Some Remarks on Conversion Testimonies

I was discussing the subject of giving testimonies with my brother Mark a few days ago. ‘Giving your testimony’ is an important part of evangelical life. Although I believe that it is very important, there seem to me to be a number of areas where we need to give more thought to the practice.

Perhaps the greatest concern that I have has to do with the focus and shape of testimonies. Giving a testimony is a good thing, but what should the testimony ultimately testify to. Having witnessed many baptisms over the years, I have heard very few testimonies in which the truths of the Apostles’ Creed, for instance, were clearly articulated. Those being baptized undoubtedly held to these truths, but they did not have much of a part to play in their testimonies.

The focus of our testimonies can be a good window into the focus of our faith. Coming to faith involves a new way of telling our personal stories and an examination of the manner in which we tell our personal stories can reveal a lot about the type of faith that we have come to. The focus of most of the testimonies that I have heard is upon an internal experience of ‘Jesus coming into my life’. Whilst I certainly do not want to despise the internal experience of the individual, I do want to question the place that it should have in our understanding of the Christian faith.

Over the last few years I have come to the position that conversion is, if anything, more about our entering into Christ’s life than about His entering into our lives. It appears that the focus is the other way around in most evangelical circles. As a result the form of faith that is practiced is a lot more introspective and the individual’s experience of grace plays a far more central role in the understanding of the Christian faith.

If our understanding of conversion is focused on Christ’s entering into our lives, rather than vice versa, we will be inclined to tell our conversion stories in a way that differs from the way that we would tell our stories if the focus were upon our entering into Christ’s life. If conversion is about entering into a bigger story than our own — becoming part of the life of Christ in the Church — the retelling of our own personal stories in terms of the great narrative of redemption will become a central task in our recounting of our conversions.

All of us understand ourselves to some degree or other in terms of big stories, even if that big story is postmodernity’s story of the end of all big stories or the modern story of the detached individual. Unfortunately, if our conversion story is primarily understood in terms of Christ’s coming into our lives, the big stories that shape our lives will often remain largely unchallenged. Our conversion stories have already been positioned and conditioned in terms of more determinative stories provided by our culture.

Retelling our personal stories in terms of the big story of the gospel may be challenging for those of us who have been raised in a Western individualistic culture, but it is by no means impossible. With a little imagination it is not too hard to give testimonies that draw people’s attention to the big Christian story, rather than to our stories as detached individuals. Such a testimony will find its centre in the grand narrative of God’s covenantal dealings through history, rather than upon the happenings within my individual soul. This does not mean that we have to say more about the grand narrative of redemption that about our personal experience. It has more to do with the manner in which we recount our personal experience.

Most testimonies boil down to before and after stories, the focus being on the point of turning to Christ. There is nothing inherently wrong with such stories. However, it is worth examining the role that they play in the evangelical culture. Such stories have become the normative form of testimony. The essential character of the evangelical testimony is the narration of the movement from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’.

I really do not find this helpful, for a number of reasons. Not everyone’s testimony need (or should) have a ‘before’. If you have been born into a Christian family, and adopted into the family of God through Baptism as an infant, they should be no ‘before’ to your testimony. There should be no point in your life when you were not living your live in Jesus Christ.

Do people from such a background really have a testimony? If the essential element of a testimony is to be found in transition from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’ of the individual’s experience, they probably do not. If the essential element is to be found in testimony to how one’s life is shaped and lived in terms of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of redemptive history, brought about through the ministry of Christ, such people can have a testimony.

There is a pressure to understand one’s Christian experience in terms of the pattern of the evangelical testimony. It is presumed that one size fits all. However, I believe that the majority of testimonies should not be told in a before/after form at all. Most Christians that one encounters probably did not come from pagan backgrounds, but were given some sort of Christian upbringing. They may have had crisis periods in their lives when they had to reaffirm their faith in response to a difficulty, besetting sin or period of backsliding. They may also have experienced many ‘stage conversions’ as they matured into deeper forms of faith, growing from a child’s faith, to a teenager’s faith, to an adult’s faith.

There is not a single, once for all conversion experience, although most evangelicals tend to think in such a manner. James Jordan has a very helpful discussion of this in the fifth chapter of his book, The Sociology of the Church. The evangelical testimony paradigm establishes a pattern within which we are encouraged to narrate our experience. Such patterns shape our self-understanding and our experience. I believe that the evangelical conversion testimony provides us with an extremely poor framework in which to understand our Christian experience.

The paradigm of the evangelical testimony is a Procrustean bed that reduces the richness and complexity of our stories to fit in with a preconceived pattern. It also puts huge weight upon the initial conversion experience. Evangelicals, believing that the pattern of the evangelical testimony provides the normative pattern for Christian experience, expect everyone to fit in with it. For instance, rather than gradually and continually training their children to respond to God in faith in the various decisions that they face, they are inclined to aggressively press for a conversion experience. Children are constantly subjected to heavy evangelism, when their faith could benefit far more from gentle discipleship.

Continual heavy evangelism will tend to do more harm to the weak believer than good. It trains people to look for a Damascus Road experience, when they ought to be growing in faith in more quotidian circumstances. People can be mired in doubt waiting for an experience that never comes, when they should just be taking God at His Word and maturing in a faithful relationship with Him, quite apart from any ‘bolt from the blue’ conversion experience. Not everyone converts to Christ from the outside. For many, the experience of conversion to Christ is a matter of growing into maturity in their Christian faith, facing certain crises, daily repenting of their sins and the like.

Evangelicals are at risk of such a focus on the conversion experience that they fail to equip people to move beyond spiritual infancy. Many who have been converted in an evangelical setting find themselves needing to move elsewhere if they are to grow into a greater maturity in their faith.

Most evangelical theologies also place a huge weight on the initial conversion experience. I strongly agree with James Jordan’s thoughts on this matter:—

My problem with the neo-Puritan critique of campus conversion experiences is the same as my problem with campus conversionism. Both groups act as if some big crisis or decision were necessary to come into the faith. Both groups ignore the reality of the faith of young children. (In fact, both groups are heavily Baptist, thus typically American, in orientation; the neo-Puritans being almost to a man Reformed Baptists.) Both groups put too much stress on an initial conversion experience. The neo-Puritans don’t like the soft-sell “easy” conversion; they want a hard-sell gospel with all the hard facts brought out first. They seem to want to manipulate “true conversions,” and eliminate “stony ground and thorny ground” conversions. This, however, I do not think is Biblical. The Sower sowed the stony and the thorny ground, and did not object to the plants that sprang up from his “easy and free” sowing. Not all persevered, however, a fact that the Sower also recognized (Matt, 13:4-9, 18-23).

Perseverance is the real issue here. There is no need to react against simple evangelistic methods, such as the “Four Spiritual Laws.” The issue is not initial conversion. Rather, the issue is perseverance. Once people are brought into the faith, they need to be shepherded into maturity.

The problem is that such weight is often placed on initial conversion that the need to shepherd into maturity can be forgotten.

Over recent years I have become less critical of presentations of the gospel that fail to mention such things as sin, hell and the like. Whilst these are all truths that we must preach, I do not believe that they are an essential element of the initial presentation of the gospel. The initial presentation of the gospel may focus on other issues entirely. People may come to Christ because of the true society that they see in the Church, for example. They should be discipled into a deeper knowledge of the faith, and taught about such things as sin and hell, but not all of this needs to be done in the initial encounter.

There is not a one-size-fits-all conversion model. If we realize this we will become suspicious of the many evangelism ‘techniques’ that are around, which act as if there were only one model. In my experience such techniques are often depersonalizing. They fail to pay attention to the distinct experience and situation of the person we are presenting the gospel to, who may come to be regarded more as a potential convert than as a unique person made in the image of God.

Where such before and after stories of conversion to Christ are made normative, there is also the danger that people will begin to put their faith in the conversion experience, rather than in Christ. The idea of the once-for-all conversion experience has misdirected many people’s faith. I have written on this matter elsewhere.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to Some Remarks on Conversion Testimonies

  1. Weston says:

    Well put, Al. I’m already thinking of freinds and family to direct to this post.

  2. Paul Baxter says:

    All I can say, Al, is that holding to exactly what you describe here has not made life easy for me in certain respects. I can’t really elaborate on that publicly though.

    I think it would be very valuable to the church, though, to have more and more vibrant examples of both gospel and personal story presentations which follow from this sort of model.

    Perhaps one sort of person who could be touched by a “growing in grace” story would be the person who was baptized as a child but fell away from the church. While we want to affirm their baptism, they need to be reminded that it needs to be “improved upon”, as Westminster put it.

    This is an area that needs vastly more attention that I have seen it receive in the church.

  3. Lee says:

    I think the reason conversion testimonies are ‘before and after’ stories is because that is why they were originally used. The practice became standard during the Great Awakening and people were required to give testimonies so that the already converted could see if the experience of the newly converted was real or not. The testimony had to include a life of sin, a moment of terror, and the relief of Christ. Without it one was judged not to have an adequate conversion. Your critique is good one, but I am not sure the testimony structure can be saved. Its very foundations seem flawed.

  4. Hey Al! I haven’t seen you on aim in a while, and was just wondering if you ever still got on there. I would love to talk to you and see how things are going with you! Take care man! In Christ, D.P.

  5. Al says:

    I should be back on AIM some time in the next few days. My computer was inoperative for a few months (the computers in the computer room here don’t have AIM) and when my computer was fixed over Christmas I had too much on to go on AIM. I should be getting my computer back today. I may be quiet for the next week though as it is my exam period.

  6. Elbert says:

    Thanks Al, I experienced quite a bit of friction on this matter, coming into a more Evangelical setting here in England. I could not really put my finger on it though, this is helpful. I’ll give it some more thought. Anyway, I trust you find the current local developments in HBC quite encouraging in the light of what you wrote…

  7. Pingback: / musing / struggling / dreaming /

  8. Nathan says:

    Regarding the emphasis on “before/after” conversion experiences, I remember thinking as a child, “Man, I wish I had grown up a homeless drug addict or something so I’d have a cooler testimony.” Testimonies without a Damascus Road experience didn’t seem like testimonies at all.

  9. Al says:

    I was discussing the subject of conversion testimonies with my brother again this morning on the phone and a couple of things came to me.

    Speaking about your conversion experience is similar to recounting your relationship with your wife. Some people may have been brought up in the same community as their future wives and always enjoyed a friendship, others can point to a particular moment when they fall in love. There is no single before and after, but many stages, crisis moments and times of gradual growth within the relationship. Giving one’s testimony should be similar to this. It is giving account of the growth of a relationship.

    Relationships are not private things. As relationships grow they take us out of ourselves and invest us in those with whom we have been brought into relationship. For this reason, a testimony that is all about my personal experience is testimony to a very immature relationship.

    The genre of conversion testimony often presents pre-conversion experience as the adventure, which achieves its resolution in conversion. Post-conversion life is often perceived to be ‘boring’ by comparison with pre-conversion life.

    I believe that conversion is the beginning of the adventure. In the case of those born into Christian, they are born into an adventure and grow into a deeper realization of their part within it.

    Conversion is like Gandalf knocking on your door and encouraging you to join him on a quest. The rest of your community do not stray outside of their supposedly safe, mundane and small stories. You may see yourself as embarking on a private adventure, but you will soon find that you have been caught up into a story in which the fate of the whole world hangs in balance. Christian faith is participation in God’s big adventure, participation in the thing that God is doing behind the scenes. We need to recount our Christian experience in a manner that demonstrates that sin is boring and Christian faith is exciting.

  10. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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