Is it time to rethink the ‘testimony’?

At the Second Festival of Theology, Mike Starkey (who teaches at the Church Army centre in Sheffield) suggested that we need to rethink the traditional ‘testimony’:


It is a truth universally acknowledged that Christians invited to talk about their faith look terrified. Most people simply don’t know where to start. And that’s before you introduce the e-word. Outside the Church evangelism is seen as the province of wild-eyed loons who rant at passers-by. Inside the church it’s seen, at best, as the province of extroverts with a gift for that sort of thing. 

Testimony: the Positives

Of course, the classic answer to faith-sharing paralysis is the Testimony. It involves encouraging people to tell their faith story, in three parts:

> Before becoming a Christian

> Coming to faith

> Life since conversion.

One version puts it in a mnemonic: BC>JC>AD.

There are many positives about the classic testimony. Here are the two most obvious:

  1. It embeds truth claims in narrative. Look at any recent study of communication theory. For example, ‘sticky communication’ (Chip and Dan Heath), or studies of TED talks. One thing they all agree on is that story helps an idea stick. It makes it engaging. That’s the reason so many scholars, Christian and secular, see Jesus as a master communicator. He communicates through story and everyday images, rather than philosophical abstraction. In a testimony, you’re telling your story.
  2. It’s personal. In a testimony I’m saying, ‘This is what I’ve found, this is what matters to me.’ I may be implicitly making universal truth claims (‘If it’s true for me, it could be true for everybody else as well’). But that’s not how I’m expressing it. I’m adopting the stance of somebody who has found something life-enhancing I want to share. It’s not confrontational or an invitation to an argument. A testimony is relatively teflon-coated: ‘All I know is… that’s my experience.’ The only possible critical responses are ‘No! that’s not your experience!’ (which sounds weird and slightly unhinged), or ‘That may be your experience, but you’re deluded!’ (which sounds rude). 

So the classic testimony seems tailor-made for our culture. It’s story-based, it’s personal, and it makes truth-claims with humility.

Testimony: Hesitations

So why would anybody have any hesitations about it? In essence, because its threefold structure imposes a shape on the story you’re telling. And that shape can distort the content. Let me unpack that a bit more:

1) BC. The classic testimony begins with an account of life before conversion. Before long I realise that savouring the evils I indulged in before I met Jesus makes for a more gripping story. When I was in a Christian youth group in the 1970s, I noticed a tendency to embellish the rakishness of our suburban teenage lives before we came to faith. At that level it’s relatively harmless, low-grade distortion. But there have been higher-profile accounts of pre-conversion vice that turned out to be fabrication. And that’s more serious.

In the 70s and 80s Mike Warnke was one of America’s best-known Christian personalities. His autobiography The Satan Seller recounted his conversion from being a Satanist high priest. According to the book, in one nine-month period when Warnke was 19 all of the following happened. He: 

  • Joined a Satanic coven and rose to the rank of high priest.
  • Was given a lavishly-furnished apartment by the coven, which had 1500 members in three cities, and was financed by a worldwide Satanic organisation.
  • Became addicted to drugs – to the point where his skin turned yellow.
  • Grew his hair down to his waist, and grew 6″ long fingernails that he painted black.
  • Got shot in the leg by a pimp.

Off the back of this testimony he built a high-profile ministry. His books and albums were best-sellers. Until two journalists looked into his story and discovered it was a pack of lies. He’d made the whole thing up. More recently, a performer with a high-profile outreach group in the north of England was found to have made up most of the dramatic testimony he shared with teens in schools.

The classic testimony can subtly encourage people to exaggerate their pre-conversion badness. Because it seems like a win-win: it makes them sound more interesting, and brings greater glory to Jesus.

2) JC. The classic testimony assumes my faith story has a certain shape, including a moment of conversion. But what if that’s not true? What if I came to faith gradually, over a long period of time? What if my story’s more like a roller-coaster or mountain road, with twists, turns and hairpin bends? 

This is certainly true for my own story: nominal Christian background, awakening of faith in teenage years, secular media job, ordination, 20 years in Church leadership, life crisis and divorce leading to crashing out of ministry, new doors opening. It doesn’t fit a neat before-and-after template.

3) AD. The classic testimony ends with a phrase such as: ‘And I’ve never looked back!’ It tends to imply life is plain sailing since I met Jesus; I’ve experienced a constant sense of God’s presence and guidance; I experience constant inner peace.  

At the risk of sounding like the Psalmist on a bad day, it ain’t necessarily so. After Mother Teresa’s death, her private correspondence revealed she’d experienced no sense of the presence of God for the last 50 years of her life. Sometimes Christian maturity can involve a growing sense of God’s mystery, increased wrestling with life’s complexities and ethical dilemmas, a realisation that the Christian life involves lament as well as joy.

So the classic Testimony has positives. But by imposing a shape on my story, it also smuggles in problems and assumptions. At the very least, it runs the risk of confirmation bias. In other words, the temptation to interpret all information and experience in a way that confirms an existing pattern or blueprint. 


Come and think about Christian Hope and the End of the World at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.


Rethinking the Testimony

Three or four years ago, the Archbishop’s Evangelism Task Group was discussing the lack of accessible material to help people share their faith. And the challenge ended up on my desk, partly because my background combined communications and mission.

To me, it made sense to start with the testimony. But to try to reinvent it in a way that avoided the more obvious pitfalls. The result is a six-part course for home groups called Faith Pictures. The idea is simple. A faith picture is a metaphor or word-picture that says something about my journey of faith. But, unlike the classic testimony, it doesn’t impose a shape on it. My word picture might be a roller-coaster journey that goes up and down. Or a wrestling match. Or a pair of reading glasses that brings the world into clearer focus. Or a snorkel, which keeps me alive when I’m submerged. 

It helps people think about their faith and find a word-picture that rings true for them. That image can then be a starting point when they talk to friends and colleagues about faith. 

So here are four key points I was alert to when I was creating Faith Pictures:

1) Honesty. In Faith Pictures, different shapes of faith journey are OK. And it builds in honesty about the ups and downs and twists and turns. From the feedback I’ve received, a lot of people have found that liberating.

It’s also more convincing. People today are sensitive to hype, spin and hypocrisy. It’s better to be honest about doubts, questions and mess. Because that rings true. My friend’s more likely to engage if I’m honest about the times of depression and the questions, than if I offer faith as a panacea for eternal happiness. Authentic is good.

So Faith Pictures builds in honesty. Interestingly, the main thing I noticed in early feedback was that the faith pictures people came up with were all mixed, ambiguous images (rollercoaster, wrestling, off-road driving on rough terrain, etc). I found that encouraging.

2) Uniqueness. Back in 2011, I wrote a book called Ministry Rediscovered. It was a reaction to the assumption that Church should be one-size fits-all. Whether it’s a rigid churchmanship tradition, or the latest model of church from California or Sydney.

In the book I say church should be more like a regional cheese, a craft beer, or an appellation controlée wine. Distinctive to this particular place, with these particular people. I wanted to carry this over into individual faith-sharing. Unique and creative is good. I don’t have to envy somebody else’s story, or squeeze it to fit an existing shape. My faith picture is about my own unique story, with all its quirks.

3) Obliqueness. In the first session of Faith Pictures, we ask a question: ‘If you were a household appliance, what would you be?’ It’s similar to the questionnaires you find in Facebook: If you were a Disney character who would you be? If you were a car what would you be? 

People enjoy filling in these questionnaires. And there’s something interesting going on, in terms of identity and psychology. It’s an oblique way of talking about myself. Oscar Wilde said we reveal more about our true selves when we’re wearing a mask: people relax more when it’s less direct. A faith picture is a way of talking about myself obliquely.

Incidentally, as well as being fun, this is the basis of viral marketing. A helpful book on this is Contagious, by Jonah Berger. Berger was a student of the Heaths who wrote the Sticky book. He was interested in extending the ‘sticky’ communication idea: not just what sticks in my mind, but why I then tell other people about ideas and products. What makes some stories on social media go viral? Obviously, this is a fascinating question if our focus is mission. 

The key issue: again it is stories. People love a fascinating story. Story is a ‘Trojan horse’ that carries message. And Berger says it’s most effective when it centres on me telling the world about myself, my attitudes and experiences. Social media is like my clothes: it says something to the world about who I am. So, I made a deliberate choice to base Faith Pictures on telling stories and painting word pictures about my own attitudes and experiences. 

Of course, there’s an irony here. It’s an approach that encourages people to start with themselves… in order to express a faith which is ultimately about decentring the self and focusing on God and others. As Rick Warren says: ‘It’s not about you!’ He’s right. Narcissism isn’t the goal of the Christian life. 

But it’s a risk I thought worth taking, for faith-sharing to be contextual in a culture focussed on the self. (If I start in another place, such as my doctrine of the cross, mysteriously I find nobody’s listening). Psychologically, and in terms of viral marketing, sharing information about myself through word pictures is a helpful starting point in our culture. And all mission is contextual.

4) Missio Dei theology. People often assume the Church has a mission to share good news. Missio Dei (the mission of God) shifts the focus. It’s a framework that assumes it’s God who has the mission, to bring renewal to all creation. And God’s out there getting on with the job, stirring up questions and opening hearts. It’s our job to keep our antennae sensitive to what God’s already doing. In the words of Rowan Williams: ‘Finding out what God is doing and joining in.’ The whole of last session of Faith Pictures based on this idea. 

This is helpful because it takes burden off my ability to be fluent or persuasive. I can trust that God will provide opportunities for conversations. So Faith Pictures ends on an encouraging note: it’s OK, we can all do this. We just have to take the opportunities God is already sending.

Bibliography

Communication Theory:

  • Berger, J (2013) Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • Gallo, C (2014) Talk Like Ted. London: Macmillan.
  • Heath, C and Heath D (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House.

Christianity and Story:

  • Bailey, K (2008) ‘Introduction to Parables’, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. London: SPCK.
  • Godawa, B (2009) Word Pictures. Downers Grove: IVP

Rethinking Faith Sharing:

  • Stackhouse, JG (2002) Humble Apologetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Come and think about Christian Hope and the End of the World at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.


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14 thoughts on “Is it time to rethink the ‘testimony’?”

  1. Hopefully most us us will have had a life changing experience of God (or 2 or 3 or 4 or more). I have certainly had several, mostly decades after my first time choosing to follow Christ. Let’s tell people about those and keep on seeking, asking knocking etc to see what God has for us next. (there’s MORE!)

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  2. I can see enormous strengths in both approaches truthfully used. Not sure I agree that it’s an either-or situation.

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  3. Your mnemonic “BC>JC>AD” reminds me of a story I heard in France, about an English speaking missionary who had just finished language school and was asked to give his testimony in French for the first time.
    No doubt with this mnemonic in mind he started out, “Mon derriere est divisé en deux parties …” and was blown away when his audience exploded in laughter …

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      • There was a sermon by a Brit in the USA on 2 Kings 5.1-2 ‘Naaman was an army commander BUT he was a leper’. In true Martyn Lloyd Jones style he preached on one word (‘but’) in the classic 3-point style.
        (1) Everyone has a ‘but’;
        (2) It is easy to see other people’s ‘buts’;
        (3) It is hard to see your own ‘but’.

        The sermon failed to observe the first rule of cultural accommodation.

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  4. Last summer my wife chose to be baptised, and as part of the service shared her testimony. She is a quiet, unassuming woman who was raised in a ‘good Methodist home’, doesn’t like speaking in public, and who came to this decision because the Lord very clearly (and unexpectedly) impressed it on her in the course of her devotional reading, reflecting and listening. I lost count of the number of people who declared how helpful and genuinely good her testimony had been.

    And it certainly could not be squeezed into a BC-JC-AD pattern. Yet there was a similar threefold framework, one which I believe I first encountered thanks to James Lawrence before he wrote “Lost for Words”. In essense it looks at Realize, React and Result. But rather than being ‘linear’, it functions more as a framework for telling lots of little ‘moments’ or stories as one, bigger, whole story. She was able to use this as a means of identifying the hand of God at work in her life at various occasions, deepening and devloping the faith which was initially ‘absorbed’ from her community but which increasingly became ‘owned’ as something personal and life changing.

    In telling her story I think some of the characteristics which are outlined in the latter part of the article made their way into her approach (though we both abhor the kitchen appliance “I’d be a microwave” kind of question, and shudder when asked to explain what colour best describes us!). But humility, honesty, normality, tracing the finger of God, and the occasional smile, made hers a compelling and invigorating testimony. (She also spoke for more than 15 minutes, which certainly would not work for a ‘bus-stop’ testimony-sharing conversation!)

    In case it is helpful, the framework more fully is:-

    Realize
    Occasions when I realized some significant things about my faith.
    (eg: when I realised God’s love is for me, not just for everyone; when I understood what Jesus’ death on the cross meant for me; answered prayer; sense of belonging; need for personal response…)

    React
    How I reacted to those realisations
    – what went through my mind when I realised these things?
    – how did I respond?
    – why did I respond the way I did?

    Result
    What the result was
    – have I made a public profession of faith (Membership / Baptism)?
    – how has my faith and life changed?
    – what have been the joys and difficulties?

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  5. Thank you for your article.

    Testimonies are great; but if it all goes back to a conversion/commitment long ago it may seem rather historic. It is important that testimonies cover the recent experience of the believer as well; and above all that the focus is on Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than the believer. If not it may look as if the credit should go to the story teller. Secondly all jargon should be avoided. Thirdly what is said should be, under the Spirit, what is right for the listener. It should never look as if the believer is saying from memory a script….

    But let’s not be slow to share our stories.

    William

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  6. Willow Creek produced a resource some years ago called Just Walk Across the Room. One exercise was to write a BC/JC/AD testimony in 200 words with no jargon. Our church found it a very challenging but empowering thing to do.

    I agree that personal story is compelling and Christians should work hard at being able to talk winsomely, honestly and without embarrassment about their journey of faith.

    I shall look into Faith Pictures, it sounds good. Although, when asked to say what kitchen appliance I would be, my mind goes into panic mode totally shuts down. Not all of us can enthusiastically and instantly identify with a whisk or a dishwasher!

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  7. ‘Conversionism’ is part of the Bebbington Quadrilateral, so the BC>JC>AD testimony matches the evangelical narrative. Something I have noticed is a tendency for testimonies at occasions like baptisms to fit with the theological position of the context. The emphasis of the testimony can be rather different in a conservative evangelical context compared with a charismatic evangelical one. Perhaps the testimony can be as much addressed to one’s church community, to fit in, rather than honestly telling out one’s own experience to those on the outside.

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  8. “The classic testimony can subtly encourage people to exaggerate their pre-conversion badness. Because it seems like a win-win: it makes them sound more interesting, and brings greater glory to Jesus.”

    That’s the same issue I have with Christian biographies. They often portray a life which very few can identify with, miracle packed, God’s immanence glorious ever day. The kind of thing that might have pushed Job over the edge!

    I think (?) the first time I gave “my testimony” was in the late 1960s. Memory can be faulty but it wasn’t so much about how my life had been turned around (not much chief sinner material) but realising that Jesus had died for me and that he was alive…with a claim and a call on my life. I’m not saying that has been no experiential element in the following 50 years or that I have not been changed by the Holy Spirit but is this so bespoke to me that I need to be careful not to offer this instead of “Jesus”?

    Real life for many (most?) Christians has its Job seasons and if we can’t be honest about that then we’re doing God a disservice. He’s a real God for a real life. “He will keep me to the end”.

    PS…faith pictures looks useful, though, like John, I have trouble identifying with implements. It’s better than the ‘stones’ stuff which seemed to dominate a few years ago. Between a rock and a hard place? ?

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  9. We just finished doing ‘Faith Pictures’ in a small group at our church. There were six of us participating and the response was unanimously good. And the make uo of the group was far from homogenous. Good job, Mike!

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  10. thanks for this, as ever Ian. As it happens, I touch on the unhelpful aspects of some testimonies on my depression book. It can have a significantly detrimental effect on people if your AD point is adhered to closely.

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  11. I confess that I don’t see anything profoundly new here. It’s still a sharing of what Jesus has done in your life. Either approach done with integrity, acknowledging doubts and questions along the way, is in my experience effective and impacting. Having a moment of conversion or a moment of realisation (…wow, Jesus has been walking with me for a while now…!) are both equally absorbed into the first model.

    Reply

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