"Describe your life before Christ.
Describe how you came to know Christ.
Describe how Christ has changed your life"
Let me tell you what this sounds like.
Personal Testimonies as Marketing
"Before I started using ______, I would spent so much time scrubbing and soaking stains on my families' clothes. One day my friend told me about ________, and now laundry is such a breeze and my kids clothes look great!"
Before, discovery, description of the benefit and change.
If it's a true story, if it's unsolicited, then great, it's a real testimony. It bothers me when it is canned and forced and put down to rote formula, because then it seems distinctly fake, even for the one being taught to give their testimony. It's manipulating, telling them how they are supposed to think and feel about their own faith and story.
Personal Testimonies and Prosperity Gospel
After all, many faith stories don't fit into the formula, and I don't think they necessarily need to. There's many people like me who, like Timothy, were raised to know Christ at a young age, and so there is no "before". For me, my testimony is about what I believe and why, not about a dramatic conversion. Or what if the truth is, "Since I've come to Christ I've struggled with ongoing depression and loneliness."
Does our testimony giving show a tendency towards prosperity gospel? We may not say that Christ promises wealth or career success, but we are completely comfortable with story after story of success in marriage, addictions healed, problems and personal sins that drain away. We want to hear people say they are filled with peace and joy since knowing Christ. We don't know what to do with continued struggles, with loneliness and depression and mental illness. Yet, though sometimes Christ heals, sometimes God also allows suffering and does not promise to take it away?
Reconsidering - Were There Personal Testimonies in the NT?
I've been cynical about this for a while, but I was convicted to reconsider my criticism. Is it wrong to "market" our faith if it's truly worth marketing? I mean, isn't it true that we WANT our friend to tell us if they've discovered an amazing stain remover or a fantastic new store or a favorite new book? We rely on personal testimonies all the time - is it any different when we've discovered a life-changing faith and truth? And if a story is genuine and unmanipulated (problem is I've seen them directly manipulated), that's great.
Then I got to thinking, what about testimonies in the New Testament? What about those great messages given by Paul and Peter and Stephen and such where they present the gospel in a new place? How did they do it? I went back and looked through a number of these messages in this light, and I was intrigued to see that in presenting this gospel of Christ, Paul and Peter talk most of all about Christ and WHO He is and what His life and and death means, and they often tell this through the context of culture and history. If Peter is talking to Jews, he talks about their history and uses their scripture. Only twice in Acts is there is a personal story of someone's conversion, and that's Paul when he's arrested and giving a defense, and then Paul when he's talking directly to King Agrippa. Clearly there's a place for a real testimony, but it seems the central focus is never what's happened to US, but who Christ is.
The person of Christ is the central focus of Peter's message on Pentecost:
"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"
From the sermon in Acts 4:
"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Stephen, in his testimony that leads to his stoning, gives a whole history of the Jews, showing that it all leads up to culmination in this Christ, who they have rejected just as their fathers rejected the prophets. He never mentions how he came to believe this.
When Paul preaches in Antioch, he again talks about the person of Christ through the Jewish promises and history, but also emphasize that this promise is also for Gentiles as well:
Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.
Paul did this regularly, it seems, from this passage in Acts 17:
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ" he said.
When Paul gets to Athens and speaks to a non-Jewish crowd, he stills talks about Christ, but he doesn't talk about Jewish history this time, he emphasizes peoples' responsibility to God, and the path God has provided for them through this man Jesus.
The first time we hear a public personal testimony in a gospel presentation is in Acts 22, when Paul is arrested and gives his public defense to the crowd. Then he tells his history as a persecutor of Christians and his encounter with the risen Christ. He does the same again to Agrippa.
Are Personal Testimonies Bad?
No, absolutely not. That's not my point. Personal testimonies are personal stories, and if they are true, there's nothing wrong with them, and we naturally should be telling our stories if there's something significant to tell. What I'm pushing back against is our need as an evangelical church to pressure for testimonies, for success stories, and how we want them to look a certain way. I think for one thing, we need to learn to be at peace with not yet being success stories. Maybe the marriage wasn't healed when Christ entered the picture, maybe it's still rocky and it's taking work and it's hard, but that's OKAY, because that's what Christ promised in this life. We're not in heaven yet.
On the other hand, I think our obsession and need for personal testimonies reflects how people centered we are instead of Christ centered. None of this is about us or our change and growth. It's about Jesus and the great love and redemption that God has offered the world through His death and resurrection. If we let personal emotional stories obscure the message of the gospel, then we lose the point of it all, the beauty of it all. If the gospel alone is not enough for us, we need to sit back and think pretty hard about what we're doing.