Bearing Witness (A Conversion Story)

The first time I heard a testimony was in sixth or seventh grade. It was delivered by an older guy in my youth group. If I recall correctly, his parents were out of the picture and his life was really rough, but by the grace of God everything was okay and he planned to go to Bible college to become a youth pastor. In the years since then, I’ve heard many such stories – tales of broken homes, violence, substance abuse, depression, all building up to a culminating moment: a single prayer to accept Jesus, and a redeemed life. Most of those redeemed lives ended up in ministry, telling their story over and over again, usually to teenagers.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that these stories were meant to convince us of something. A failed suicide attempt = God is real. A drug addict turned pastor = God changes lives. These were compelling stories, so compelling that I saw many people say that same culminating prayer and commit their lives to Jesus. Sometimes these commitments were short lived – it’s easy to make promises in the moments following an emotionally charged story, especially when the lights are dim and there’s acoustic music playing softly in the background. This method never convinced me, and I grew cynical.To me, this practice of sharing one’s testimony (a word that continues to make me cringe, except when it’s used on Law & Order) seemed gimmicky and misleading. A single, dramatic story of redemption was no way to convert someone. If I wasn’t already a Christian at the time, I knew that I wouldn’t be convinced simply be hearing someone on a stage tearfully recount parts of their biography. It seemed shallow, tacky, and manipulative. And I think part of the issue was my own story: a bookish, straitlaced kid from a stable family who was raised in the faith…stayed in the faith. No drama, no climactic prayer, very little tangible redemption. No one would be convinced by that. There were times that I regretted how painless my life had been – I wished that there had been something terrible for me to have been saved from, so that people might be compelled by my story too. I hated being asked to share my testimony – the entire practice was a sham.

I’ve since come to terms with this, for the most part. I still think that it’s silly to try to convince people with one dramatic story, but that doesn’t mean that stories aren’t worth telling.

Humans are obsessed with stories. We tell them all the time – I would guess that about half of my casual conversations revolve around storytelling. Societies are built by them, cultures are shaped by them, we pay to consume them in various forms, and are converted by them all the time, in many ways. There is something deeply human about stories and storytelling. We need them.

And, perhaps more importantly, God is real, and God changes lives. Even though one secondhand account of this shouldn’t be enough to convert someone, these stories are important and we need to tell them. This mini-conversion of mine, as with most conversions I’ve experienced, occurred gradually over time. I heard simple stories of redemption, and was reminded of grace. I read the Psalms, and saw that God wants us to repeatedly speak of his work. I recited the Creed over and over again, and noticed that this too is simply a retelling of the greatest story ever told. These things are not gimmicks, but important stories that bear witness to the Risen Christ. So let’s keep telling stories.

Good Evangelism/Bad Evangelism (A Conversion Story)

bridge-diagram-3

Look how happy those outlines of new Christians are!

While doing some spring cleaning recently, I found an old tract in one of my suitcases. I didn’t look at it too carefully; I suspect that there’s something on there about salvation, or John 3:16, or maybe that diagram of an abyss bridged by a cross. What did catch my attention was what was written on the back – a name and phone number.

I remember that day only vaguely. I was hanging out with some friends on Ocean City’s boardwalk, near the entrance to Gillian’s Pier (i.e., the place of childhood wonder and cotton candy-induced sugar rushes). My friends and I had recently graduated high school and were spending some time down the shore together before heading off to college. For whatever reason, we were approached by a couple of tract-bearing evangelists. They were both young women, probably in college, probably on a summer missions trip. Ocean City was their mission field (lucky).

The conversation went something like this:

Bright-eyed evangelists: Do you have a relationship with God?
High school me: Yeah, I guess, maybe.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Well, do you go to church?
High school me: It’s been a while, kind of.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Are you a Christian?
High School me: I don’t know. I’m working through some stuff.
Meanwhile, my friends are there, muttering answers. We’re all extremely uncomfortable, but trying to be polite.

And then one of them gave me her number and said that I could call her and maybe we could meet up and talk about that stuff I was working through. As far as boardwalk evangelists go, these women weren’t so bad. They were earnest and genuine, not terribly obnoxious, and actually seemed somewhat interested in having an extended conversation and forming something of a relationship.

By the tender age of 18, I had already been through what I now fondly refer to as my Evangelical Phase, and had moved onto my Cynical Phase. This was the time of life where I realized that I didn’t buy creationism, legalism, sola scriptura, or the far right. Somehow I still believed in the Risen Christ, but I was embarrassed by the family name and didn’t quite call myself a Christian. I was also bothered by some of those unanswerable questions that have bothered skeptics and believers alike through the ages. But I knew where that bright eyed evangelist who gave me her number was coming from, because I had been there. I thought about calling her, not because it would be helpful, but because I thought it would be fun to mess with her, to ask her some of the questions that were keeping me up at night, to see what she had to say. (I’m glad I didn’t, because that would have been really mean).

What I needed – to call myself a Christian again, to regain some of those healthy elements of my Evangelical Phase – was not a tract, and not a conversation with an eager evangelist. I knew that. And I knew what I needed was something more stable, substantial, and lasting. That’s why I didn’t engage too much with those evangelists. I was about to leave for college, and I had a feeling that through that experience my faith would be restored.

Over time, it was. I was not re-converted through tracts or brief boardwalk conversations, but through caring professors, excellent curricula, the Great Books, tradition, theology, philosophy, good friends who were asking the same questions, and a church that was designed to preach the gospel to people like me. It was not a simple process, nor a quick one. There were lots of papers written, classes taken, questions asked, late night conversations had, and books read, over the course of months, possibly years.

That’s the kind of evangelism that convinces, or at least converts, me. I’m sure that tracts and boardwalk conversations are helpful for some people – and I’m grateful for that – but is it good evangelism?