Let’s talk about our testimony.
I recently posted a thread about myself on Twitter, describing leaving my former evangelical church, and then generally departing from conservative Christianity. It got a LOT of positive attention, many tens of thousands of views. Many of the positive comments had this tone: “Thanks for sharing this; it mirrors my experience, and you’re giving me hope to continue my own relationship with God.” My self-description – my testimony – was drawing some people into deeper faith.
On the other hand, and unsurprisingly, a number of people reacted by saying bad things about my supposed loss of faith. My testimony, to them, felt accusatory and damaging.
I hadn’t intended the thread to be a testimony at all: I just wanted people to understand a bit about what motivates me and how I arrived at this place in my life. But clearly it became a testimony for many, and it had either good or bad results depending on the reader.
As I have thought about the responses to my thread, something occurred to me.
I think many of us use such stories of “I used to be like you” as a form of identifying with our listener. It’s intended to build a bit of common ground – as well as trying to explain why we believe that our experience could or even should be replicated in them.
And I’ve certainly used that tactic a lot lately, because so much about my life and my understanding and my politics and my religion has sharply changed in the last couple of years.
But the response to my tweet makes me wonder: does that kind of testimony actually work like I think it does?
When evangelical Christians react to my statement that I used to be evangelical with anger or dismay that I could turn away from the Truth, I realize that such a reaction is actually probably common to other similar testimonies. Whenever we say “I used to be like you,” perhaps it comes with some unexpected baggage for the target of the testimony.
Specifically, thinking about these reactions led me to think about how non-Christians, and especially atheists, will likely react to a Christian using that kind of tactic to persuade them to “come to Jesus.”
I doubt there are many Americans who have zero awareness of the nature of the Christian religion and the name of Jesus. In our American world, with a fairly ubiquitous infusion of Biblical language into daily life, God’s name on our currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and broad penetration of at least some aspects of church culture into the broader secular culture, it’s probably reasonable to assume that most non-Christian people have already considered, and actually chosen against, turning to the God that’s been described to them. In fact, the majority have probably already fended off more than a few well-meaning Christians and their testimony.
So trying to persuade someone to convert with the idea that “I changed so you can too” probably has an inherently limited effectiveness. They’ve made a decision already, and the fact that someone else made a different decision has zero inherent draw to them.
And I think the argument could be made that it’s actually harmful in some ways, because it doesn’t just communicate “I used to be like you;” instead, because we’re describing the positive changes in our lives, it can easily come across with the implicit tone of “I’m better now than before” which carries an unspoken but caustic “I used to be a wretched heathen like you still are, and you need to change lest you end up in hell.”
Even if we don’t say it, they’ll hear that we consider them inadequate or broken. Which, frankly, we do. After all, the evangelical mindset truly is that they’re going to hell and are living sinfully.
And that kind of unspoken communication will only widen the gulf between them and God.
I don’t think this means that testimony is off the table as an effective witnessing tool, but it certainly makes me rethink exactly how our testimony has to be approached, to avoid being harmful instead of helpful.
But maybe testimony – at least the spoken kind of story – is not the best tool in any case. Unless we SHOW them something different about our current lives, instead of just talking about it, why would they change their position, even based on our story? More than words about what we used to be, the attraction needs to be what they can tangibly see in us.
Only once they’re captivated by the character of the living God being tangibly expressed in us, in deed and in nature more than in words, and only once we have developed enough of a relationship for them to be interested in learning yet more about us, will that testimony become actually useful. Only then will our difference from them be a draw instead of a repellent.
If nothing else, this pushes me even closer to the idea that the only REALLY effective witnessing tool is living life with someone, and then only if we actually exude Christ from our very being with every word and deed.
Basically, there’s just no way to effectively witness without BEING everything we’re trying to describe about God. Unless it’s totally real, it’s just not going to work. And from that perspective, to riff on that quote often mistakenly attributed to St Francis of Assisi, “share your testimony at all times; use words only when necessary.” Live in such a way that those around you cannot help but catch the overflow of God from our being, and desire to learn more, even before we say a word.
But the second part of this witnessing sounds even harder. We can’t live like Christ to people around us if we hate or fear them or their lifestyle.
And that means getting over our fears and phobias and distaste for people unlike us. There’s no relationship possible when our words and actions communicate “I’m better than you” or “I’m afraid you’ll contaminate me.”
Think about going to minister to a smelly strung-out homeless drug user in their tent encampment. Chances are, we’d walk up to them holding our nose, or at the least wrinkling it, trying to stay upwind of them. We’d be looking around nervously, afraid of being attacked. We’d avoid getting too close. We’d be hesitant to really listen to their story or how they view the world. Everything in us would likely scream that they need to change everything about themselves before we’re comfortable around them. Anything we’re going to do for them is intended to change them and clean them up in some way. We just want to preach and fix and get out of their presence, back to where it’s comfortable for us.
And unsurprisingly, that distaste and fear will be clearly obvious to them. It will pollute every single thing we try to do. (No wonder so many indigent people reject help from the well-off. They can smell the repulsion emanating from the benefactor, just like we could smell their unwashed clothes.)
But Jesus was apparently completely unafraid to get right into the mess with those He was ministering to. He routinely broke the ceremonial laws against uncleanness. And the result was always restoration and salvation.
So it’s only when we approach someone from a position equal to – or even beneath – them, with unadulterated love, that a relationship can flourish, and our life and character will matter to them.
Jesus communicated the importance of this by saying “I came to serve” (Matthew 20:28). I think too often we interpret that as serving what we think are God’s or the Kingdom’s interests, but we make those choices based on our own interests. When I think back over my years of saying that I was serving the church, I realize now that it had a very strong vibe of “I have things that matter to me about this church, and I’m going to pour my energy into that thing on behalf of the church.” It was pretty rare for me to mean “I’m just going to present myself with zero expectations or agenda and do what’s asked of me.”
We moderns don’t really have a good idea about servanthood; we’re too far removed from that world. So much of our ministry is actually self-serving in some way. But I think Jesus was being pretty straightforward in His statement. A servant has no control over their own serving; they serve at the whim of the one they serve, simply doing what is needed or asked by the master. There’s no pride or self interest there.
So when I hope to draw someone to the Kingdom and the Creator, I’ve got to be starting from a position of deep humility. And any hint of testimony or service that sounds like “I’m better than you” or “I know better than you what you need” will be destructive. It’s not about false humility, either; people can smell that ugly thing from miles away. It has to be true servanthood.
But ironically, I’d suggest that this all becomes easy if we’re truly becoming Christlike. From Jesus’ position, there is no fear or hatred of the “other.” There is no pride or arrogance. There’s no self-promotion in the serving. There’s no score-keeping or seeing the other as a project or a target or something to be fixed. So when we do enter into that holy God-graced relationship, when those words of testimony finally do come out of our mouths, they’re going to fall into soil that has been tilled and watered by the Holy Spirit’s overflow that spills onto those around us, and the words will be barely necessary.
So let’s determine to focus on becoming Christlike, and focus much less on scoring converts or telling our testimony to everyone we meet. Let our very lives be the testimony instead. They’ll ask us when they’ve seen Jesus in us, when they’re ready. I think then we’ll be far more effective in growing the Kingdom, a few deep relationships at a time.