It’s not often that you inadvertently get to be part of a scientific experiment in controlled conditions on some aspect of the Christian life. And it’s particularly noteworthy when that accidental research concerns something as important as the efficacy of Christian witness.
Within the space of a few years, I found myself with the same group of people, at the same location, in the same social context, when an aspect of the Christian faith came up in conversation. But how different were the responses it produced!
In the first situation (some details changed for privacy), a Christian mate and I were having dinner with a group of friends. Most of our companions had once been church attenders but had long since discontinued the practice. In the cut and thrust of conversation we found ourselves discussing the translation of novels from one language into another. One person gave an example where two different translations of a text into English resulted in renderings suggesting two quite different meanings.
One of the women commented “It sort of makes you wonder about the Bible, doesn’t it?”
“Well, no, not really!” I thought. “Not if you know much about Bible translation.” The amount of work put in by highly skilled scholars over many centuries has meant that modern translations of the Bible are very clear in what they intend to say. I am always keen that people are made aware of matters relating to the reliability of the Scriptures so as to remove any unnecessary obstacles they may have to the Christian faith... so I launched right in.
“Well, actually....” I started, and began to outline various reasons why we could trust the accuracy of the translations of the Bible.
My friend, clearly a little put out and somewhat agitated, interjected, “Stephen, I wasn’t looking for a lecture. I was just making an observation.”
A frosty atmosphere descended on the gathering, which took a little while to thaw.
While I think it was good that I tried to say something, in retrospect I could have done it a lot better. I probably did sound a bit like a know-it-all who was giving a lecture. The end result was that everyone decided it was probably easiest to steer clear of anything to do with Christianity. My comments, in fact, served to close down any spiritual discussion.
Sometime later my Christian friend and I were having another meal with the same group of people. At the time my believing buddy was going through a worrying time with one of their children. The details started to come up in the course of conversation, and everyone was listening—after all, the others had children of their own.
As the discussion continued, my friend said something like, “It is hard, but we trust that God knows what he is doing.” Everyone listened intently as my friend expanded on things. You could see the others thinking—mulling over what was being said. Perhaps they were considering their own children, and the help that sort of trust in God could provide in situations of stress.
Although not specifically designed for that purpose, this second discussion was far more likely than the first to promote a productive consideration of the Christian faith.
Okay, so there were other variables at play, and the two situations do not constitute a statistically significant sample size, but it was quite a contrast.
Why the difference in responses? Well, in the first situation I may have sounded defensive and authoritarian, while in the second my friend come across as being very un-authoritarian. But I suspect that one of the biggest differences was that in the second situation my friend was testifying to how God had impacted their life.
My experience is that people are often very interested in that sort of testimony. I was talking with another friend a few years back about Christianity when she said in a frustrated voice, “Don’t talk to me about doctrine, talk to me about your life.”
A personal testimony can be very powerful when speaking with non-believers. Of course, there are testimonies where we have the opportunity to describe in detail about how God has saved us. But there are also the sort where we simply explain how God has helped us in a particular situation.
The tragedy is that we often censor this second sort of testimony when speaking with non-Christians. The work of God in our life is the sort of thing we bring up at Bible study or with friends after church over a cup of tea. It is not the sort of thing that we think of mentioning at the pub, in the coffee shop, at the school pick-up, or during the dinner party. Yet it is often exactly this sort of thing that non-believers would be interested to listen to and think about. After all, it seems so practical, so real life, so authentic.
There are extended examples of Christian testimony in the Scriptures, such as Paul’s conversion account before Festus, Agrippa and Bernice in Acts 26. But there are also the far more simple testimonies, such as that of the man born blind who Jesus healed in John 9. He told the Pharisees:
“Whether [Jesus] is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)
It might not always be appropriate to talk with non-believers about some aspects of God working in our lives, but we should not self-censor talk of every aspect. It may be just the sort of thing that our friends would we willing to hear.
Turn off the automatic self-censor button!