We Have a (Personal) Story to Tell the Nations

“Evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.” – Lausanne Covenant

“Evangelism is the outflow of hearts that are filled with the love of God for those who do not yet know him.” – Cape Town Commitment

The rapid development of communications technologies in the modern era has greatly expanded the tools of evangelism. Christians around the world are actively and fruitfully employing print, radio, television, and the Internet to reach diverse audiences with the good news. The Lausanne Movement celebrates and encourages the use of all available means to bear witness to Christ. But in this issue of Lausanne World Pulse we explore the original and timeless method of sharing the gospel: personal testimony.

The message of Jesus Christ is still most powerfully communicated when one person, whose life has been changed by the gospel, bears witness to another person who is in need of hope and love. Yes, our faith is propositional, historical, social, textual, and contextual, but it is also inescapably personal.

At Lausanne II in Manila in 1989, American businessman Ford Madison conducted an informal survey of how the four thousand congress participants came to know Christ. He first asked how many converted at a large evangelistic event. About one hundred people raised their hands. How many found God through TV, radio, or other forms of mass media? Another one hundred hands went up. How many through literature—a tract, book, or magazine? A few more hands. Each response was followed by polite applause.

Then Madison asked how many came to faith in Christ through the witness of an ordinary person—a friend, neighbor, relative, or co-worker. Nearly the whole assembly rose to its feet, bursting into enthusiastic applause. “This is how it works,” Madison remarked. “This is how the gospel spreads.”

Madison was right. God can bless our use of any number of technologies, but there will never be a replacement for the simple low-tech act of bearing personal witness to the redeeming work of Christ in one’s life.

This lesson was driven home yet again at Lausanne III. Some of the greatest highlights of Cape Town 2010 involved personal story. The single most talked about Cape Town address (and most watched video online) did not come from a distinguished theologian, Bible scholar, or denominational leader, but from a meek North Korean teenager. She told the story of her family’s unwavering commitment to Christ through the fiery trial of horrific persecution inside communist North Korea. As she finished, the assembly of four thousand leaders from nearly two hundred countries responded with a standing ovation.

While the gospel has many important communal dimensions and social implications, it is most fundamentally the story of how the person of Jesus Christ transforms individuals. Christianity is an incarnational faith. God entered the human story, enabling his follows to become part of his great story of redemption. Most of us will not have dramatic accounts from North Korea or Afghanistan, but our salvation is no less miraculous if it happens in Argentina, Austria, Angola, or Australia.

Wherever God may have placed us, we have an opportunity to tell the story of his work in our lives. We can find ways to share our testimony in a variety of settings—over dinner with neighbors, during a tea or coffee break with co-workers, on a commute or airplane ride. Given the importance of our message, we must take great care to speak lovingly, respectfully, and winsomely, and to live in a manner that validates our witness.

I am delighted that this issue of Lausanne World Pulse features several excellent articles that will help us think carefully and creatively about the role of personal testimony in Christian mission. The mission of the Church is of course broader than evangelism, but evangelism is at the heart of mission—and evangelism, at heart, is personal.

Doug Birdsall is executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He served as president of Asian Access from 1991 to 2007 and continues to serve on their board of directors. Birdsall is a graduate of Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.