This will conclude with what I have come to believe is one of the greatest faults within evangelical churches, which serves to actually undermine discipleship with Christ! In a recent discussion around two songs, both entitled ‘Take me to church’ I stated that just as I, as an imperfect individual, need to accept fair criticism, so also an imperfect church needs to do the same.
I am fairly certain I have mentioned this before in bits and pieces across all my previous blogs, but I’m just wanting to lay down something a bit more concrete. Yes, I do hate testimonies!
34 years listening to them and seldom not just wanting to fall asleep! Also getting to the point of missing our New Year’s ‘watchnight’ services because they’d be a total of four hours (with a welcome tea break, mind you) mainly full of… testimonies!
Not that I doubt the individual testimonies of my brothers and sisters! Nor that their own stories are unique and do testify to the saving grace of God. I just got tired of the same old, same old… [for those who maybe do not practice this cultural phenomenon, you are asked to speak before the church and relate what God has done in your life, how he saved you from the consequences of your sins, changed your life, provided for you, answered prayers].
Yes, they certainly can be valuable. I was even asked myself to testify for a Father’s Day service, and asked specifically to tell of how I was miraculously healed from a brain haemorrhage and stroke, and it is a story of how I faced death, spoke with God, received assurance that I’d not die in intensive care, and yes, I would see my grandchildren (first granddaughter born only two years later!).
So why and how do I find myself just hating them and dreading the next round of them? As with many religious things we participate in, they’re more cultural than scriptural – just for example, where do our two services on Sunday come from? Testimonies that I hear tend to take on a pattern, human nature being what it is, and follow an unspoken, unwritten code and definition that people tend to fall into in order to fulfil the ‘criteria’ that make it what it is. I often hear preambles like “I’m honoured to be able to stand here and testify for my Lord Jesus” or clichés like “he died in my room instead” (which I somehow always hear as ‘room and staid’ since it might almost make as much sense to an unchurched person as the ‘proper’ one that rolls off our tongues!), or worse: “he’s now my own and personal saviour” since both ‘own’ and ‘personal’ mean the same thing, and create a redundancy, and I believe it to be a corruption of ‘my Lord and personal saviour’ and leaving out ‘Lord’ (whether intentionally or not) leads to a belief I shall come to later.
No, I end up purely anticipating a formula that sounds roughly like this:
“I’m honoured… [see above]. I was a terrible sinner. I was
a) raised in a Christian home,
or b) not raised in a Christian home but was made to go to Sunday school,
but I turned my back on all that when I grew up.
I lived a life of [insert various vices here. Common ones like smoking, drinking and going to pubs are fair enough, but feel free to add in ‘greater’ sins if applicable e.g. cheating on (or better, beating) your spouse].
I carried on in this miserable life until one day, I gave in to this guy at work/ friend from schooldays/ uncle or aunt who had been asking me incessantly about going to church with them, and I attended the gospel service. I was so moved by the message and felt God calling me. I raised my hand, said the sinner’s prayer, and now I no longer [smoke, drink, go to pubs… as applicable from above] and I’ve never looked back, even though that was x years ago. [END].”
[N.B. Add in a few clichés as noted above when describing your moment of salvation]
Many seem to almost revel in just how bad a person the testifier was before their encounter with Jesus, to the point that it can sound like a glorification of sin to me! I thought this was peculiar maybe to just my Northern Ireland culture but a bestselling book years ago was ‘Hell’s Angel’ by Brian Greenaway, an English believer who went around testifying to the violent life he lived in a chapter of bikers before becoming a Christian. He related in an interview how an old lady came to him after a service and said “oh I wish I had a testimony like yours!” Greenaway said that he felt like punching her in the face (yes, God’s grace takes time to work on some of us!). He could not believe that she’d been listening to how awful things were for him and still wish that she had experienced a similar life. There it was, a clear desire to have something terrible from which to have been ‘saved’ in order to lend kudos to one’s testimony! Heaven forbid we should have a boring one!
Yet no testimony should be boring! If we only were to recount to ourselves all the great things in which we have seen God’s work and hand in our lives, and what we have learnt along the way, it should never be mundane to listen to; that is, if we have a walk to recount…
1. I AM a sinner!
First point I wish to make about these ‘off the shelf’ testimonies is that they seem to talk about being a sinner until that day we changed and never went back to the ‘life of sin’ yet nowhere do I read of us achieving perfection this side of heaven! The righteousness we have is imputed to us through Christ’s perfection, once we accept him. We are just deemed righteous by God through Jesus. If you’re not sure what this means, look up those two words in a dictionary. It should be clear. We are all sinners and continue to be so. I have thought of my life as being suddenly changed in a flash, yes, that moment I accepted Christ as Lord and saviour, but I saw no instant change in myself. That has taken time and is still ongoing, every day, every year. Like that day 27 years ago that I made vows to my wife in love, and I became a married man, my life changed, but it has been a journey of ups and downs, good and bad, ‘for better, for worse’ with Karen that is still ongoing, and my marriage was not set down in concrete form on that wedding day. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve treated my wife, as has she with me, as has any married person. The same applies to the Christian life, and by focussing purely on that one day and stopping your testimony there, you imply that you have been a good saint ever since. This was not my experience; I was a well-behaved boy of 14. I’d done no more than a few detentions for not doing homework, looking curiously at certain magazines we found on a disused railway, and trying to light cigarettes with my best friend without puffing on them, and thinking it was just our luck to purchase a pack that were all duds! I can safely say I have been more of a sinner since my conversion than before. Hence why I can also not sing certain songs that talk of “sinking deep in sin, sinking to rise no more” or that “my life was full of sin and confusion” – that certainly is the experience of some, but not all of us, and so these ‘expected’ testimonies become the preserve of those who can declare such a life, leaving others feeling somehow short-changed. No, I am thankful that I have no real bad past to haunt my dreams and disturb my sleep. I got enough of that conviction when I experienced Holy Spirit revival (blogged here) – again; after my conversion!
2. We cannot keep ourselves
I saw a graph for usage of gym membership over the months of a year, put up on Facebook for a laugh. Of course, January has the highest peak, decreasing over the year to maybe a short peak before the summer months (must get back into that swimsuit!). We all know why. How many New Year’s resolutions last into February, really? I decided some time ago to stop making resolutions just once in the year because our nature will always disappoint us, and not just at the expected time (we do expect to break those resolutions sometime, don’t we?). I make resolutions when needed and if I don’t keep them, I just try again. Finding that it has been a mistake to put trust in our own nature to keep to it just makes the devil on our shoulder laugh while the angel on the other shoulder commits hara-kiri in dishonour! So it is with many new converts. Too many, I fear. When doing door-to-door work in my native East Belfast, which has a church on every street corner, I lost count of the people I encountered who said “oh, I tried all that church stuff and became a Christian x years ago, but I couldn’t maintain it.” This probably outnumbered those who said their reason for turning their back on churches was ‘other Christians’ which were numerous too! It is a wonderfully simple concept that I grasped early on; that it was nothing to do with my efforts but all rested on the finished work of Calvary and it was Jesus that kept me forever, forgiving me of all my sin repented of (in fact, I memorised 1John 1:9 before my salvation!), and not up to me to keep myself; I cannot do it, but he can, praise his name. This misconception has led to many making that ‘resolution’ to follow Jesus, only to fall at some natural hurdle, and say to themselves “well, I tried it, but I couldn’t do it. It’s not for me!” In other words, it’s for ‘religious’ people, for those of us who have the resolve to live like monks in a perpetual state of piety and self-denial. This is where I take a second issue with these ‘standard’ testimonies, since they only add to this confusion and misunderstanding, by inadvertently implying that once the sinner’s prayer is said, everything is rosy and we ‘live happily ever after’ – saying “I’ve never looked back” says that to me, that the testifier has had no problems following Jesus, and so a new convert who encounters issues in their walk is likely to feel themselves inferior and unworthy of Jesus; yet we are all unworthy (Romans 5:8). Were a testifier to say that they have encountered problems and doubts in their life since following Christ, and discuss it openly, my ears would most certainly prick up! But, no, testimonies are meant to be just all positive and gushing!
3. The story isn’t over!
A major problem that is present in most Protestant churches derives from where they came from. The first protestants opposed some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, and the general feeling, borne from Luther’s assertion that “the just shall live by faith alone” (Galatians 3:10-12) was that Rome had imposed an ongoing dependence upon the priesthood and their administration of sacraments deemed vital to a believer’s life. This was rejected since we are believed now to all be saints, as Paul addresses all believers in his letters, and each of us capable of coming to Christ on our own, serving him in our individual lives without meeting the requirements of any church or denomination (or church leader). I can safely say that you’d be hard pressed to find a protestant church that would deny this: whatever rituals or ordinances they may require of a member would be qualified as not vital to one’s salvation or relationship with Christ. However, from this stance comes a mindset that tends to reject any attempt to state how we need to serve Christ by good works (which our salvation is not dependent upon):
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8,9)
even though in the following verse God fully expects them from us:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10)
Here is the problem I alluded to at the outset:
While salvation is dependent solely on Christ’s work on the cross, this does not mean that we have absolutely nothing to do for him! We can find the extreme doctrine that we need not worry about any acts of service after that initial decision, not even praying or reading our Bible (yes!). Thankfully, most evangelical churches will reject this nonsense, and preach that we must repent from sin and live righteously, but the call to ‘live right’ simply falls into trap #2 mentioned above. It implies, yet again, that one must make an effort to avoid certain things or behaviours, or the company of ‘sinners’ (even though Jesus sought to sit, eat and drink with them!).
No, new converts must be taught that our decision to follow Jesus is exactly that: we start following him! It is that simple, even though it brings many problems and dilemmas into our lives. Note that ‘the sinner’s prayer’ is found nowhere in scripture! Just saying it does not make you a follower of Jesus; your salvation may hinge upon the decision, but your earthly life does not just come to an end as you take up your selected pew and sit out the rest, waiting for death or his return! To me, many believers look like they’ve done just this, even with their personal pew cushions to comfort their long-suffering butt! Your salvation decision is a glorious moment, never to be repeated, but it is only the start of a long and wondrous journey, with just so much to learn. And like that one leper out of the ten, should we not go back to our saviour, fall at his feet and offer thanks, and seek to know just how we can thank and serve him? We need to make him our ‘Lord and personal saviour’! Did Paul not admonish us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? (Phil. 2:12)
Yes, I approach my life with such fear and trembling, since many times I have found myself challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. Remember when your parents scolded you for bad behaviour or a wrong attitude? A good child will feel remorse, and want to do better, and please their parents. So are we with God: let us take up our cross as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, listening intently to his words and trying to emulate him. You have problems with sin in your life? Welcome to the club! If you want a good lament on that read about Paul’s ongoing struggle in Romans 7. In that brain wrestle, he goes through the tensions that exist in churches and individual believers… surely we cannot just live an entire life of reliance upon Christ based on one event outside of our control? We must have something to live by, and this is what the law was given for, so… we must turn back to it for instruction on ‘right living’… but, that in itself held us captive to nothing but the knowledge of sin, and I find myself at war within my own spirit over this… how do I get out of it? He reaches his answer in the following chapter: we who have his Spirit within us, who experienced the change of heart at that moment and didn’t just mouth some words in a ritual, have this ‘law of Christ’ working in us, and indeed, his own work imputed to us, not just his achievement for our salvation, means that our striving is not required (not by works) but our acceptance of his perfection grants us victory:
Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4)
We can reject the idea that we need to religiously strive after our salvation and gain it on merit. Surely we can also refute the notion that it’s all about just one raising of a hand? Here’s my favourite word again: balance. The truth of our walk, The Way, which is actually him (John 14:6), is that beautiful middle choice of simple surrender to his will. My journey started not with a raising of a hand or a formulaic prayer, but it was a prayer, to a God I was not certain was there. His reply has never left my ears. As I complete this, I’m listening to ‘What a Friend I’ve Found’ by Delirious: “Jesus… friend forever.”
Grace be with you.
[As an aside, when I think about all the testimonies I’ve heard, another implication is that the only way to ‘win’ someone to Christ is to invite them to a gospel service. I cannot recall even one that said they found Jesus outside of this formula, yet there I was, praying for God to accept me, long before I set foot across a church door! Was I, like Paul, just one ‘abnormally born’ (1 Cor. 15:8)? Can we not witness in all areas of our life? The three people I have led to Jesus in my own life were not in such a gospel service.]