We’ve talked in the past about Christian testimonies and why these little stories simply aren’t trustworthy or credible. I want to break down the topic of testimonies in its own post because it’s been a while and we’ve got a lot of new folks who weren’t around in those early days (Hi y’all! We love our lurkers!). Today I’ll show you why testimonies always follow one specific format, why they don’t work as advertised, and why Christians still can’t quit them.
The Importance of Testimonies (to Christians).
Usually I can find opposing opinions in Christianity for just about everything under the sun. Whatever one Christian says is important to the religion, there is at least one other Christian saying totally the opposite.
But that didn’t happen with the topic of the importance of testimonies: those little narratives Christians make up about their own conversion to the religion (here, the word conversion also applies to re-dedication, if they grew up in the religion).
I literally could not find a single Christian saying anywhere online that testimonies don’t work. At most, I found Christians who objected to testimonies that don’t contain nearly enough Bible verses or which don’t carefully and painstakingly outline the fundagelical plan of salvation, complete with supporting memorized Bible verses.1 Even the Christians who had that criticism still thought testimonies were “powerful,” as The Gospel Coalition put it, or at least “very important,” from the ultra-Calvinist Ligonier people.
But when I read and hear from people subjected to these Loony Tunes fish stories, they sure don’t seem to feel that testimonies are persuasive. Natalie Degraffinried over at VSB mocked Christian testimonies in one of the funniest posts on the subject I’ve ever seen. Armin Navabi at Atheist Republic sure doesn’t seem impressed with them, saying that testimonies are “impossible to prove” and that whatever divine communication the Christian claims to have had, it never includes “factual information that could be confirmed or denied.”
That unity of opinion marks the Christian testimony’s alleged power as one of the very few ideas that seem nearly universal in the religion. They’ll likely carry that opinion right into their religion’s irrelevance.
Not only do Christians think that testimonies are of the utmost importance, but their leaders generally teach followers to craft these stories with the same three steps.
Step One: The Pre-Conversion Setup.
The personal testimony is the most powerful tool we have to share the love of Christ!
—EQUIP, “How to Write a Personal Testimony.” 4/29/16.
A testimony begins with a glimpse of the Christian’s life before converting into the religion.
This glimpse will usually have as much resemblance to that Christian’s actual life as Invader Zim does.
If the Christian can work something into this part of the testimony involving the current boogeymen of the religion, that’s great. Demonic possession doesn’t sell quite as well as it used to, nor Wicca, but atheism is the hot ticket these days. The best part of including these kinds of elements in a testimony is that as long as the Christian claiming a past involving one of those things makes sure to tell the story only to people who have no idea what that stuff really is, as Tony Anthony did with his claims of a past steeped in Chinese martial arts, foreign imprisonment, and bodyguard work, there’s almost no risk at all of being found out. It’s a win-win! Hooray Team Jesus!
The idea here is that the pre-conversion part of the testimony has to really sound bad. The more outrageous it is, the more debauchery and lawlessness it features, the more admiration that Christian will get from their peers and leaders in the religion. Unapproved sex of some kind is all but required. Vaguely-detailed crimes are optional but always welcome if the audience is Christian–they think that belief in Jesus can change people for the better, while non-Christian audiences know better–though the crimes can’t be so bad that someone wonders why they shouldn’t immediately call the cops about it. If the Christian was wealthy enough to develop extravagant spending habits, these need to enter their testimony. Contact with very famous people is titillating, especially if those people were hostile toward Christianity. Substance abuse is also well-received.
In this manner, the Christian selects whatever details pad out their pre-conversion. They have to make themselves sound larger than life so that their miraculous turnaround will sound more impressive. Someone whose testimony is just Look, I was raised Methodist and didn’t do anything particularly sinful, but one day I just felt this huge sense of love when I walked past this one Pentecostal church one Sunday morning, and I went inside and the rest is history won’t get nearly the same attention as someone who can work some witchcraft or orgies or drugs into their past. And a lot of Christians do try to be honest in their testimonies, even if it means not getting the same kind of admiration. I remember very vividly feeling kinda left out because my testimony wasn’t as impressive as that of the other converts who had serious debauchery, demonic possessions, and eye-popping amounts of vices in their stories. It had not yet occurred to me that Christians will lie at the drop of a hat when constructing these sorts of stories.
At all points, of course, the Christian must include an anguished recounting of sadness, depression, emptiness, and loneliness they felt. No matter how fun that pre-conversion life might have been, the Christian felt like something was totally missing–but they just had no idea what that might be until an encounter or event showed them The Truth.
The Pivotal Second Act.
In this part of the testimony, the Christian recounts what caused their conversion. It’ll be a blinding flash of clarity, perhaps, or a miracle, or an encounter with some mysterious Christian, or receiving some act of supreme benevolence at just the right time.
If this were a slightly different kind of movie, Martin would have ended up in a church baptistry after that scene.
This event, whatever form it might take, convinces the embryonic Christian-to-be of the truth and veracity of Christianity. It is a catharsis of emotion that fills and overflows the heart and overwhelms and washes away doubts. There may be some logistical details that must be dealt with at some point, but the newbie Christian will so embrace the religion out of emotion that those details are easily handled later by the application of talking points, pseudoscience, or apologetics.
Miracles in the form of magic healings or obvious portents are commonly encountered here. The Christian-to-be demanded proof, and by golly, their god totally provided it–in a way that the new convert will see as undeniable. Incidentally, you’ll also notice that the more bombastic and dramatic the first part of the narrative is, the more impressive-sounding (to Christians at least) the precipitative event will be.
That said, I’ve noticed that people are pushing back against Christians who parade supernatural stuff in their testimonies. Skeptics might have held their tongues back in the past, when Christianity had more coercive power culturally, but nowadays they’re far more likely to ask why the Christian god provided this particular follower proof of his existence but can’t be arsed enough to do that for, well, everyone else, or why this one person got a magic healing when nobody else who is suffering gets one. It’s got to be just plain annoying to Christian hucksters!
But they know that any Christians hearing these claims will not only not question these claims even a little, but they’ll rejoice and consider the person saying this stuff to be very blessed indeed–and probably go on to use details from that account in their own soulwinning efforts. (I’ve lost count of how many of these friend-of-a-friend stories I’ve heard over the years from wide-eyed Christians!)
And Now the Third-Act Turnaround. (Skip To Your Lou!)
Your testimony will provide the example and proof of Christ’s work in you that will be used to influence others. Your testimony is precious and it is authoritative, something that others cannot condemn even if they try, because it is an authentic story from your real, personal experiences.
—Richard Krejcir and his giant CITATION NEEDED sign, “How to Prepare a Testimony.”
Having established that their pre-conversion life was filled with thrills, chills, and adventures (and yet somehow strangely empty and sad), and having crafted a magical conversion moment, the Christian will now regale listeners with how much better living the Christian dream is compared to all that glorious-but-unapproved sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. And rest assured, this part of the testimony will make that post-conversion life sound downright idyllic.
Even back then, I knew that being Christian was nowhere near as fun as my pre-conversion life had been. But I hadn’t joined for fun times. I’d joined out of fear. But testimonies rarely involve that.
The Christian is obligated by conventions of the narrative to say that now they are truly happy; now they are truly at peace. They’ve either been magically cured of any addictions or are working toward sobriety with magic help. They’ve found their purpose in life, magically handed to them by their god like it was a business card being exchanged. They’ve made amends with estranged family members, or became better parents, or stopped being gay, or began following fundagelical rules for marriage–which repaired that relationship and then some. Maybe they lucked into a really good job, or came into a lot of money, or found their one true love at church. Whatever the exact claim, now at last they are finally getting their act together. Hooray Team Jesus!2
The key to constructing a compelling third act to a testimony narrative is to make sure to stress that none of this turnaround could possibly have happened without converting to Christianity (or the correct flavor of it at least). The idea is that either through direct supernatural aid or else through supernaturally-sourced emotional support and adherence to the rules imposed upon the convert by their group or church, that person could finally move past all their various problems.
They might or might not choose to include details about how harrrrrrrd it is to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™–if those details reflect well upon themselves, of course. They might share how they dumped their longtime same-sex lover, or had to quit their jobs because they weren’t in fields that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would approve. Maybe they’ll even concede that it’s very hard to belong to the flavor of Christianity they’ve converted into, in which case they’ll get terribly offended when skeptics dismiss their testimony with Well, I’m glad this new thing is working out for you.
To seal the deal, the Christian now must hint that those hearing this story can achieve the same wonderful things through belief in the same flavor of Christianity. Ideally, the non-Christians hearing the testimony will get the idea that if they convert to the same religion that they will gain at least some of the same perks.
After I had published it [his testimony], I got a huge reaction from the Christian community that was overwhelmingly positive. However, in a few minor cases, I got a negative reaction from some people from the atheist community. That’s because I’m a former atheist, and some of the things that I wrote in my testimony were drafted in a way that didn’t make sense to atheists.
–A snippet from a very typical testimony from Peter Guirguis,
“10 Tips That Will Help You Write An Amazing Testimony About Jesus.”
Testimonies are presented to non-believers and believers alike, though the desired results differ with the audience.
Believers love testimonies because these stories, they think, demonstrate the truth and validity of their beliefs. The more the story conforms to the standard testimony format and the more outrageous its details, the more thrilled they are. A fancy or especially exotic-sounding testimony can catapult a layperson from newbie convert to big name fan to successful preacher in a matter of days or weeks, as I discovered when exactly that happened to my then-boyfriend Biff. In this case, testimonies aren’t meant to persuade because the audience already shares the testimony-giver’s worldview. The narrative is more of a pep talk than anything else at that point. The person giving that testimony doesn’t need to worry at all about pushback or questions about the veracity of the story.
By contrast, if a testimony is meant to persuade people who do not share that particular Christian’s worldview–be they atheists or just Christians from another denomination–then chances are the Christian-aimed testimony won’t do the job. It’ll need to be massaged to appeal better to that audience.
If the Christian made the mistake of claiming to have been a real live scarlet-letter-A atheist before conversion, chances are their account of what they were like as atheists will get them laughed offstage by actual atheists (I think I’ve run across exactly one Christian who has made that claim who sounds like he actually had the faintest idea what atheism means). The same exact thing happened with the last boogeyman Christians concocted–Wicca–back in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s when I was fundagelical; actual Wiccans were mystified and justifiably angered by the shocking (and false, obvs) stories they heard coming out of the popular evangelists of the day.
The Problem With Testimonies.
Any time you see something super-polarized between Christians and non-Christians, there’s a good chance that the situation involves their claims versus reality. The way Christians and non-Christians respectively feel about testimonies matches the way that these two groups think about Christian movies, tracts, door-to-door evangelism, the efficacy of prayer, fundagelical rules for relationships, and a bunch of other stuff, and the polarization in all of these cases happens for the exact same reason:
Christians are taught that testimonies are super-successful in helping them make sales, while reality leads even the most casual outside observer to come to the opposite conclusion.
Testimonies, as an art form, are not effective tools for selling Christianity. If they ever were, it would have been quite some centuries ago. The only thing they actually accomplish is lining the pockets of the people selling gullible Christians tips and techniques for creating them. And oh, do these materials ever sell. Christians are not taught how to evaluate claims at all, whether those claims come from inside or outside their churches, so they never realize that the advice they’re taking in doesn’t contain much in the way of specific, tangible instructions–as we see clearly from one Charisma post wherein the author promises to tell Christians how to “win unbelievers to Christ” through a testimony, but his three totally foolproof ya’ll steps don’t actually contain anything tangible–which some commenters there noticed right away.
I reckon that total vagueness beats the completely transactional script presented by a Cru leader that are supposed to be a list of questions Christians should ask non-believers. Of course, he then does not go on to explain how to work with the answers his interrogation script sparks. Y’all, he sells a set of fundagelical FLASH CARDS for Cru kids to buy and I suppose inflict on their atheist and agnostic marks. I cannot EVEN with this guy. I just can’t. I’m sitting here and shaking my head at my monitor and I just can’t even.
Fundagelical leaders have totally convinced their flocks that a well-crafted testimony successfully converts people, but I’ve never once heard of that happening–not even when I myself was a fundagelical and firmly believed in miracles and all that piffle. Subjective accounts are just that: subjective. They don’t translate well to another person. All most people take them to mean is that this person says he or she likes being Christian.
We know that testimonies are based on unreliable human memory and are easy to fake; we know that motivated salespeople will literally say ANYTHING to sell their product; we know that if someone tells us about something they think is a miracle, it probably isn’t anything of the sort.
And we might not even agree that conversion was that good of a thing. I’m especially saddened by accounts of same-sex couples breaking up because one of them caught the religion bug and decided that loving, committed, long-term relationships make their invisible wizard friend angry.3 Out here in Reality-Land, most of us are well aware that senseless suffering and martyrdom over false ideas is neither praiseworthy nor a compelling reason to join a religion.
It gets worse, though.
An effective testimony is one that conveys both your own experience and the Gospel of Christ so that someone else has the information about the process of salvation. . . Make sure you have included the appropriate Scriptures in your testimony. Remember that it is Scripture that is authoritative because it is God’s Word.
—GotQuestions.org, “How do I share my Christian testimony?”
Christians are taught to view testimonies as real, solid, credible, verified evidence for their various claims–because they literally don’t have anything that qualifies as such. If they did, Christians would use that rather than turning to unprovable and highly implausible anecdotes. And unproven, unprovable claims simply don’t sell anymore, if they ever did. It doesn’t matter if the claim is about a particular cereal an athlete says he or she likes, or weight loss snake oil that an Instagram celebrity says is totally effective, or even a religion that some famous megastar says is just the best ever–we’re just really sensitive to the frailty of such endorsements. We know that if someone’s motivated by some gain, then their endorsement doesn’t mean much in reality.
That hope of gain is very likely what motivates Christian leaders to teach their followers what they do about testimonies. As with soulwinning, the real customers here are not us non-believers. It’s Christian flocks themselves.
It sure as hell ain’t non-believers paying Christian leaders to make up the stuff they do about testimonies, after all.
As long as those flocks continue to offer themselves up to their leaders for fleecing, testimonies will neither change in format nor lessen in importance to Christian culture. Either Christians themselves will seriously re-assess both the concept and the application of testimonies, or else they’ll keep yelling into the ether about how they toooootally know that Jesus is real because here’s my story for reals y’all, in effect doing what they have always been doing, just more of it and harder.
So in other words, we’re talking about a win either way for humanity.
I talk about how Christians often respond to a crisis or problem in their universal body by doing more of that but harder. I want to show you one of the funniest examples of that idea that I’ve seen lately–and so we’ll see y’all here next time!
Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution–these can lift at a colossal humbug,–push it a little– crowd it a little–weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.
—Mark Twain, “The Chronicle of Young Satan.”
1 Yes, because obviously Bible verses are extremely effective against people who literally do not consider the Bible to be in any way authoritative. The “plan of salvation,” incidentally, is a long-lived and fine fundagelical tradition; it normally involves several steps including recitation of a magic spell called “the sinner’s prayer,” heartfelt apologies issued to the ceiling, and then a full-body dunk in water to demonstrate obedience.
3 That link makes me particularly angry as well. The newly-converted fundagelical bigot-for-Jesus in that case not only kidnapped the couple’s daughter, but left behind some pets to just die without food or water. Yep, that’s the love of Jesus all right! Further, if this god gets angry about loving, committed, long-term relationships of any kind, he’s sure not worth anybody’s worship.