Story or Scripture? How should we share our faith?
A man came over to ask me what we were giving out, so I explained: we’re from a church that meets locally and we produce a weekly ‘single article magazine’ called Salt, written by a team of church members, with the aim of opening people’s hearts to the Gospel. (OK, I didn’t say it quite that eloquently, and didn’t include the hyperlink, but you get the idea.)
He was not impressed.
He too was there handing out leaflets which, from the glimpses I got of them, appeared to be tri-fold glossy sheets with scriptures leading people through the gospel message.
His objections to our publications were:
First, that I had said we were part of a church, and he didn’t like the idea that we were promoting a church, because we don’t win people to churches. I agreed, absolutely, we want to win people to Jesus, whatever church they then go to.
Second, and more importantly for him, that we were using human words not scripture. He simply refused to accept the idea that there was merit in capturing people’s attention with a personal story, sharing a testimony of how Jesus had changed their life, and then pointing them to scripture to evidence our claims.
I appreciated the high value he put on Scripture, of course, and he even started to make me wonder if he was right – if we were in danger of devaluing scripture by the use of personal story and anecdotal evidence – in a post-truth society, everyone can only speak about their experience and their perceptions/interpretations of events, so what was there distinctive that we were offering?
Ironically, he then undermined his own argument by an appeal to Scripture.
“What did Paul say?” he asked.
“I don’t know, what?”
“You don’t know what Paul said?!”
“Paul said several books’-worth of things, which in particular are you thinking of?”
He gave me a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 2:
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Let’s lay aside for the moment the fact that at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians the gospels had not yet been written, so if he was only using scripture, his hearers were doing well to suddenly grasp that he was talking about Christ, which seems a torturous reading of the text. The response that sprang to my mind in the moment was that Paul also used his own testimony, and stories and resonances from the culture in order to win the attention of his audiences and demonstrate the truth of his message.
Later, of course, I realised that Jesus did the same. He spoke to Bible scholars using scripture, but to the everyday crowds he told stories (and not even true stories, at that!).
Maybe a post-truth society isn’t that different from a truth-based one after all – we humans are story-seekers, we resonate with stories in a way that few of us do with lists of dry facts. Yes, we have to get to the facts – stories can only take us so far, they need to be interpreted, and it is often only through divine revelation that we can understand their truths (again, look at the parables, and the disciples’ blank incomprehension of what Jesus was talking about most of the time) – but stories are the doors, enticingly ajar, through which the curious can peer and, with God’s help, discover the truths beyond.
My interlocutor was perfectly courteous, and clearly genuinely believed that we are mandated to present scripture alone to the lost, through which they will reach awareness of their sin, and meet the saviour they need. But he did not really want to discuss my perspective, or to understand what I believed (other than asking me what the doctrine of the church was, of which, perhaps, more at a later date). He was listening in order to respond, rather than to understand, so we were never going to be able to reach agreement.
But hopefully between his leaflets and ours, many people on that bitter morning had an encounter with God and will push open the door and meet the Truth in person – then go and tell their stories to the next generation.