The first time I heard a testimony was in sixth or seventh grade. It was delivered by an older guy in my youth group. If I recall correctly, his parents were out of the picture and his life was really rough, but by the grace of God everything was okay and he planned to go to Bible college to become a youth pastor. In the years since then, I’ve heard many such stories – tales of broken homes, violence, substance abuse, depression, all building up to a culminating moment: a single prayer to accept Jesus, and a redeemed life. Most of those redeemed lives ended up in ministry, telling their story over and over again, usually to teenagers.
Somewhere along the line, I realized that these stories were meant to convince us of something. A failed suicide attempt = God is real. A drug addict turned pastor = God changes lives. These were compelling stories, so compelling that I saw many people say that same culminating prayer and commit their lives to Jesus. Sometimes these commitments were short lived – it’s easy to make promises in the moments following an emotionally charged story, especially when the lights are dim and there’s acoustic music playing softly in the background. This method never convinced me, and I grew cynical.To me, this practice of sharing one’s testimony (a word that continues to make me cringe, except when it’s used on Law & Order) seemed gimmicky and misleading. A single, dramatic story of redemption was no way to convert someone. If I wasn’t already a Christian at the time, I knew that I wouldn’t be convinced simply be hearing someone on a stage tearfully recount parts of their biography. It seemed shallow, tacky, and manipulative. And I think part of the issue was my own story: a bookish, straitlaced kid from a stable family who was raised in the faith…stayed in the faith. No drama, no climactic prayer, very little tangible redemption. No one would be convinced by that. There were times that I regretted how painless my life had been – I wished that there had been something terrible for me to have been saved from, so that people might be compelled by my story too. I hated being asked to share my testimony – the entire practice was a sham.
I’ve since come to terms with this, for the most part. I still think that it’s silly to try to convince people with one dramatic story, but that doesn’t mean that stories aren’t worth telling.
Humans are obsessed with stories. We tell them all the time – I would guess that about half of my casual conversations revolve around storytelling. Societies are built by them, cultures are shaped by them, we pay to consume them in various forms, and are converted by them all the time, in many ways. There is something deeply human about stories and storytelling. We need them.
And, perhaps more importantly, God is real, and God changes lives. Even though one secondhand account of this shouldn’t be enough to convert someone, these stories are important and we need to tell them. This mini-conversion of mine, as with most conversions I’ve experienced, occurred gradually over time. I heard simple stories of redemption, and was reminded of grace. I read the Psalms, and saw that God wants us to repeatedly speak of his work. I recited the Creed over and over again, and noticed that this too is simply a retelling of the greatest story ever told. These things are not gimmicks, but important stories that bear witness to the Risen Christ. So let’s keep telling stories.