One staple of evangelical church life is the “testimony.” I recall many, many gatherings when I as a pastor or worship leader would stand before a group and ask, “Who has something they’d like to share tonight? What has God been doing in your life lately?”
We’d encourage people to share insights they had gained in their Bible reading, answers to prayer that they had perceived in recent days, lessons they had learned which helped them grow and make changes in their lives, or occurrences that they attributed to God’s active presence or providence for which they wanted to give thanks.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!” we would exclaim, quoting Psalm 107.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary
And gathered from the lands,
From the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south.
- Psalm 107:1-3, NASB
In my view, giving testimony is one of the delightful traditions of evangelicalism. At the same time, it can also be one of its troublesome practices.
Those of us who believe in a living God, a reigning Christ, and an outpoured Spirit have no problem acknowledging that there is divine activity in our world. When we read the New Testament, especially the narrative of the church in the Book of Acts and the more personal sections of the epistles, we meet people who talk about dealing with a God who acts in the midst of his people and in the affairs of life. The Kingdom continues to break into this world, and there are “thin places” where earth and heaven intersect.
Churches in the revivalist tradition make most use of the practice of giving testimony. Evangelicals, especially those who lean toward the pentecostal/charismatic/”third wave” end of the spectrum, are taught from the beginning to try and identify “what God is doing in your life,” and to talk with others about that as a means of “witnessing” to the reality of God’s presence, salvation, and love.
Problems arise, in my opinion, with three aspects of this:
We all know that there are various ways to look at any particular incident or experience in life, but those in an evangelical atmosphere tend to grant God the benefit of the doubt when giving credit for anything they consider unusually helpful to their lives. The results vary, and at times, interpretations of divine activity can be, frankly, silly.
The traditional example is the person who has a deadline to meet and prays that God will provide a parking place right in front of the building where he needs to be. And, what do you know? One opens up at just the right place and just the right time! Well, OK. But I wouldn’t tell the part about the eighty year old lady in the car behind you who was hoping that spot might open up for her too.
Another interpretive problem is that, as Martin Luther was wont to say, God is famous for hiding from us. And, even when he does reveal himself, it is often in “hidden” ways that offend human expectations, indeed, in ways which can shake us to the core. A common theme over the years here at Internet Monk is that people have found evangelicalism wanting because it doesn’t always allow room for God to act like this — and therefore, they find little resonance with their own lives and experiences. For many churches, testimony is not about the journey, but only about significant (mostly positive) turning points. We want to hear the “victory” stories and little else.
Mystery, nuance, ambiguity, paradox, and anything which remains stubbornly unresolved — these are not the components of the usual evangelical “word of witness.” Testimony, as often given, can in fact serve to suck the mystery out of life, even while claiming to provide a revelation into the workings of the Almighty.
That leads to the problem of expectations. I’ve been in many meetings where no one had a testimony that day. Awkward. Despite the best efforts of the leader to whip up enthusiasm and get people to turn a magnifying glass on their lives to uncover some trace of recent divine activity, the congregation remained silent.
There is a pressure that builds up in this kind of system, a pressure to perform, to come up with a story, to compare my experience with the experience of others and judge myself and them accordingly. When I can’t or don’t speak a word of testimony, it can lead to a nagging sense of guilt and failure. When others around me are popping up with lots of stories, and I’m drawing blanks, it can lead to deep self-doubt.
Why can’t I be a Christian like that? Why doesn’t God speak to me or answer my prayers like that? What’s wrong with me?
The God to which we testify is rarely “the God of the mundane,” to use Matthew B. Redmond’s excellent phrase. And if that is who he is, it is certainly not very exciting to talk about God in that way. So we rarely do.
Our testimony patterns can easily lead us to have certain expectations of God. I’ve noticed over the years that God seems to act certain ways in one church, while behaving differently in the assembly down the street. One congregation honors answers to prayers and watches for them constantly. And gets them. And speaks of them. Another church emphasizes sharing what people are learning from the Bible, and their testimonies revolve around the illuminating work of the Spirit. Yet another congregation is all about missions and evangelism, and their God is active in their encounters with others. I guess that could signify that God deigns to meet us where we are, but on the other hand, there often seems to be a circle we place around the divine activity, limiting what he does to matters familiar to us. God rarely surprises and shows up in totally unexpected ways (despite our language to the contrary).
Finally, though this point overlaps somewhat with what I’ve already said, the culture of testimony can lead to a problem of inclusion. Simply put, we don’t seem to have room for anyone without a story; that is, a certain kind of story.
Tony Campolo began his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, with an illustration designed to make the eyebrow-raising point that God is often where we least expect him. He found himself in a cafe in Hawaii in the middle of the night, next to a group of prostitutes. He overheard them saying that the next day would be a birthday for one of them. So, with his usual enthusiasm, Campolo spoke to the cafe staff and they arranged to throw a birthday party for her the next night at 3:30 am. They had a wonderful party and it ended with Campolo saying a prayer for the “working girls.” When the owner leaned over the counter and asked him what church he was from, Campolo said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning!”
A lot of folks love that story (I know I do), and it probably makes others wince. I have an idea that most evangelical church members would be OK with it — because it was Tony Campolo who had the experience and not one of us or our pastor!
More importantly, with regard to inclusion, we certainly don’t want to hear from the whore herself in church, unless she has gotten all cleaned up and comes to us with a soul-thrilling tale of transformation. Nor does the person with chronic illness or pain who is barely getting by each day have a story we want to hear. Don’t talk to us if you’re gay, especially if you’re wrestling with accepting that this may be who you are, not just what you do.
In short, don’t think that “testimony time” around here looks like the psalms, where we bring the full spectrum of life’s experiences into the sanctuary. We just want the “hallelujah!” parts.
* * *
I thought maybe I would tell you a little “God story” today. It happened just this weekend.
Gail and I packed up and headed for Chicago on Friday. Our youngest son was due to graduate from college. The baccalaureate would be held downtown at the impressive Fourth Presbyterian Church on Friday evening, followed by the commencement ceremony Saturday morning at North Park. We’d had some work done on our larger vehicle so it would be ready to take us to enjoy the ceremonies and then retrieve our son’s belongings.
The only glitch on the way was a long back-up on the interstate because of an accident. Or so I thought.
When we pulled into our usual stopping place where we stretch our legs, use the bathroom, and grab a bite to eat before tackling the Chicago traffic, we heard a loud, obnoxious sound coming from under the engine compartment of the car. Being a guy, I had my wife open the hood so I could look under it and pretend like I might be able to figure something out. It was coming from the area where our mechanic had done some work.
We called him immediately and even let him listen over the phone. He posited that it was probably related to the air conditioning, and it was possible that there was a simple temporary fix. That meant I had to find a reliable shop where someone could look at it. Fast. It was about 4:30 pm. I googled local auto repair and found some listings for shops that were approved by the Better Business Bureau. Choosing one that was nearby, I called and the mechanic encouraged me to bring the car in.
It turned out to be just the kind of auto repair shop I like. It was an obviously well-run independent operation, and the mechanic (one of the owners) explained everything carefully and clearly as we bent over the car’s engine. He even printed out a picture of the damaged part and diagrammed what was happening and what someone could do to fix it temporarily so that we could be on our way. Unfortunately, he was closing up shop. However, he did recommend a larger garage down the street that was open until 7:00 pm. He knew the service manager personally and was sure he would take care of us. He called him, explained the problem and asked if he could help us. Soon we were on our way.
The service manager met us, asked for my keys, and then drove the car into a bay and put it on the lift himself. We waited as he examined the problem and determined what he could do. It turned out to be bad news. The part was so damaged it would have to be replaced. He invited us into his office and explained everything, then looked up the parts and said he could do the work the next day. He was very kind and helpful.
We needed to make decisions. Could we make it to the baccalaureate? Should we just stay near here and go into the city the next day for graduation? Or should we keep our original plan, get to the city somehow and stay with family? Either way we would need to rent a car.
The service manager said he would call the car rental company for us, which he did, explaining our situation. They were getting ready to close, so he offered to take us himself in his truck. As we climbed in, we were making small talk and he mentioned that he has family who lives near us. After hearing a few more details, a light dawned on me. I knew this guy! I had met him before. In fact, I had been the hospice chaplain for a member of his family, and he and I had talked at her house several years before. He was a man of strong faith, a leader in his church, and we had discussed some of the spiritual needs in the family.
Here we were, many miles from home, directed to this man by a stranger late on a Friday afternoon, and it turned out to be someone with whom I had had previous dealings! I had helped him with some family needs a few years before. Now he was in a position to help us!
Help us he did. Long story short, we missed the baccalaureate, but made it to Chicago, had a good night’s sleep, and were able to go to the graduation without further incident. Afterwards, we headed toward home, transferred our son’s goods back to our car, settled up at the shop, said good-bye to our helpful friend, and hit the road.
I couldn’t help but think that God had taken care of us. We discovered our car trouble just in time, in a safe place, without incident. We found just the right shop to diagnose the problem. The mechanic directed us to the right garage to fix the problem — and it turned out to be someone I had met personally, a person of faith and kindness, a man who went the extra mile to make sure our needs were met.
I won’t deny that there are other possible explanations as to why this all worked out so well. But I’m here today to say “thank you” to our heavenly Father for his providential guidance and care. Of course, we are also grateful to the ones who exercised neighborly love, showing kindness and hospitality to “strangers” (or so they thought!). We may all have been guided by another Hand.
By the way, the repairs turned out to be fairly costly, but that’s OK.
I guess my need for God’s provision never ends.
And so the story continues…