Friday, October 14, 2005

Head-Hunting for Jesus or The Myth of the 5-Minute Testimony

I picked up a book about four years ago with the intriguing title, How to Talk About Jesus Without Freaking Out. I just about always freak out when it comes to sharing my faith, which is silly, I know, because it is all the Holy Spirit and not me -- or it would be the Holy Spirit and not me if only I could let go. Letting go is not one of my specialties. I am a clinger -- clinging to fear like a hairy-footed gecko clings to birchy bark. Anyway, what a seemingly good book for me.

So I read the book, and I still have a hard time talking about Jesus without freaking out. But that is not the subject of this post. You see, the main thing I remember about reading that book was that the authors wrote that every believer should have a five-minute testimony prepared to share with anyone at any given moment. That idea completely baffled me. First of all, my road to faith was such a long and winding one -- not something easily condensed into a convenient five-minute time period. Secondly, it seems counter-productive to have your deepest revelation of the soul turned into some kind of rehearsed, salesman-slick soundbite. Lastly, it just seemed preposterous that I would ever be in the kind of situation where such a recital would be appropriate. Brow-beating, head-hunting, soul-counting Christianity repels me on every level; and, though I would willingly, thankfully share my faith with anyone who ever asked or even at an appropriate turn in a conversation (all the while "freaking out" on the inside), I simply cannot justify accosting innocent by-standers with religious rhetoric when they may simply wish to read a book on the airplane, organize their coupons in line at the grocery store, or listen to music at the bus stop.

I would submit to you that the five-minute testimony is a myth. Can anyone who is able to condense the enrapturing of their soul by the Most High in five minutes or less have a faith that is more than skin-deep? It is the same kind of skepticism that I have about revival festivals. We had Luis Palau up here a few years ago for a three-day festival in a local park. After the event, the local Christian newspaper reported that over three thousand people were "saved" and gave their lives to Christ at the festival. Now, perhaps some of these folks had been wrestling with the Lord and their faith -- building up their trust and breaking down their pride -- over the course of time, and their surrender simply culminated at the festival. But, when people are mass-preached to, when their reaction is overwhelmingly emotional, when the altar calls pulsate repeatedly in their ears, when you factor in the unspoken but present peer pressure that prevails in such highly charged settings -- well, I just wonder how many of those people are still even trying to walk with the Lord three years later.

Or, maybe I am completely off-base here. Maybe my journey of faith was the unusual one. I've been thinking about that journey quite a bit lately, since I celebrated my tenth year as a new creation in Christ this past September. I have always said (at least since 1998) that I experienced two conversions. The first was a conversion of my mind. That came in 1995 after three years of reading the Word and becoming absolutely convinced that God is indeed real, that Jesus is His Son and the Messiah, that I'd better get it right with Him, that I couldn't do it on my own, that I needed to fall upon grace. The second was a conversion of my heart. This came when my mother died, and I experienced a miracle that solidified my faith forever. After I experienced my "first" conversion, I knew the truth -- I understood my sin, His holiness, and my need for redemption. After I experienced my "second" conversion, I really knew the truth -- so much more deeply than I had known it before. After that night in November, when my mother was on the brink of death, I had a glimpse of something so powerful and mysterious and frightening and true -- this crashing crescendo of unfathomable love breaking through the barriers of the human, the finite, the fallen to lift the burdens and the brokenness and bring restoration, rest, and that all-surpassing peace.

One thing I've been reflecting on over the past few months is Jesus' teaching on counting the costs of taking up the cross (Luke 14). I wonder if I ever counted the costs. I wonder if I've ever even experienced any of the costs -- I mean, like most Americans, I have a pretty comfy life. If I haven't, have I really taken up the cross? That is one thing that bothers me about the tally-sheet approach to harvesting the white fields. When people simply respond emotionally to the Gospel, when they kneel at the altar after a moving sermon, when they "pray the sinner's prayer" the first time they've been inside a church in twenty years, have they counted the cost of the cross? Point of Grace sings a song that has some lyrics that really annoy me (though, in general, I do enjoy PoG): "But for me to live as Christ -- that would be no sacrifice -- I freely give Him all my life." Shouldn't there be sacrifice in true discipleship? We are supposed to be dead to self in order to be alive in Christ. Can anyone give up their lives as glibly as the song suggests? Well, I sure can't, and I struggle with that every single day.

I hope, I pray, I do believe that when the floods come up, my house will be built on the Rock. I want with all my heart to bear the trials that are coming without one faltering of faith, one stumbling of trust. For, I do believe that those trials are coming, and I too may soon not have a pillow on which to lay my head at night or the luxury of shopping at will for the things my family needs. I too will see my family hungry, torn, sick, as are so many who are persecuted for righteousness sake -- Oh, that these things would not be! But, they most likely will be before my time on earth is out. Have I counted the costs? How about the guy who raised his hand during the last altar call? I just fear that so many will lose their fledgling faith when the Refiner's fire touches them. "An emotional religion will tumble at our feet when we're made to stand and fight." That's from Amy Grant's song, "Too Late." Or, as Keith Green put it in his wonderful way: On Monday, will you still feel as good as you do tonight [at the Christian concert]? If I went by my feelings every Monday, man, I'd drop dead. It is so easy, when the sky is blue, when the weather's fine, when the food's good, and when the fellowship is sweet, you feel like you could get through anything, any kind of tribulation, any kind of terror, any kind of attack. But it is the end of the race that God is looking forward to. Will you end as you have started?

I can also understand why so many people get annoyed with proselytizing Christians. As Difster pointed out, too many of us use clumsy, demeaning, condescending, false, slick, vile, un-Christlike methods when sharing our faith or even simply conversing with others. There is a lot that is working against God in this world, I'm sure He doesn't need Christians adding to it. Don't televangelists make you sick? How about those nasty little Chick publications that well-meaning (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here) folks leave in public restrooms and telephone booths? Why do we need to hide behind slogans and bumper stickers and WWJD bracelets? Why do we try our hardest to bring people into the fold, and then not equip them to deal with the assaults that the Enemy immediately launches? Why do we smother them with so much coaxing and fear-mongering and trite expressions that they cannot hear the truth above the roar? Why do we encourage people to come to Christ without allowing them time to count the costs? Why do we want the quick-fix conversion and not the long-term fellowship?

I think often of the Christians I knew before I became a believer. Fortunately, they were a wonderful sprinkling of faithful souls, Providentially placed at crucial moments of my life, who never bore down on me and lived lives through which Christ's love shone (though I didn't attribute that to Him at the time, I know now the reason for their goodness). I see in them this thread that was woven since before time began that tied my heart to the Lord's and claimed me as His own -- though I, of course, was unaware of it. Not one of them ever tried to lead me through the "sinner's prayer." Not one of them told me that I was going to Hell. Not one of them did anything that would turn me off to Christ. What a wonderful work they did for His kingdom! Of course, I'm so ornery that I would have immediately been turned off to anything that smacked of propaganda. Just by living lives that shined with His grace, they became important stepping-stones on my walk toward faith. If I ever see any of them again, I will fall down on my knees, weeping with gratitude for them and their ability to communicate God's great love. If I could be that kind of example of Him to only one person on this earth, I would have fulfilled one of my dearest hopes. That is one reason that I believe I have been blessed with so many friendships with non-believers. A thousand little shots of grace to the heart -- done in the spirit of giving and love -- can make a greater impact than one great thud against the head of religiosity and doctrine -- done in the spirit of adding another scalped soul to your believer's belt.

What made me post on this subject was Serena's fascinating entry on her blog Derech Shalom, wherein she has begun what I must assume is a multi-part recording of her testimony. This woman of inspiring faith, whose gracious nature shines through in every carefully considered word she writes, must have an incredible story to share, and her honesty in this first part speaks to a woman who feels no need to hide behind false pretense or imagined righteousness. I would encourage you all to read it, and I'm sure most of you already have. I know that Billy D. has been exploring his path a bit on his blog too. I want more! So, here's an open-ended "meme" for all you bloggers who read this: If you are a Christian, I'd love to read your testimony. If your blog is linked from mine, then know that I visit it every day. I'll bet none of you can condense it into five minutes!


Morris said...

"Can anyone give up their lives as glibly as the song suggests? Well, I sure can't, and I struggle with that every single day."
Oh boy, I can relate to that, Justine. As I'm sure many others would too. Most of these ways of 'witnessing' for the Lord are *human* efforts to win the lost. They are well meaning, but in the end it is the Holy Spirit who calls us to Jesus. It is He who works in the heart of man to convict, to persuade with His own tremendous love, even though we may be His instrument at the time. It is all too often that we try to reduce things to formulae, when God and His individual winning of a soul for His kingdom can't be reduced to such. I sometimes think that to even try to reduce it in such a way is an insult to Him.
On the subject of testimonies, I've also been reading what both Rick and Serena having been sharing with us, and have been deeply touched by them. I may soon be posting my own.

Arielle said...

Justine, this was an excellent topic to bring up for discussion.

You were right to be turned off by the idea of a five minute testimony. The Bible makes it very clear that how we live our lives matters much more than anything we say. People aren't looking for glib, how-to-fix your life speeches, they're looking for the truth; they're searching for evidence of something, Someone, that can truly change their life.

CrazyJo said...

Definitely an excellent topic. I've been doing a lot of thinking on it this morning (only now getting around to making a comment). I also went back and read your March entry about the miracle at the end (or should I say beginning?) of your mother's life. All I can say is Wow! God is so Faithful. I was crying while reading it.
I've always said that I want my life, not just my words, to be a light. I guess I struggle with that, though, because I know my life is not the light that I want it to be. So often I've kept quiet, or downplayed my beliefs so as not to rock the boat. Also, how do I show love when I'm having such a hard time just loving the ones closest to me (namely my husband)? I don't have an outstanding testimony. By that I mean, I don't have one that is very attention getting. I was raised in a Christian home. I was (by a lot of people's standards) a good kid. Yes, I sinned, and around 11 or 12 I finally realized that I believed in Jesus and what He did for myself, and not just because that's how I was raised. But I've gone through a lot of struggle in my late teens and early twenties. Then, after a couple years of relative peace I've been going through the hardest time yet dealing with marriage, husband, and starting a family. I guess it's really not about our salvation "moment", though, it's about that salvation being worked out in our lives as we grow in our relationship with our Lord.
Anyways, sorry to ramble on. I've had a lot of thoughts boiling in the brain this morning and I'm just sorting through them a bit as I type. :)

Difster said...

Maybe one of these days I'll post my testimony on my blog. It's not extraordinary in a human sesne. I wasn't on drugs, in prision or anything like that. I was just a normal highschool kid.

Even so, it takes me at least 20 minutes to tell someone my testimony. I suppose I could make it shorter, but the fact is, my testimony isn't about ME, it's about the saving Grace of God through Jesus. I've heard too many testimonies that were more about self-aggrandizement and "I was a bad person" one-upmanship.

Serena said...

I'm sure, Justine, that it will take many hours of prayerful writing to write His testimony through my life. It is as Joelle said - "I guess it's really not about our salvation "moment", though, it's about that salvation being worked out in our lives as we grow in our relationship with our Lord." When I read your post here earlier today, I was thinking those kinds of thoughts and about all that there is still to write of His goodness in my life and His bringing me through all He has so far.

When we have been in those refining fires and are being, at least a little, conformed to the image of our Messiah, we have encouragement to give to those that are entering into them. He will be with them as He was with the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace and as He has with us. He NEVER leaves us or forsakes us. If we want to know the intensity of His love, we have to go through the fire, for He is an all-consuming fire. That is why I love the poemthat Rick started the Crimson Chronicle blog with.

I am really hoping that others will start to share His wonderful workings in their lives. It is one of the greatest ways to encourage other pilgrims on their journey in this life. I'm so glad that Morris has started writing his story.

No one who has a relationship with Messiah Yeshua can truly give a 5-minute testimony. It is a process to come to that point of initially trusting Him, just as it is a process to learn to walk with Him over the years of our lives. The true testimony is what people see on a day-to-day basis. But it is in our weakness that He is strong and it is these weak and foolish lives of ours that He uses to confound the wise.

I am blessed by what you wrote. Thank you for your labor of love in doing it.

Love and shalom,

Amigo said...

I'm so glad the story of your mother turned out so well. As I read it I was starting to dread what was coming. To know she turned to Christ was such a relief and a blessing.

As for my testimony, it would probably take a while. The thing is, as I get older, God, the Bible, salvation just make more and more sense. I just can't understand why everyone doesn't see it God's way.

Flicka Spumoni said...

Darn you, Justine!!!!
You forced me out of my blog hiatus. This post was just too compelling not to respond to. (I've been simply not reading any of my favorite blog sites because I knew I would be tempted. I may have to be more strict in the future - because when I take a peak, I want to post.)

First, let me say that I found your testimony about your mother to be completely raw and very emotional. I became undone reading it. I've just now washed the mascara off my cheeks and collected myself. It was painful to read and then so beautiful. Oh, there I go again! I'm bawling!

Secondly, I CAN NOT master the five minute testimony. I have yet to tell anyone, in total, what God has done for me and to me. I tried last year. A girlfriend and I were on a road trip to the heart of Indiana and we had about 4 hours to kill. Well, she and her husband were literally selling all they had and going into full time ministry and so for the first, I'd say three hours, she talked non stop. She got everything off her chest. So, when she asked me about my testimony, I thought I'd give it a whirl and start at the beginning. I got about 15 minutes into this thing and started crying so hard that I hyperventilated. I kid you not. I had to roll down the window and stick my head out to keep from passing out. And I was the blithering idiot driving! After gaining my composure I summed up my Christian walk in about 20 seconds, "My walk has been degrees of revelation and reltaionship with Him since then." Goodnight! I can't do it.
See you next month. (If I can stay away that long)

Justine said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. I treasure every one.

Morris: Your three-part written testimony made me catch my breath and tear up repeatedly. It was, as Flicka might say, "raw." Thank for for sharing your heart for Him.

Arielle: You are so right about living our lives as a reflection of Him being the most important testimony. People do not need that quick-fix -- they need that eternal Light.

Joelle: Like your mom, I was struck by your statement about there not being a salvation "moment" but a perpetual salvation being worked within our lives. I think, even in times when it seems like the Lord swoops down for an instantaneous rescue, such as in the case of my mom, were we able to read the history of the heart we would know the deeper story. For His own, our lives can be seen as a maze of grace (whether we realize it or not).

Difster: I was SO a worse sinner than you - nah! nah! nah! :-)

Serena: You inspire and console me more than you will ever know (even when I have an eternity to tell you about it!). I praise Him for you and look forward to reading whatever else you are led to write about the wonderful work He is doing in you.

Amigo: I like what you said about gaining the wisdom of the gospel and its making more and more sense as you get older. Especially now that I am a parent, I am better able to glimpse into how God's heart must be to His willful, rebellious children. That wanting gently to correct behavior while never failing in love and protection -- if I who am evil can know that kind of love for my daughter, then how much more my Father in Heaven?

Flicka: Sorry about the mascara -- consider it payback for "What Baby Knows." I too can relate to the complete breakdown when even trying to communicate the amazing love my Lord gives and gives and gives. For He is good, for He is good, for He is good to me. It is just as well that blogs aren't completely interactive, since most of you would only know my face stained with tears of gratitude. I cannot even pray with Sadie without the waterworks turning on. The story of salvation is always a current event in my life -- not something that happened long ago (though I do reflect upon dates), but something happening every day.

Thank you all again for commenting. You help me dig deeper and deeper into the things that God has placed on my heart.