The Limits of Experience

I’ve always felt bad that my faith story does not involve a “religious experience.”

When other evangelical pastors, leaders, and fellow Christians take turns sharing their “conversion story,” speaking of dramatic experiences at altars, retreats, and recovery meetings, mine seems rather boring. There is no telling of a breathtaking religious experience, no moment when God jumped out from behind the curtain, no falling on the floor.

My story of coming to faith is a bit of Mary of Magdalene (trailing Jesus for a couple of years), Dr. Luke (who investigated all the stories for himself), and the Ethiopian Eunuch (who had pieces come together that made sense). Yes, there have been times in my life when my experience of faith involved fireworks and crazy encounters and intense feelings—but hardly at the beginning of my story. Sometimes well-meaning people in those story-telling circles wanted to confirm that yes, indeed, I once confessed Jesus as my savior, whether by praying a prayer or otherwise. I knew they really wanted to know if I was still a heathen, and I told them to relax.

Years later, I learned to describe my coming-of-faith story as a parable involving a young girl and the boy next door, whom she ends up marrying. I ask my audience when it was in the story that the two actually fell in love, versus when they realized they were in love. And most of the time, people get the point. Most of the time.

But for many others, experience determines validity. Make that a certain experience.

Many of those tell-your-story circles—as well as sometimes the way the church preaches and presents what the track record looks like for an authentic faith story—leave me questioning the primacy and prevalence of the very element of experience itself in our story of faith.

In the evangelical church, it would appear that faith relies on experience. Youth conferences and megachurches spend the majority of their budgets creating experiences. Testimonies shine when they tell of miraculous experiences. Mission trips and worship services are deemed “worth it” when one has had a good experience. Of course, I don’t deny the value of experience; no doubt that the many things I have been through and the people I’ve encountered have had an impact on me in countless ways. But I can’t help but wonder, when it comes to faith, isn’t experience only part of its convincing nature?

Is experience enough? In the evangelical church, it would appear that faith relies on experience. Is experience enough? Click To Tweet

The Importance of Experience

Philosophers, economists, advertisers, sociologists, and designers all support the claim that we live in the Age of Experience. Replacing the Agricultural and Industrial Ages, what was known as the Information Age has morphed into this new phase that is centered less on the information we’re consuming and more on how we consume (and broadcast) that information. It’s why specs and descriptions and numbers and evaluations and business stats are all secondary to marketers who create commercials and ads that make us feel like we’re part of a story rather than merely purchasing a phone or SUV. We yearn to experience everything for ourselves, commemorating and sharing our unique experience of life in selfies and Snaps and Facebook posts so others can experience them too. Experiencing someone in-person or digitally overrides resumes and degrees when job-hunting, just as escape rooms and indoor skydiving and special goggles can help you to experience life without negative implications.

Our lived experiences as living, breathing human beings are most certainly important parts of our relationship with God. It’s what makes the story of God different than the impersonal or distant, conniving or uncaring gods that other religions have touted for thousands of years. Scripture speaks of countless human beings who encountered God in unexpected places and learned more about God through those experiences.

In the church, especially when it comes to evangelism, we are used to creating environments where people can experience God and the power of the resurrected Christ among his people. In worship services, we use light (candles, stage lights, strobe), music (a choir singing in harmony to give you chills, a worship band leaning into a meaningful Hillsong verse), and preaching (stories, illustrations, humor, testimony) to frame that experience. Most churches see experience as a means of getting people to come back and be involved rather than sitting on the sidelines. This makes sense. But the problem lies when our experience of Jesus, rather than Jesus himself, assumes the throne. The problem lies when our experience of Jesus, rather than Jesus himself, assumes the throne. Click To Tweet

The Danger of Experience Alone

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd tells a story in his book Inspired Imperfection of an encounter he once had with two Mormons who showed up at his door when he was in college. After a lively discussion, as the young men were about to leave, one of them said that it was written in the Book of Mormon that if anyone read it with a sincere heart, God would reveal to them that it was divinely inspired, and that was how he became a Mormon. Greg was intrigued and actually began reading the text, but he did not experience what the young Mormon had. He says this:


What troubled me most was that, like this Mormon fellow, I based my faith largely on the dramatic experiences of God… This was when I first began to toil over how much credibility I should give to my own spiritual experiences. If this guy was mistaken, despite having an experience that was powerful enough to convince him the Book of Mormon was true, then I had to admit the possibility that I might be mistaken, my dramatic experiences of God notwithstanding. Which meant that, when it comes to determining the truth of any belief system, or any religious book, we have to appeal to considerations other than people’s subjective experiences. (p.73)

John Calvin said that human beings have a faculty called the sensus divinitatis that allows us to be aware of God’s presence, actions, or dispositions, resulting in experiences of him. But before someone attacks claims of religious experience, they must first address the question as to whether the claims behind the experience and who/what the experience shows are true. It’s not enough to hold onto a sensus divinitatis moment alone because people in most religious traditions are able to make the same argument about their own religious experiences.

However, some say that sharing our faith is equivalent to sharing our story—our experience of God in our lives. Some say your experience is the “one thing that nobody can refute or deny, as it is yours.” Some church evangelism classes focus on learning to tell this story as an elevator speech, but stop there. These are most certainly not bad things to learn to do, especially being able to process how Christ has impacted your life’s trajectory. But as Boyd discovered, the problem lies when that experience is the sole foundation and expression of one’s faith. Experience can lead to feelings of superiority and can also turn somebody off from exploring Jesus because they have not experienced him in the same way.

If you’ve ever been to a worship event and just didn’t feel anything as others have hands raised, eyes closed, and tears streaming, you understand what I mean. Experience becomes the thing you have that I don’t (i.e. my share-your-story-circle), the thing you’ve accumulated, and also the thing that changes every day and every hour. In evangelism, a focus on experience alone creates a two-dimensional see-saw from which it is just as easy to be thrown off and bruised as it is to have a good time. In evangelism, a focus on experience alone creates a two-dimensional see-saw from which it is just as easy to be thrown off and bruised as it is to have a good time. Click To Tweet

Multi-Dimensional Evangelism

Experience is indeed (and needs to be) a natural connecting edge with a culture engrossed in the Age of Experience, but it’s more than that. Experience is meant to be a tool in the toolbox that helps sculpt and define our faith—but no tool is designed to operate alone. Eventually, faith in Christ based on experience alone topples over—when the worship service doesn’t give a high, when the candles go out, when a message doesn’t inspire, when life whacks you over the head, betrayal arrives at your doorstep, and the valley smells like death.

The key is defining the other dimensions that not only make the Christian faith stand, but that also connect with the world around us.

Central to John Wesley’s practical ministry and theology was a process of discerning God’s “heart and mind” and putting Christian beliefs into practice in the midst of a changing world. Derived by scholar Albert Outler from Wesley’s works, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” views a four-edged method of discerning God’s mind and heart. Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illuminated by Tradition, animated through Experience, and confirmed by Reason. While the Quadrilateral represents a “method” for theological reflection, helps us express our faith, and aids in discerning God’s will, its edges can also represent valid means of sharing and coming to faith. Experience is merely one possible edge, which is then connected to the others. In this way, a spiritual experience that leads one to recognize Jesus as the Son of God should not be allowed to remain on one edge but should always be connected to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. In our preaching and teaching, we must communicate the Christian life that goes beyond the altar call and hand-raising— what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed and experienced himself, the cost of discipleship, lived out in the church. Someone who is convinced of Christ through Scripture and Reason may not have a spiritual experience or even an absolute a-ha moment in their journey.

In our relationships with people on the edge of faith or turned off by it, we can begin to recognize the edge of faith that might best connect with that individual—and it might not involve inviting them to a hopeful religious experience. As we share our stories of dramatic transformative experiences with Christ in crack houses, retreats, and fields on our knees, we can also share stories of Christ coming alive through our reading of Scripture and our philosophical pondering of Reason. We might find that the faith that once was rejected by our friends and neighbors was one that had been shared as a solely subjective faith, based on experiences they never had or experiences that faded away as life changed.

We just may find that they, too, are slowly falling in love with the Person who’s lived nearby all their lives.

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