Article 4 in our series: The Ethics of Global Engagement
Asking a believer from a non-Christian background to share their experience of God brings a responsibility, says a Middle East writer: to let them tell their story honestly, and to support them in their ongoing discipleship. All too often that isn’t what happens…
Something deep happened in me that day but it took me years to decode what I felt then and, as I travelled the world, on the countless other occasions I was asked to give my testimony to both small groups and thousands-strong congregations. Eventually the day came when I said “I will never give my testimony to foreign audiences in public again.” Over the years, I have realised I was not alone in having these feelings, nor in the decision I took.
On so many levels, it is understandable why many Christians around the world want to hear the journeys of faith of believers from other parts of the world and even from their own countries. It encourages us, moves us and inspires us. It often makes us feel we are not alone in our struggles and that there are others who have known far greater challenges than us and experienced God helping them through. However, there is a problematic side to our interest and most importantly to where our interest leads us.
First of all, in our desire to have testimonies in church services, conferences and even in smaller gatherings, there is a danger that we force a narrow template upon other people’s lives and what it is we expect them to highlight in the time we have for them. For example, I was told I should tell me story in this plot line: Before Christ; my search for Christ; how I became a Christian; and how my life changed.
But this template was not true to my experience. In my case, I had not been searching for Christ, my life grew far more difficult after I became a Christian and, far from any peace or lesson I could give to others, for years I went through dark tunnels of anguish and found my faith shaking. I still do.
“…all along I wanted to say: So I became a Christian, I have no idea what it means, I am struggling, can you pray for me?”
Rather than filtering my life and packaging it in that given story line, all along I wanted to say: So I became a Christian, I have no idea what it means, I am struggling, can you pray for me? But that was not the story people wanted to hear.
Secondly, those people whose stories so inspire and challenge us often have deep wounds from the experiences we insist they talk about. Sharing their most personal experiences with people they do not know, with whom they have no personal relationship of trust and who may never fully understand what they have gone through, often re-traumatises people.
Many people I have known who have been sucked into the conference-speaking circuit or responded to the demands to keep giving their testimonies often ended up feeling used. Not a few have told me that it felt like people were enjoying watching a movie as they listened to their story and then left, never to be seen again, while the person who shared her life was left alone, unsupported, to carry on facing their difficulties.
There are dangers for the listeners too. An over-reliance on testimonies can send us down some wrong paths. There are the risks that we take our eyes off Jesus and start to idolise people, or that we begin to feel inferior or less spiritual than those who have been through traumatic situations and had more eventful lives. Unless the stories of faith are told within a context of summoning us all to serve one another and further God’s Kingdom, they are only an entertainment without any spiritual value.
And lastly, sadly, I have seen far too many cases of how the interest in hearing exciting testimonies either caused good-hearted believers increasingly to change or edit their stories to add to their appeal or meet the expectations of those who fund them. Worse still, this emphasis can open the door to deception. I have seen countless accounts of how churches and ministries were conned by people telling stories of ministries that never existed or asking for funds that would actually be used for personal aims.
“You are my witnesses”
While Jesus told an exorcised man to “tell how much the Lord has done for you”, he sent him not to a large foreign audience, but his own people (Mark 5:19). We are all called to bear witness to Jesus (John 15:27) and that may often include speaking of our personal experience of Him, but this is not the same as being quizzed on a conference platform for the personal encouragement of believers from another culture.
Whether we speak to people of a similar or foreign background, a testimony can give authenticity to our claims about the possibility of knowing the presence and power of God. But a rigid template of what this should look like will actually have less resonance than an honest testimony of what God is doing in the life of a person who admits they are still struggling. And, if that is the case, don’t hearers who are controlled by the love of Christ have an obligation to come alongside to offer support in whatever ways they can?
If we want to hear the stories of new believers in lands and people groups that are newly opening to the Gospel, let us think carefully about how we can best serve them in the long-term and retain our focus on Christ. To do that the prevalent testimonies culture must be challenged, modified and handled wisely.
Pause for thought
- What challenges does this article pose for you? How can we best respond to stories of those who are seeking to follow Christ in difficult circumstances, for example, where they have been rejected by their families or undergone physical or emotional suffering?
- What does obeying Jesus’ command in Mark 5:19 mean for you in your own discipleship?
What do you think?
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