetic arguments
Paul attempted to persuade (not merely inform) Agrippa and "all who were listening" (29) that his message was "nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen" (22). His message implied, "You should believe this because it's reasonable," not, "You should appreciate this and celebrate diversity because it's my experience and knowing of a lot of different perspectives will make you a well-rounded person." If we only tell of subjective experiences, we are unwittingly adopting our culture's relativistic worldview. But if we also express objective truth, we tacitly call for a decision.
How to Prepare Your Defense
If you're thinking this defense might take some preparation, you're right. Very few of us could be this brilliant right on the spot. We don't even have any indication from the text that Paul came up with this spontaneously. While it might be best to sound unrehearsed, some diligent forethought and practice is appropriate.
Here are a few more suggestions as you make your defense:
1. Use paper and pen
There's nothing like writing things down to move toward clarity. Even though you'll eventually deliver this message orally (without written notes), the starting point should be in writing.
2. Remember and edit
Make a list of all the events and details that factored in the path God used in your life. Then start crossing things off the list. Decide which events were really pivotal and which ones were merely incidental. Prioritize those details that clarify the gospel message.
3. Recall lessons and corrections
Which facts, evidences, and arguments corrected your wrong thinking about God, Jesus, and eternal life? Weave those into your story with phrases like, "I never understood that . . ." or "I found out that . . ." or "I realized I had been wrong about . . ."
4. Combine truth and goodness
The gospel is true, but it's also good. People need to hear about both. A good defense helps hearers understand and appreciate, become informed and hungry, and say, "Now I understand," as well as, "How can I experience that?" We need to tell people what caused us to believe but we also need to say, "Here's why I'm glad that I did."
These short defenses could pave the way for longer discussions. As those dialogues convey our salvation message, we want people to know it includes repentance, forgiveness, fulfillment of prophecy, and eternal life, as well as joy, relief, comfort, power to live a good life, hope, and a host of other benefits.
By God's grace, some people may respond better than Agrippa did to Paul.
Randy Newman serves with CRU and The C.S. Lewis Institute and blogs about evangelism and other topics at randydavidnewman.com.