Monday, April 21, 2014

The Problem with "Giving Your Testimony"

Do you remember applying to colleges? You probably had to send your high school transcript, your SAT or ACT scores, a list of references, an essay, maybe a resume or list of extracurricular and volunteer activities. 

If you were applying to a Christian college, you could add writing your testimony to the list. 

Many Christian colleges require a testimony of some sort. For instance, to apply to Covenant College, the liberal arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America, you need to write an essay describing "your conversion experience, your assurance of salvation, and your walk with the Lord." More liberal colleges such as Asbury in Kentucky may ask for a character reference, which allows for the possibility of ethical but not evangelical applicants. Patrick Henry, a fundamentalist college that actively recruits homeschoolers, asks prospective students to discern "how your Christian faith affects your thinking," which makes sense for a school that produces politicians and activists. It takes different forms, but the main point stands: you are asked to produce a written document proving that you have a valid relationship with God. 

As a senior in high school I applied to Covenant and was accepted, though by the grace of God I went somewhere else. I don't think they've changed the essay question since then, because I remember agonizing over those first two phrases: conversion experience and assurance of salvation. I also remember that what I wrote was a bald-faced lie.

In any classic evangelical testimony there is a conversion experience. It has historical roots in various Protestant renewal movements, particularly the Methodist movement in England and the Second Great Awakening in America. Many of the religious conventions evangelicals take for granted came from these movements, especially the notion of a lightning-strike "road to Damascus" conversion experience. For some folks it really fit: I've heard stories of alcoholics and drug-addicts who hit rock bottom, the gutter experience as they say in AA, and were rescued from their plight by Jesus. The other popular iteration was the backslider story: a young boy who was "raised right" but went astray in high school, started hanging with the wrong crowd, got tattoos and piercings, got a girl pregnant and forced her to have an abortion, started selling dope. Eventually they see the error of their ways like the prodigal son and return to God and church and clean living. 

Of course, if you were raised in the church, gradually came to know God, and kept out of trouble, your story was boring as hell. 

The Baptist kids I went to school with all had the same testimony. Susie gets baptized as a little kid after going down the aisle at a church service and praying the sinner's prayer during the altar call. Since Susie's family is hard-core Baptist, she grows up going to Sunday school, "adult church," Sunday night church, and Wednesday night church, as well as VBS in the summer. She attends AWANA, can do a mean sword drill, and knows how to wield a hand puppet. She's stumped around in over-sized robes as an angel in the Christian play, and she knows all the words and hand motions to He's My Rock My Sword My Shield. 

Then Susie hits puberty, and middle school, and starts having crushes and boys, and starts her period and has to try on bras with her mom and an elderly sales clerk. Naturally this creates great drama, and in all the emotional turmoil Susie begins to question her identity, wonder who she really is and what she really believes. Somewhere between 12 and 14, Susie decides that she really didn't know what she was doing when she got baptized at 5, so she talks to the pastor about it and gets re-baptized. This is considered every bit as valid as the first baptism - more so in fact, because this time Susie is older and her opinions are more developed. 

Unfortunately, baptism doesn't solve her problems. It's hard to know if you're really truly saved, if you really truly know that you'd go to heaven if you died this minute. Certain catalysts were sure to cause this crisis: watching The Passion of the Christ, hearing a "back from the brink of death" story, going to summer camp and hearing all the counselors tell their testimonies, revival services, even a particularly poignant sermon. At each catalyst, Susie "rededicates her life to Christ," probably by walking down the aisle during an altar call and filling out a piece of paper. She checks the box that says "I want to rededicate my life to Christ," and for awhile she feels safe. Then the doubts come niggling again. 

So when Susie reads a college application that says "tell your conversion experience" and "give your assurance of salvation," what is she supposed to write? She hasn't had a conversion experience - she's had an emotional roller coaster of faith littered with little conversions. Worst of all, in the dark when she's alone, her heart admits that she has no assurance of salvation. She has nightmares about hell; she worries that demons will infect her soul if she becomes friends with an atheist; she has questions about evolution but stifles them, terrified that her soul is in jeopardy from these questions. She has a purity ring but secretly longs to make out with the cute boy in math class. Unfortunately, these normal adolescent feelings have been spiritualized and blown out of proportion, so that even a normal crush is seen as a spiritual crisis. Susie believes, intellectually, in once-saved-always-saved, but that doesn't really answer the question. How does one know? What is this assurance of salvation, and how does one get it? 

Big questions Susie, but this is crunch time. You've got a stack of applications to fill out, all to colleges you long to attend. You could go to a state school, but you've had your eye on a couple of Christian colleges, wondering if you could get a scholarship. Your grades are good, you've gone on mission trips to Mexico and taught backyard Bible clubs and coached the church T-ball team, so your chances are good. This essay question is all that stands in your way. 

Sighing, Susie begins to construct an answer that will satisfy the college admissions board. It can't be outrageous, but it can't be exactly the truth either. Thankfully it doesn't matter, because no one knows her doubts and fears. Her pastor's reference won't reveal anything amiss. 

She starts her essay with "As a child brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, I was always aware of God's presence. However, as a teenager my conscience was pricked by a desire to go deeper...." 


  1. I grew up in a Presbyterian church, that was run very like an AA meeting, as our pastor was a recover(ed)(ing) alcoholic. It was nice, I just didn't learn a lot about God.I bounced around after that. While in High School, I had the getting saved experience in an American Baptist church, and made the rounds of non denoms in my young adult/adulthood. Mostly charismatic. There was a charismatic Mennonite church in there too.

    You characterize that altar call syndrome very well. It wasn't until after I converted to Catholicism that I realized that the once-saved-always-saved teaching didn't apply anymore. At first, it made me really nervous! But, as I have grown a bit, I realize that we live our conversion every day of our lives. That God is too big to boil down to a formula, one that doesn't grow and change as we hopefully do in our walk with Him here on Earth. The only Always is Him. We are much less steady, and have to cling to the fact that He is the only one that doesn't change.
    It doesn't seem so scary anymore, it just makes sense. Plus, since we never really knew if our confession of faith "took" exactly right, we were always second guessing ourselves anyway.

    anyways, I LOLd at your descriptions, because I have been there, and they are accurate!

    God Bless.

    1. Hello Kelly, can I ask why you disagree with once saved always saved?

  2. Haha, so true! Many times I went up the altar as a child. Many times I've said the sinner's prayer. Did I have assurance? No. I have recently come to the firm conclusion that conversion is an ongoing process. Conversion is our journey with God.

    p.s. I couldn't get the comment form to work on your ecumenism post. I totally agree with your thoughts on that too. Nobody has all the answers about God.
    p.p.s. Thanks for visiting my blog. :)

    1. Hey Sarah, can I ask you a question?

      Do you have assurance now, and in what/from what?

  3. It sounds to me like Suzie never understood why she needed to be saved, and what she is being saved from/how. It shows the failure of the Church to communicate that, and it saddens me.

    I was there myself before I came to Christ- because I didn't understand the things that I don't believe Suzie understands.