I had a thought about a new model for testimony. When I say “new,” I mean new relative to what we’re doing now in turn-of-the-millennium in America because this model for testimony has existed for quite some time — I’ll get to that later.
A short disclaimer: if you’re reading this thinking, “Erich heard my testimony and hated it, so he wrote this post,” please note that I haven’t read or heard anyone’s testimony recently, and this isn’t written about anyone in particular. It’s as much a critique on myself as it is anyone else.
In general, a great churchy testimony goes something like this (fill in the braces with your own details):
A Great Churchy Testimony
Part 1: The Family Background
“I was born into a [good/bad] family, and I [never/always] heard about Jesus while growing up.” (≈5% of story)
Part 2: The Original Sin
“I began doing some somewhat interesting sins like looking at porn/sniffing Sharpies/smoking weed].” (≈10% of story)
Part 3: The Shocking Revelation of Past Sin
“My life started to sound like a sexy Hollywood drama because of how much fascinating sin I was involved in. I was [addicted to cocaine/having affair with the president of a big company/staring death in the face/buying hundreds of Sharpies to sniff].” (≈60% of story)
Important note: If you don’t have any really juicy sins here, please magnify small ones out of proportion to make them seem super bad and interesting.
Part 4: The “I Saw the Light” Moment
“Jesus showed up. [A friend told me about it/10 friends told me/I walked into a random church/the clouds opened up and I saw the light].”
“I [immediately/eventually] said “yes” to Jesus.” (≈20% of story)
Part 5: Yay, Life is Boring
Ready for the big one?
“Now I’m [happy/at peace]; I’ve given up all my interesting sins. [I put down the bong/quit drinking/trashed my Rap and Bob Marley CDs/ burned all my Sharpies].”
“So now my life is as terrifyingly boring as yours is. I’ve become one of you; so even if I have some weird tattoos, you don’t need to be afraid of me.” (≈5% of story)
And that’s it.
Where’s the Emphasis?
I must also admit that I am not the first to make this critique of the testimony model, but it bears repetition since as a culture we have yet to grasp the point.
Although the speaker may pump more raw emotion into Part 4, the emphasis of this model is clearly on the sexiest, dirtiest, greasiest sins you can come up with. And why not? For a rhetorical strategy, it works brilliantly: the darker the secrets we reveal are, the brighter the salvation seems when it comes. Doesn’t this glorify Jesus even more?
A newer (but for reals classic) model
I could call this above model, which culminates in the salvation moment, the “American” model because it’s really fashionable to bash on America these days, but that wouldn’t be so honest — his model pervades the entirety of the church. Our obsession with the grit of pre-Jesus life may be fueled by our love for Hollywood gangster flicks, but it comes from a pattern of bad thinking that’s as old as Adam — a focus outside of Jesus.
You may be saying, “wait a minute, isn’t the new testament all about redemption from sin and salvation? Paul even said, “I’m the greatest of sinners!”
Well, you’re right. The gospel is about redemption from sin, but that’s not all its about. In fact, the majority of the New Testament is about what people do after they meet Jesus, not before. On top of that, the stories of the NT’s greatest heroes almost always feature God as the main character. Peter and Paul might take home the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but Jesus and the Holy Spirit always hog the lime light. There’s rarely any focus on pre-Jesus sin, or even on reasons why people come to Jesus.
Let’s look at an example from the Book of Acts:
Luke’s Account of Paul’s Testimony (with Some Serious Abridgment for Brevity’s Sake)
Part 1: Paul’s Past (AKA Saul, the Sinner)
Luke spends all of about four short sentences on Paul’s life before the conversion story. It’s probably ≈1% of the story, but I’m too lazy to count the words and actually calculate it.
- Acts 7:58b “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
- Acts 8: 1-3 “And Saul approved of their killing him… But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
Part 2: Paul’s Conversion
Acts 9:1-19 covers Paul’s conversion story. Featured in the story are bolts of lightning, episodes of blindness, trippy visions, radical faith and hospitality, gross scales and possibly a very confused donkey. I’ll let you read it. (≈6-7% of the story)
Part 3: Paul’s Boring Life after Conversion
After his radical conversion, Paul becomes a wonderful, sweeth-mouthed Christian, right? He works a straight nine to five in tent-making, pays his taxes and tithes, and stays out of trouble. In short, he keeps it cool, but on occasion does a few groovy things which include:
- Plays a central role in Acts 9, and the last half of the book 14-28.
- Begins public preaching of the gospel only days after his conversion
- Narrowly escapes death on a dozen occasions
- Miraculous healings
- Battles sorcerers
- Debates top Greecian scholars on their own classroom floors
- Survives and possibly is raised from the dead after public stoning
- Survives a shipwreck and saves everyone on board
- Gets stranded in Malta
- Survives a poisonous snake attack
- Travels the greater part of the Middle East and Asia Minor preaching the gospel in every town and city on the way
- Goes to prison on multiple occasions
- Writes a few letters, which become half the New Testament
The story of Paul’s acts after his conversion account for over 90% of the story.
In-yo-face rhetorical questions:
- How much does Luke or Paul talk about his upbringing? Nada.
- How much time does the New Testament to devote to Paul’s first introduction to sin? Zilch.
- How peaceful and boring is Paul’s life after (or during) the conversion? Not at all!
- How much time does Luke spend on Paul’s life after Jesus shows up? Over 90%.
Some Advantages of the New/Classic Model
Before this blog post gets too long (too late, I know), let’s look at a few advantages on this model.
- Most importantly, this model focuses on what God is doing/has done, not on what we are doing/have done.
- When “the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophesy” (Rev 19:10), it’s important to discuss behaviors and events that we want to recreate, not those we don’t.
- We get to stay out of unhealthy obsession with sin. The juicy details don’t help us “be ignorant to the ways of evil” (Romans16:19).
- It creates a challenge for us to questions which events in our life are most important. It’s true, our conversion is critical, but it’s not the only important event in our life. Our testimonies should show how God has transformed us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
- It attracts people to the gospel with interesting stories of how exciting God can really be (see Mark 16:15-18 for a description of some post-salvation awesomeness).
[box type=”info”]Photo by zdenadel.[/box]
4 replies on “A New Model for Testimony”
You make good observations about what is the more typical “testimony” heard today, but I think you’re missing a few points. One, is that if those are TRULY believer’s testimonies, who’s to say that it isn’t “the best” or “effective” way? Second, there are different types of testimonies (pertaining to subjects, audience, etc.). The most common has to deal with the time before, during, and slightly after. Another may emphasis more of their “after” walk with the Lord. And probably a lot more covering the before, during, and after. I can definitely appreciate the “outside-the-box” critical point-of-view, but at the same time, it seems to be a little over-analytical to over-generalize/simplify what other’s call their testimony.
Aaron, thank you so much for your comment. You make an excellent point, and I would in no way want to demean anyone’s personal story. Indeed, we should by no account throw out any part of our testimony that helps bring glory to God. My objective in writing this post was to challenge readers to consider why we build our stories the way we do. I believe our lives should become more interesting when we recognize our identity as sons and daughters of the King, not less. Not always, but sometimes our stories could use a little less focus on what we were saved from and a little more on what we were saved for.
Once again, thank you for you comment!
Erich, I definitely agree with that assessment. Unfortunately, I believe most people are preoccupied with fear, anxiety, and don’t put a whole lot into the “format” of their testimony, let alone much time. From my experience, they just want to “get through it” which oftentimes leads to “their backstory leading to salvation”. At the end of the day, it seems as if you’re getting at the intentionality behind what we do as Christians, and if so, I couldn’t agree more 🙂
Exactly! Thanks Aaron.