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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox.
Ask Mission Central: Question Twenty-One
“I’ve never been sure how to tell my story or ‘testimony,’ because I’ve known Jesus my whole life. I think I’ve used that as an excuse for not doing evangelism because I tend to think people with more radical conversion stories can relate more to the person they’re sharing with. Since I’ve grown up Christian, how can I share my testimony and share the gospel with others?”
Your thoughtful question gives us an opportunity to ponder what it means to have a story in God. All of us who have found a resting place in Jesus have a story to share, and those of us with less obviously radical salvation narratives can still bear testimony in a powerful way. The God who saved us by his grace will also give us the grace to share with others what he has done in our lives.
Different Kinds of Stories
Radical conversion stories have always been part of our Christian heritage. Jesus’ own ministry was characterized by moments of spiritual crisis. Jesus went to Zaccheus’ house, and the tax collector suddenly announced he would restore the money he had cheated people out of, four times over. Jesus healed blind Bartimeaus, who “immediately . . . recovered his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way” (Mark 10:52 ESV). Later on, Saul of Tarsus got knocked down by the light of the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, and emerged as the Apostle Paul. Stories like these, with a defined “life before” the moment of crisis, followed by the “life after,” powerfully illustrate the change that Jesus can bring.
But that change takes many forms. Jesus’ ministry also included people like Nathanael. When Nathanael first met him, Jesus announced, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47 NIV). Jesus named and affirmed Nathanael’s character (“no deceit”) and spiritual membership in God’s people (“truly . . . an Israelite”). These were not things that sprang into being only after Nathanel met Jesus; they were realities of God’s grace in his earlier life, likely from early childhood.
Like all of Jesus’ earliest disciples, Nathanael was Jewish, and his heritage in God included the riches of the Torah, the prophets, and the many promises of God’s faithfulness to his people, even in times of disaster. His encounter with Jesus led him to reorient his understanding of Israel’s God around the man he came to believe was Israel’s Messiah.
In the Gospel of John, Nathanael’s insight on this point comes almost comically fast. Within minutes of meeting Jesus, he exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49 NIV). (Contrast this with Matthew’s account of Peter, where twelve chapters elapse between when Peter meets Jesus and when he finally declares that he is the Messiah.) The passage hints that Nathanael’s eager confession was the culmination of God’s work in his life for many years.
Nathanel’s “before” story does not include a life of dramatic wickedness. His moment of crisis, while theologically freighted, doesn’t have the knockout power of a healing miracle or a turnaround like Paul’s. But it’s given to us in Holy Scripture as a story worth hearing, and worth telling. That means there’s Scriptural warrant for each of us to share our story, even if it seems quiet or mundane at first glance.
Sin, Jesus, Faith, and Change
Part of why we’re drawn to more dramatic stories is that they illustrate truths of the gospel. Consider the following “ingredients” of the Good News (all references NIV):
- We all started out as sinners, “ruled by sin” (Romans 6:6) and under the “power of death” (Hebrews 2:14), “alienated from God” (Colossians 1:21).
- In Jesus’ ministry, the “kingdom of God” came near (Mark 1:15) and was made available in a new way. In his life, death, and resurrection as the Messiah of Israel, God “was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
- Now, all those who place their faith in Jesus “will be saved” (Romans 10:9); they are “set free from every sin” (Acts 13:39) and enjoy “eternal life” (John 3:36).
There’s a theological chronology here: Sin (and its consequences), Jesus, Faith, Change. So, when a life story fits that chronology, the resonance is crisp. As you’ve noted, it’s easy to package and present a story like that. “Here’s what my life was like before Jesus. Here’s what my life is like with him now.”
Stories like that work similarly to Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Starting in 2008, Marvel Studios was breaking new ground with the multiple-film team-up concept, so they didn’t make it too complicated. Iron Man got a movie. Hulk got a movie. Thor got a movie. Captain America got a movie. Then they did a movie all together (and we ate it up). Easy to follow.
Marvel Studios didn’t stick with the simple formula, though. Once audiences understood the idea of tracing connections between different films and shows, things went in all sorts of directions. Movies came out at all different places in the timeline. Some movies focused on “side characters” and then brought them into even bigger team-up movies. Or vice versa: Spider-Man made his MCU debut in the middle of a fight scene in a Captain America movie before getting his own film. That sure turns the origin story narrative structure on its head.
And here’s the thing: Audiences have kept up just fine. The ingredients of the MCU are still there: loveable popcorn characters, good versus evil in superhero/supervillain form, endless special effects spectacles, and plots that at least sometimes make sense. People are smart. They can handle the departures from narrative simplicity and still enjoy the ride. Plus, the flexibility of the now-multiversing panorama means that many different kinds of stories can get told.
Sharing the Story God is Crafting
What’s true of the MCU can prove true for sharing our stories in God, too. The ingredients are there for all of us who have found a home in God’s love: Sin, Jesus, Faith, and Change. The ingredients might not come in that order chronologically. There might not be a clear moment of crisis when we shifted from one kind of life to another. But we can still give testimony to how God is at work in our lives.
When I was in student ministry and had the opportunity to have spiritual conversations with students of all kinds of spiritual backgrounds, I became self-conscious about how unimpressive my coming-to-faith story was. Although I do have a distinct “moment of faith,” it came when I was only eight years old. When I found myself trying to explain the gospel to agnostic or Hindu or culturally Catholic college students, I realized that the nuances of the spiritual epiphany I had in elementary school weren’t very relatable.
Instead, I found that telling “present tense” stories was more compelling to students. So, I started talking about my marriage with Katie, and how my faith in Jesus is what was making me a better husband over time. Or I shared about my experiences with anxiety, which were not over, and how I was meeting God in the middle of them. Students found stories like that intriguing.
Most of all, I discovered that people responded to genuine vulnerability and honesty more than to a slick rhetorical presentation. It wasn’t about whether I “said things right,” it was about whether what I was saying connected to who I really was as a person. When the experience of Jesus that we describe matches what others see in our lives, that’s true witness.
Making It Practical
Take some time and think about how God has been crafting your story. Consider writing out answers to the following questions, and thinking about how you would share those answers in a conversation with someone who is spiritually curious.
- What has your experience with sin (and its consequences) been?
- What difference is Jesus making in your life this year?
- What does placing faith in Jesus mean for you?
- What changes have come in your life because of him?
If it’s hard to put things into words, try using this structure to tell a “present tense” story. (Think of it as testimony Mad Libs.) “Right now, I’m going through this [sin or difficulty]. But in the middle of it, I’m also experiencing [good things from God]. As I [connect with Jesus], I’m thankful for [a change in my heart]. I think that’s an example of how God is at work in my life.”
For example: “Right now, I’m experiencing some depression and demotivation at work. But in the middle of it, I’m also experiencing the encouragement of my friends. As I let them pray for me and support me, I’m thankful for the love that I feel. I think that’s an example of how God is at work in my life. That kind of community is what Jesus wants for all of us in his church.”
Use the structure as a way to get started, and then make it your own. Again, it’s not about getting the words right, it’s about offering a genuine word about what God is doing in your life. People will connect with that.
On a practical note, I have found certain “evangelism tools” helpful for making a presentation of the gospel, depending on the person who is listening. With college students, I often scribbled a visual guide to the gospel created by InterVarsity called the Big Story. It provided just enough structure for me to ask direct questions without it being awkward. Listening to what the student thought about the idea of the world being “damaged by evil” and then “restored for good” by Jesus, I could discern how spiritually open they seemed to be. I could also share how I had experienced the damage of evil in my life, and how I saw Jesus restoring things for good in me.
In other contexts, a tool might increase rather than decrease awkwardness. In those relationships, just focus on listening and sharing as opportunity arises. If you’re not sure what to say, that’s okay. Sometimes, a turn of phrase like “if this is okay to say” can be helpful. Say that someone is sharing with you about anxiety, and you can relate. You can naturally bring up your faith by saying something like, “I struggle with anxiety, too. And, if this is okay to say, one thing that has really helped me is my faith in Jesus.” You can just leave it at that, and see if they respond with curiosity or not.
Your question shows you are eager to share your experience of life with Jesus. God will honor that desire as you ask for opportunities to share the Good News with others. And when talking about Jesus’ story involves talking about your own, you can just speak to what you’ve really been through with him. Those experiences are the ingredients of the story God is crafting in your life. And that’s a story worth sharing.
Photo by Carlos Magno on Unsplash