We live in an age of narcissism. It is the era of self-actualization, the relentless race to perfect the self.
Time magazine reported in 2013 that “Narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their twenties as for the generation that’s now 65 or older. . . . 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.”
As the West has become more narcissistic, so have the people in our churches. We see it on social media. We hear it over coffee. We see it when young people break away from living and breathing social groups to snap a selfie.
We also see it in our evangelism. A decade or two ago our evangelism still pointed outward. We spoke of the existence of God, objective truth, and the historical reliability of the resurrection. Now, swaths of churches have moved on to leading with personal testimonies.
This contextualization isn’t necessarily wrong. In a postmodern era, stories are often more powerful than objective truth claims. Testimonies can be a valuable way to share the good news about Jesus. But in a society where even Christians are steeped in rampant individualism and self-idolatry, our testimonies can easily sound like another story of self-congratulation.
Though some personal testimonies are on the mark, many boil down to this: “Look! God is great because me me me.” These are not road-to-Damascus stories, but spiritually tinted selfies.
A caricature might be helpful here. This example below is — sadly — only slightly exaggerated.
My life used to be in shambles. I was a wreck. I used to do X, Y, and Z. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I did. I found my meaning in the opposite sex.
But Jesus died on the cross to change my life. Now, I thank God that I’m not like those old friends. I live a good life. I wake up with purpose every day. I volunteer. I sponsor a child in Africa.
Oh, and did I mention? I have a smokin’ hot Christian spouse.
The good news is you can have this life, too.
This isn’t the gospel. It’s the kind of Self-help Narcissism 101 you’ll find in any Barnes & Noble. Just add a twist of God.
Narcissism, Meet Postmodernism
So, how did this happen?
As the West began to respond more to story rather than reason, the church adapted, which was good.
But the stories we told began to center less and less around Jesus. In order to avoid debate, our witness focused less on the existence and glory of God — which can be argued with — and more on our changed lives — which cannot. The problem is the systematic shift in focus away from God and toward ourselves and our “changed lives.”
God is great because . . . me — so these stories go.
No. God is great because God.
One Gospel Please, Decaf
This new gospel of changed lives is a small gospel. It’s decaf. It’s human-centered, like a planet without a sun.
We hear it encouraged like this: “Sharing your faith is easy! Just tell your story. You don’t need to know much about the Bible. God’s in the business of changing lives. Jesus came to change lives.”
This is dangerous because it’s only partially true, and it makes us the center of the gospel. None of the statements above is necessarily wrong, but repeated ad nauseam, cut off from the glory of God and the fuller gospel, it replaces God’s gospel with a man-centered, I’ve-arrived, changed-life kind of news.
The sad reality is that we’re not the only ones evangelizing based on our changed lives.
True Testimonies to False Gods
We were born to worship. If not God, then we worship someone or something else, like a cause. Or in a lot of cases, we worship ourselves pursuing a cause. It gives us a sense of purpose till we tire and move on to the next thing. We testify to the world about how this or that lifestyle has changed us and engulfed our entire selves. This is everywhere today.
It seems many people have a story to tell about their changed lives — even non-Christians. They select and edit their desired details, cut the rest, and paint the narrative they want you to hear — the Facebook wall version.
Do we want our witness to ape the world or reach the world? Then why do we play their game? Why do we diminish the true gospel down to the gospel of changed lives, and then try to sell it at the world’s market?
Changed Lives Are a Dime a Dozen
Many religions, philosophies, and even health crazes will change you. If you want evidence of this, just head to your nearest CrossFit gym, yoga studio, or health food store. Those lives have been transformed by whatever flavor of self-actualization they idolize most.
If changed lives is all we got, it ain’t much.
But that isn’t all we have. We have the glory of the living God. And that glory should create a great chasm between a secular testimony of a changed life and a Christian testifying about Jesus Christ.
The secular testimony is focused on the self — how it arrived despite the obstacles on the road. The Christian testimony is focused on the Person, that Great Obstacle in our wandering path — that Brilliant Light who kicks us off our horse and blinds us, and calls us to repent and be baptized, and commissions us on his great work, and even tells us we will suffer for his sake.
This is a Christian testimony.