Everyone loves a testimony. What’s not to like?
They are stories, and everyone loves stories. They come from the heart, so they provoke an emotional response. They are filled with hope. They speak of God’s power and his love.
They are often inspiring.
So what’s not to love?
Very little, which is why I don’t want to pour cold water on the idea of testimonies. I think they’re a great way to encourage believers, to give us insight into what God is doing in the midst of a community, and yes, to inspire us. However, there are a few things to be aware of when including a testimony in a service.
First, a short story from my own life.
I work with disadvantaged people. I’m in a team that serves breakfast once a week to people who are struggling in life. Our guests come with a variety of challenges. Some are homeless, some are addicts, and some are just lonely. Most are on benefits. Some smell; many don’t. Some are educated; many left school at 16. Most are men.
During breakfast, there is a short talk. For a while, we were inviting various ex-offenders and ex-drug addicts to give their testimonies. They were fantastic. Inspirational. I would listen to their stories and wonder how anyone could listen and not believe immediately. Our guests were so needy, so desperate, and some were so similar to the speakers, I was certain they would respond to a message of love and grace.
But they rarely did. It made me sad, and still makes me sad.
One morning, I was sitting with a guest, who asked me this question,
Do you think we’re all addicts, then?
I was shocked, but my eyes were opened in an instant.
While I was hearing a message of hope, this man was hearing something completely different. All he heard was criticism and labelling. He thought we were putting him in a box marked, “person with addiction problems. Perhaps a criminal.” We weren’t, but he thought we were.
What did I learn? That when a person gives a testimony, we don’t all hear it with the same ears. I learnt that it comes with assumptions, which not everyone shares. Choosing the right testimony for the right occasion feeds into the concept of messaging. Messaging is defined as follows:
All the words used to communicate publicly with the church body.
Words are extremely powerful. They communicate our values, our beliefs, our culture – those things we value and affirm as a group. So the words used during a testimony are part of a church’s messaging. They validate and communicate the values of the church. They become part of the culture. If you only interview ex-drug addicts, you include assumptions that come along with that choice. It’s not wrong to interview ex-addicts, of course, but if you only choose ex-addicts or ex-criminals, then consider carefully what you are communicating to your church.
Choosing a testimony
It’s easy to be sloppy. We’re looking for stories, so we choose the latest story to come to our attention. However, over time, we will inevitably choose certain kinds of stories that appeal to us personally, without even thinking. So consider carefully what kinds of testimonies have been given recently in your church before selecting the next one.
When I was in my late teens, I read two memoirs that had a profound impact on my life. One was “The Cross and the Switchblade,” by David Wilkerson, and the other was “Run, Baby, Run,” by Nicky Cruz. Every young evangelical read these two books back then. They tell the story of a pastor who preaches to violent gangs in New York. Miracles happen. Wilkerson is a man of great faith and extraordinary bravery. Nicky Cruz, a gang leader, comes to faith and has his life turned upside down by God.
This is going to sound absurd, but as a young man, I spent a long time wishing I could have been a drug addict or a gangster. It’s not hard to follow the logic. If I had been, then I could have had a testimony like Nicky Cruz’s. And who wouldn’t want that?
When a person gives a testimony, those listening will inevitably think of their own testimony. And while that’s a normal response, it can create problems. We expect testimonies to be dramatic, perhaps to contain miracles. That’s what makes them extraordinary. That’s why they inspire us. But they can also make people feel excluded; they can indicate to us that our own stories have lesser value. That’s not the intention, but it’s the reality.
Is there a solution?
Not really, but a good leader should be aware of how a testimony will come across. A good leader knows that God works in myriad ways that aren’t always dramatic and exciting. So a good leader will sometimes choose testimonies that don’t involve drugs and miracles, but simply the slow burn or the persistent inquiry leading to faith. And don’t we sometimes need to hear from people who’ve struggled to believe and have held on? Not everyone worth listening to has gone to prison or fought an addiction. Testimonies should span the demographic spectrum of the church – young, old, rich, poor – because we connect with a testimony and if we don’t see ourselves mirrored up there, we can begin to think that our spiritual experience isn’t valid. Or it’s not worth sharing.
Be careful of putting people up on stage too soon. This happens a lot. A new believer, someone who has come through Alpha perhaps, is suddenly asked all kinds of questions in front of hundreds of people. We should be hesitant about doing that.
It draws attention to a person when what they need is discipleship and relationship.
It can provoke unwanted questions.
The person can be asked theological questions which they are ill-equipped to answer.
They are assumed to know a lot more than they do.
Unwelcome Assumptions and Telling the Story
I think sometimes we project unwelcome (or even untrue) assumptions when we conduct our interviews. Here’s one:
If you don’t follow Jesus, you must be miserable and lost.
The problem is, while Jesus does indeed make sense of life, it’s simply not true that all those who are not Christians are, by definition, miserable and lost. That’s not true and it’s not helpful. It’s also important not to ask leading questions. Leading questions are those which contain unwarranted assumptions. Here’s one:
So, Jerry, when did you realise that life was meaningless without Jesus?
To be fair, I haven’t heard that one, but I’ve heard similar ones. Here’s another:
So, Jerry, tell us just how difficult things were for you when you were living on the streets.
That’s not a good question. Here’s a better alternative:
Jerry, tell us about your life on the streets.
Allow the interviewee to set the scene and tell the story without projecting your own ideas and assumptions into your questions. A good interview focuses all our attention on the person giving the testimony. The story is what draws us, teaches us, inspires us. The interviewer’s job is to help the person move through the story.
“What happened when you” . . . “What did you learn from that course/relationship/incident?” . . . “You said God spoke to you through a chance encounter with a woman at the bus stop, tell us more about that” . . . “Tell us about your life now . . .”
These are all open questions/statements that move the story forward.
Many people nowadays are savvy. They know when they’re hearing hype, when they’re hearing something that doesn’t quite ring true. So stick to the truth. Never ask the person to amp up the story so that it sounds a little more dramatic. God’s work in our lives is dramatic enough. In fact, when a story contains disappointment and struggle, it’s all the more powerful, because it’s real. Life isn’t just mountaintops, it’s valleys too. We all know that.
In truth, the Spirit blows where He wills. Sometimes He will draw out testimonies from who knows where, that make us uncomfortable (or inspire us) and only He knows what he’s doing. I can no more contain God than lasso the wind.
Praise God for that!
So tell stories in your services. Choose stories that give glory to God.
And trust those words to bring life and encouragement to those who hear.