Three Reasons Why You Should Tell Your Story…and the Three Audiences You Should Tell

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Signing books at the Seventh-day Adventist Gulf States Women’s Retreat. Photo credit: Heather Severance.

“Sharing our stories of how God has saved us is the best way to share the gospel,” I told my audience at the Gulf States Women’s Retreat this November. That’s what I said, and over the course of the weekend that’s what I did. Stories, as Jesus well knew and demonstrated in his ministry, have a way of penetrating the heart like pure information cannot—and for this I am glad. It means I don’t have to be a Bible scholar to share Jesus, I just have to be willing to share what Jesus has done for me.

You see, stories from the heart open up other hearts in beautiful, sometimes painful, but also healing ways. After my first talk (of four), one woman caught my shoulder and said, “I need to talk to you,” and proceeded, for two hours, to tearfully tell me a story she’d “never told anyone” before. The next day, one woman after another approached me to confide their own stories of pain. “I could tell you some stories,” grandmother-aged women winked at me over lunch, and proceeded to do so. Over a thirty-six hour period, I heard stories of abuse, divorce, death, and attempted suicide, and not just me–the women started talking to one another! Praise God, this was one of my goals for the weekend: to get the women talking. To get them telling their stories.

But How Do I Know If I Should Share? 

“But how do I know if my story should actually be shared, and if it’s actually going to bring glory to God or not?” the question came to me anonymously on Sabbath afternoon during a roundtable discussion. Good question, and I’ll answer it with the remainder of this blog.

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Photo Credit: April Hobbs

The short answer is: defining your audience and purpose for sharing will guide you as to what to share, and when.

Defining your audience and purpose for sharing will guide you as to what to share, and when.

Each act of communication—each story we tell—has an audience and a purpose. What are yours? Let’s look at three levels of storytelling I have identified in my Christian/writing journey. You’ll see that each level has a different audience and purpose, and they all build upon one another to eventually lead to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, or our ultimate goal as Christians. Let’s talk about the audience and purpose for sharing the ugly stuff first.

Level One: Start Small

Purpose: To Heal from Your Pain and Your Past

Audience: God and One or Two Trusted People 

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Two attendees at the women’s retreat. Photo Credit: April Hobbs

If you’ve read Ending the Pain, you know that I believe sharing our painful stories is a first and necessary step in the journey to new life (whether we’re talking “new life” as Christians or “new life” after trauma). But when you are still in pain, with wounds still fresh, your first purpose for sharing must be to help you—not to witness to others.

I resent when Christians and churches ignore this part of our Christian journey—the part where we are broken and need healing—and simply tell us to go witness to others. Uh uh. Nope. True discipleship doesn’t work like that, because we can’t share what we don’t have. (See Part 2 of my book, the “New Beginnings” chapters, to read how effective we are when hiding behind plastic smiles at church. [Not very]).

Who should we tell our stories to when we are still broken and bleeding? Share them with a small audience that includes God and at least one other person—a spouse, a friend, or a trusted pastor or counselor. I don’t know why, but there is something freeing in the simple act of putting our stories outside ourselves—maybe it’s the new perspective and validation we gain; maybe it’s the support that comes when others suddenly know how to pray for us or help us. Whatever it is, it’s important to tell someone how you are hurting as a first step to healing.

Level Two: Identifying with Others

Audience: A Small Group

Purpose: To Get Support from and Give Support to Others Who Have Gone Through the Same Things

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More attendees at the Women’s Retreat. Photo Credit: April Hobbs

The next step to healing and moving your story outside of yourself is to tell a small group. Sometimes you will have to search for a group, and other times it will come together organically, as has happened recently in my life.

Three women at my “new” church in Missouri (my post Ending the Pain church) read my book and caught on to what I was presenting, and all three reached out and asked me for the prayer ministry I described receiving in the book. After praying with two of them individually and repeatedly over the summer (becoming their “one” person to confide in for a time), I gathered them into a small group because it felt like time to take their healing to the next level (also because I couldn’t keep up the pace of all the prayer appointments!). These two women had begun to feel hope through connecting to Jesus in prayer and sharing their story with me, and it was time for them to find support in connecting with one another.

We’ve met three times now as a group, and it’s been a beautiful thing to watch them open up to one another (as I once did with my initial, Ending the Pain, prayer groups), realizing that other Christians struggle in the same ways they do. I have witnessed such relief in their faces and postures and words as they learn it’s actually okay to talk about their ugly stuff…in this audience, among kindred spirits, among others who “get” their pain.

This is key at the second level (and the first): choose your audience well. It’s already hard to share and be vulnerable, so make sure you will be safe when you share. Don’t believe the lie that no one else has gone through this. Oh, what a lie! (There is nothing new under the sun.) Pray for God to show you those who will understand, accept, and support you. When you find this audience, as the ladies in my group have “found” one another, you’ll find not only the release of telling your story, but also the blessing of identification. You will be blessed at hearing others’ stories, and you know what? Suddenly, though you are still a work in progress, you will be blessing others! You’re not all better yet, but the beauty of opening your broken heart to Jesus and several trusted others begins the process of sharing your story for God’s glory. You and your small group get to watch, together, as you are transformed into God’s likeness. Now that’s a testimony!

Level Three: Going Public

Audience: Anyone the Lord Moves You to Tell

Purpose: To Comfort Others with the Comfort You Have Received

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During my third talk, I shared a bit about my publishing journey, I talked about story structures in the Bible (and in all our lives), and I encouraged the women to also tell their stories for God’s glory. Photo Credit: Heather Severance

When it feels comfortable and natural to share your story, when it ends with victory in Jesus, and when it no longer hurts (very much) to tell, praise God! You have gained a testimony that has gone past the “rough draft” stage and is ready for a larger audience. You are ready to share your story for God’s glory, not only to a couple close friends, but to whomever God moves you to tell.

That said, the audience for “public” sharing varies. We are not all called to go hugely public, and that’s okay. We all have a sphere of influence that only we can reach, whether it is one person or one thousand. The point here is, if God has changed your life for the better, you have a testimony, and because you are a Christian, you are called to share it with someone, some audience. Whether that audience is Aunt Mabel or coworker Bob or your book club or Bible study group—or whether God calls you to write a blog or publish a book or give a talk—God wants you to be ready to share the reason for the hope you have (1 Pet. 3:15).

Still Scared to Share?

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Gulf States Women’s Ministries leader, April Hobbs, praying with me before a talk. Photo credit: Heather Severance

Now, what if you have found victory in Jesus but still get weak-kneed at the thought of sharing? First I’d encourage you that even Bible giants like Moses got scared, and I’d remind you, as God reminded Moses, that God was the one who made Moses’ mouth (Ex. 4:10, 11); it is God who works in you to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13); and it is God who will embolden you to share. Just as you learned to ask him for healing in your hurt places, ask him to prepare you to speak to the audience he has for you. And he will. And guess what? The more you share, the easier it will get, until you realize that sharing your story is as easy as simply having a conversation.

Last Thoughts

Finally, after decades of not knowing how to “share Jesus,” I know what to say to people when they ask me about my faith: I just tell them my story. And I hope you, dear reader, are feeling encouraged to do the same…if and when you are ready.

But before you bust out a blog or a Facebook rant, first check your audience and purpose for sharing your story today. Ask yourself, and God, these questions to help you figure out when and where to share:

  • Is this primarily about me, or is it about God working in me?
  • Do I need more healing before I make this public?
  • Could I benefit from sharing this with a small group?
  • Am I at a point where my story would benefit others? Whom?
  • Will my story be good news to someone? Lots of people?
  • Finally, can I share my story publicly without needing approval from everyone? Perhaps a certain demographic won’t like it, but does it speak true of God and have the potential to bless more lives than it would ruffle feathers? (Remember, Jesus certainly didn’t base his ministry on approval ratings!)

Only God can answer these questions for you, but one thing I know: wherever you are right now, God can rewrite your sad story, and he can finish the good work the he has begun in you. We all have stories of sadness, suffering, sin, or struggle, but by God’s grace, over time, they can all become testimonies to the good news of Jesus Christ; they can all have happy endings.

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 6

Photo Credit: "Friends Talking" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Friends Talking” by Lusi

One surefire way to tell you’ve been “reborn” is the desire to share your faith with others. On the other hand, if the idea of “sharing your faith” turns you off or even terrifies you, that’s a good sign you haven’t been reborn. For most of my life, born “Christian” though I was, that was my experience: I didn’t know what to share, and I didn’t know how.

After my “Damascus Road Year” (see part 5), for the first time in my adult life, I had abiding joy and peace, which led to faith. Finally, I had something to share. Now, I just had to figure out how to share it.

In the four years since my conversion, I’ve decided we born-again Christians can share our faith in two ways: implicitly, and explicitly.

Sharing Faith Implicitly

First, we can share our faith implicitly by living out our new identities in Christ. If we’ve truly been reborn, then our daily lives—our habits, our behaviors, our interactions with others—will naturally witness to Jesus Christ, because we will be emulating him. If we are following Jesus, we will not be living like the rest of the world, and people will take notice.

For example, after my conversion, my public high school students started to ask me questions about my faith, even advice about faith-related matters: “Why don’t you drink?” “Why do you go to church on Saturday?” “What do you think about marriage?” “How can I make my boyfriend see that prayer is an important part of the Christian life?” These questions came without me explicitly stating my beliefs—but I didn’t need to, because my behavior showed me to be different from most of the other teachers.

Sharing Faith Explicitly

Second, we can share our faith explicitly in a variety of ways, depending on our personalities. Note: This form of sharing does not come in a “one-size-fits-all” box. Unfortunately, some churches, preachers, and Bible teachers, try to make us feel like witnessing should look the same for everyone, thereby making some of us (i.e., those of us who don’t fit the traditional mold) feel like failures before we’ve even begun.

Two years prior to my conversion, I was the victim of one such discipleship training that was intended to prepare me to give Bible studies at the end of eight weeks. But after eight weeks, I was no more ready to give Bible studies than I’d been at the beginning, for two reasons. One: I hadn’t yet met the Lord personally (though I was active in my church and looked “good” on the outside), and two: the type of ministry wasn’t right for me.

The first fatal flaw of the training was that it didn’t show me how to have a personal experience with Christ before asking me to spread that experience to others. To its credit, the training frontloaded the concept of preparing our hearts for ministry. The speaker said we should deal with our own baggage before we try to minister to others—but she didn’t really explain or model how, exactly, I was supposed to rid myself of that “old man”—AKA my baggage. When I began the training, I was still depressed and self-centered, and it’s pretty hard to testify to Jesus’ redemptive power in that state of mind. Unfortunately, after the first night, it was assumed we were ready to learn how to “share our faith” with others. And that brings me to the second fatal flaw.

Photo Credit: "Hands on West Africa" from imbstudents.org
Photo Credit: “Hands on West Africa” from imbstudents.org

This training only presented one way of how to share my faith, as if that were the only way. I don’t want to unduly pick on my religion, but since it’s the one I know, it gets to be the example. In the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, the ol’ standby for sharing faith is knocking on doors and offering Bible studies. For Adventists, and probably a lot of other Christian religions, Bible studies equate to a series of topical handouts that progress through our beliefs by way of Q and A—with plentiful Bible verses listed to help answer the Q’s.

Let me be clear: I don’t think these studies are bad. I think they definitely have their place, especially for those who are completely new to the Bible. But when it comes to sharing my faith, these studies do not appeal to me. That’s because I did not personally or experientially come to know Jesus through these types of studies, and I find it hard to believe that others could, either (though I’m sure it’s happened).

When it comes to explicitly sharing our faith, we should choose a method we can be passionate about; it’s important that we honor our personalities, choosing and using a method that speaks to us. If you’ve found the Lord and are excited to share him, yet you’re still not sure how to do that explicitly, learn from my experience. Perhaps you just haven’t stumbled upon the right method yet.

Bible Study Bummer

When it came time to start my “explicit” phase of ministry, I knew who I wanted to reach out to—my friends and peers from church—but I didn’t know how. After a lifetime in the Adventist church, the only thing I could think was traditional Bible studies…so that’s basically what I did.

Now, I didn’t start with our prefabricated lesson studies, which usually progress through a series of doctrines. I wanted to focus more on the heart, because I believed that, more than head knowledge, my friends and peers needed a heart experience with the Lord—or what I’d recently found. So, I picked a book about having a heart experience, John Dybdahl’s Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul, and made study guides for our meetings. My heart was in the right place, but my approach was wrong.

Photo Credit: "Small Group Bible Study" from manuscriptBiblestudy.com
Photo Credit: “Small Group Bible Study” from manuscriptBiblestudy.com

I had designed the studies similar to my high school handouts, complete with fill-in-the-blank answers. That’s a good way to short circuit good discussion and sometimes independent thought. As for prayer? By now I had somewhat of a vibrant personal prayer life (it involved a lot of writing to God in my journal), but I didn’t know how to facilitate really effective public prayer. So I duplicated the format we used at church: I asked for praises and then prayer requests. We went around the circle, said our praises and prayer requests, and then one person prayed, thanking God for the praises, listing the requests, and asking God to guide the study. It was a fine prayer, but it wasn’t going to result in hearts being transformed.

Despite my ineptitude, our Bible study consistently drew a crowd. I could tell my friends enjoyed coming (was it because I fed them?); and I even made some new, dear friends. I wasn’t running a particularly great study, but God brought blessings out of it (and therein is a lesson). However, after a year and half, I wanted something better. I’d read Trish Ryan’s Christian memoir, He Loves Me, He Love Me Not, and her small group was, as I read it, much more effective than mine. She wrote of things like group intercessory prayer that resulted in many heart conversions. It was then that I began to feel like a failure in ministry—and had my “Unexpected Breakdown” (check out what happened in this post that got me freshly pressed).

After two years of being on fire for the Lord, I burned out. After giving so much to my friends and to the church, I felt bankrupt myself.

Now about to finish a master’s degree and no longer sure I wanted to pursue a doctorate (would spending so much time in grad school be to bypass another calling the Lord had for me?) I needed to find strength again. I also needed (but didn’t know it) more healing for the roots of my former depression.

In the conclusion, learn about the prayer ministry that not only helped me heal, decide to have children, and decide to change career courses, but also taught me how to witness “straight to the heart.” It is the same prayer ministry that laid the groundwork for Writing to my Roots.

 Read part 1      Read part 2      Read part 3     Read part 4      Read Part 5