Personal Testimony and Identity Formation

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Rev 12:11 They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. (NIV)

In this edition of the ACLAME Journal, I want to extol the benefits of the lowly three-minute testimony – explaining why it is foundational for spiritual formation and far more than an evangelistic tool. In the process, I will be addressing two beliefs which hinder the church from accomplishing its mission; that is, the beliefs that information produces transformation and that disciples are blank slates. Finally, I want to share how I use the process of writing and sharing personal testimonies to teach spiritual formation in a Christian University context and provide a simple methodology that others can use.

The Stump Speech: Verbalization and Identity

Currently, three Democrats and 134 Republicans are touring the country repeating stump speeches. The stump speech is an important communication tool, whereby one attempts to distill complex issues into memorable and meaningful sound bites. When it is done well, it touches the heart and mind of the listener; that is, it makes sense and is compelling. The classic “three-minute testimony” is a type of Christian stump speech. It is a sales pitch, a theological treaty and a practicum that defines the individual. The scriptures are clear—it is not enough to believe in your heart, one must also declare it (Rom. 10:9). The process of writing and speaking what Christ has done creates cognitive, emotional, and theological hooks upon which one can hang his or her faith. It forces a person to define one’s faith and stand by the definition. It also reveals gaps of understanding and commitment—which educators (discipleship coaches) can address.

Information and Transformation:

Traditional methods of spiritual formation rely heavily on the assumption that information produces transformation. Therefore, when Jonny gets saved, we force him immediately into a Sunday School class. But, very quickly into Jonny’s 16-week discipleship course, his zeal begins to wane and he looks more like the arrogant kid who robbed the candy store, than the repentant saint who stood before the judge. Why has Jonny’s spiritual formation appeared to regress? We assume the class needs to be tweaked, so we introduce better PowerPoint slides and fresher donuts—but to no avail. A similar conundrum occurs when a seminary professor lectures on ethics and is mystified when the students cheat on the exam. (I am that professor!) The traditional response? Add another slide on the topic of cheating.

The problem is not the classroom. It is the assumption that character and faith are formed when one merely sees data. If that were true, then nutrition would take place when one merely looked at food. Obviously, nutrition requires chewing, tasting, absorbing, processing and getting rid of that which smells bad. In many Christian colleges, professors show PowerPoint slides of tasty meals and assume that everyone has gotten their fill. But the information is delivered without the engagement of the student. Verbal processing—one example of cognitive engagement—is imperative to education. Paraphrasing, the practice of putting an idea into one’s own words while (ideally) wrestling with its meaning and implications, is key to memory, understanding and making new information useful. That means that the initial steps of discipleship must encourage engagement as well as the impartation of information.

An Example from Jesus’ ministry:

In the Chi Alpha context of the secular university campus, most disciples are essentially unchurched; i.e., Jonny does not know the four spiritual laws, why Jesus is not a created being or the importance of an “afterglow” reception. He has a lot to learn. For Jonny, the most important first step of discipleship is to answer the questions of why and how he/she came to faith? And, what Christ means to him/her?

A day or two after I surrendered to Christ, a friend on campus asked me, “Who is Jesus to you?”

I said, “He’s God. He’s the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah, my Savior and my Lord. He is everything to me!” It was the first time I had spoken those words and as I did, my identity in Christ was taking form.

The best time to ask how one came to faith and who Jesus is, is one minute after the prayer of salvation—preferably while the tears are still wet on the cheek. The process of verbalizing what is taking place in the heart and mind at that moment is imperative to Christian formation. The key is the connection between the emotion of desperation, the cognitive acknowledgement that Jesus has the answer and the audible verbalization of these realities. Mark 5:18-20 is an example of this methodology in Jesus’ ministry: “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (NIV)” The man’s testimony connects “the Lord” and “Jesus.” That is the kind of deep theology that people do, when they are telling the story of how Jesus, the Lord, has just delivered them from demon possession, pornography, or cheating on an ethics exam.

No Blank Slates

Currently, personal testimonies are not in vogue in church services or evangelistic endeavors. As such, new believers lack opportunities to openly share their experience and, in so doing, define their faith and identity. One concern is that untrained believers do not know enough about the faith to say anything significant. There is an assumption that individuals come to the faith as a blank slate, awaiting the information that will cause transformation. Yet, in the confession that one is drowning and that Jesus is the captain of the lifeboat, one discovers a lot of very important information. As it turns out, Jonny was not a blank slate. Suddenly, the cosmological and moral arguments for the existence of God are flowing out of a young man who has never read them. The theology of the pre-existence of Jesus may be weak, but the understanding of repentance, confession and propitiation are becoming clearer by the minute. Unfortunately, if Jonny (or Joni) is silenced for 16 weeks, the clarity of those insights begins to fade. For those who have spent their entire christian life in the discipleship class, the memory may have been lost forever. One of my theology students shared that she became a Christian when her father, who was a very bad person, got saved and started going to church. He took the whole family to church and that is how she got saved. I thanked her for telling us her father’s story, then asked her to tell the class when she knew that Jesus was real and what sins he saved her from. She was stymied—and she was not alone. In the majority of cases, the students who share their testimonies in the seminary do not confess any sins. It is in the nature of mankind to want to look good—especially in a seminary class. It is also in the nature of most churches to want people to be comfortable, so it is easier to avoid mentioning that which make us squeamish. In this case, the culture of the church actually hinders the process of Christian formation.

How I use it

Whether I am teaching theology, discipleship, hermeneutics, counseling or evangelism, I begin by sharing my own testimony and then asking the students to do the same. In the seminary classed, I move from the testimony to questions about what the world believes, the problem of evil in the world and Christian responses. The goal is for the students to verbalize what they believe and to be able to defend it. One’s faith is most defensible when it flows out of the initial salvation experience, combining scriptural revelation, reason and empathy. When done well, each student’s testimony becomes his/her stump speech—the summation of their agenda and recipe for world transformation.

Three Stages: Before, How and After

All spiritual testimonies have 3 sections: before, how and after; that is, what one’s life was like before salvation or confrontation with the Lord, how the confrontation, crisis or salvation experience took place, and what life was like afterward. Acts 26 is an example of the Apostle Paul’s testimony, where one can see the before-how-after of his story. Note that Paul does not avoid making himself look bad. Testimonies that whitewash our own struggles with sin are neither honest nor compelling. It is important to focus on feelings—how one felt before salvation (this should be negative at some point), how one felt at the point of salvation (this should describe a struggle, resolving into peace), and how one felt afterward (which should be positive or hopeful). A testimony should speak clearly of Jesus as savior, healer and comforter and should not leave people asking existential questions. It should be more about answering questions, than raising them.

Conclusion

As missionary educators we have an opportunity to form the church. The students we teach today will be those who write the bylaws of the future. Will they do so using only the knowledge that puffs up or will that knowledge be an educated, empathetic combination of transformative knowledge and the love the builds up? The most important step one can take in spiritual formation is to hold tightly to the pain and joy one feels at the point of salvation and to share that, in raw vulnerability, at every opportunity. For that reason, the lowly three-minute testimony is an invaluable tool.

 

Appendix: Suggestions for how to write the initial draft

In the before section, start writing down what you were like before you became a Christian (i.e., where you were born, family background, religious instruction, what kind of environment you grew up in, ideas about God, etc.). It is best to avoid the phrase, “I was raised a Christian,” since becoming a Christian requires a decision. For those who fall into this category, it may be helpful to rephrase it as, “My family attended church, where I had the opportunity to hear about Christ’s love.” Or, “My parents were believers, but I was a phony!” It is always a good idea to use strong words that evoke a reaction.

In the how section, describe the process of how you surrendered to become a follower of Jesus. What was the crises that moved you to surrender? This is where people will connect emotionally and your story may become a catalyst for action in their hearts. (Please note, “surrendered” is preferable over “decided.” It may just be semantics, but when people “decide” to serve Jesus, it sounds like they are in the driver’s seat—as though they have something to offer that He needs. Salvation is less about us bringing something of value to Jesus, than it is an act of surrender from a criminal who needs to come clean.)

In the after section, describe how your life has been affected by becoming a follower of Jesus. Two to three reasons may suffice. They do not all have to be positive, but at least a couple must be somehow desirable.

It is helpful to include a call to salvation and a Bible verse concerning how you know you are a Christian based on the authority of the Scriptures. Please keep in mind that mentioning the Bible is good (especially regarding the verses touched your heart or made you conscious of your sin), but lecturing on it is not. The latter certainly has its place, but the goal of this practice is to share your experience and to connect with listeners on an emotional level.

After you have written down information concerning the 3 categories in your initial draft, go back over your material and do some editing: watch for Christian lingo that unbelievers may not understand. Make sure you are connecting the 3 categories together. And, finally, re-write the material into a tighter 3-part story. Read your testimony out loud to see how it flows and time the length (the goal is 3 minutes or less). Ask a friend to read it for sentence structure and flow, and to get more feedback.

Remember, you are writing to tell pre-Christians the story of how you became a follower of Jesus. Including the gospel in your testimony is very important. As such, you may say, “It was then that I realized that I can’t earn my way to heaven or please God with my good works—Jesus did those things for me when he died and rose again! All I had to do was confess and receive!”

6 Replies to “Personal Testimony and Identity Formation”

  1. Bill, Thanks for helping us make this important rediscovery. Salvation is an experience, not simply a theological concept, and the working out of that salvation requires our participation from day one. I appreciate your use of the testimony in illustrating this point as well as your guidance in helping us to incorporate this tool into our curriculum. I’m looking forward to applying your advice soon!

  2. Fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to write such a compelling, useful article.
    I would like permission to have it translated so we can hand it out to our students.
    This two or three minute testimony is what Cheryl shared when she preached so effectively
    at the LAC retreat. Very effective.
    Thanks!

  3. Hi Bill, I loved it! It was simple, practical, and very impactful. It’s basically a synopsis of my itineration message format. Maybe you could even say, a more developed version of the session shared by the female speaker at our latest MFCA. I loved it then and love it now.

    Rocky, I, too, would love a copy in Spanish if you are going to translate it. Good stuff.

    ~Bob

  4. Hi, Bill! Thanks so much! I am definitely going to use this with my LACC staff so that they can share their testimonies with their students! Rocky, when you do translate this article would you send me a copy of your translation? God bless you all.

    -Rose

  5. Hermano Bill, mil gracias por este artículo y le digo me ha dado una excelente idea ahora que vamos a comenzar el año académico en nuestro Instituto Bíblico, hay le cuento qué pasó. Bien hecho Hermano! Bendiciones desde Nicaragua.
    Beatriz

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