14 February 2020
Telling It Like It Is
By Clive Marsh
‘Testimony’ is a word used mostly in connection with law courts. In that context it is about giving evidence, offering a statement of what a person thinks happened, in a setting where different parties are trying to tease out who’s telling the truth.
In a religious context it gets used as an account of a faith story. Problematically, though, it is often supposed that testimonies have a particular shape to them. They have to have a happy ending. The speaker must now be ‘in good standing with God’ at the end of the story, and content with the way things are going. Better still if, earlier in the person’s story, there was a major crisis, a key case of ‘going off the rails’ from which a person had to be rescued.
The testimony is expected to be a dramatic account of a person’s life, where a report of a great ‘turnaround’ is offered at some point. Some dictionary definitions therefore speak of a testimony being ‘a public recounting of a religious conversion or experience’. If there’s no ‘big conversion’, or some other dramatic element, then, your story can’t really be ‘A Testimony’.
But such an approach to testimony is stifling. For one thing, a person’s faith story may, at the moment, not have a happy ending. If someone is struggling with an illness, a bereavement, a family crisis, a bout of despair, then there is not likely to be a positive ending to the story told just now.
From another angle, seeing ‘A Testimony’ as needing to have a particular, prescribed shape (low point in life – big turnaround – happy ending) does not allow for what life is actually like. Life is, after all, very often a collection of ups and downs. Nor does it allow for much creativity in the telling. Surely people could tell their faith stories in a great many different ways.
They could focus just on one current joy, issue or struggle in life and how they are experiencing, facing or dealing with it. They could refer back to one particular time or experience when God’s presence was particularly noticeable for them, not necessarily at a moment of conversion, and even when it was in the midst of a tough time. Faith takes many shapes, and faith stories therefore have to be told in many different ways.
We have a look at the whole practice of telling ‘faith stories’ in Chapter 4 of our book So What’s the Story…? Put together with the help of the Methodist Church’s Connexional Director of Evangelism and Growth, Trey Hall, our chapter simply tries to broaden out the reasons for and ways in which we best tell our faith stories. Here are a few pointers.
First, faith stories are God stories as well as stories about us and our life experiences. Our stories are not testimonies unless we try and say how we believe God to be part of our stories. We may experience God’s comfort, or God’s challenge, or an insight which we are not quite sure where it came from, yet seems like God disclosing something to us.
We may feel supported by other people, and sense that it was God’s Spirit working in and through others which kept us afloat. All of these are ways in which we may sense the presence of God. Our job – in giving testimony – is just to ‘tell it like it is’, so that others may hear from us about how we believe God’s actions have interwoven with our everyday living.
Second, faith stories are best spoken. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be written down, or even recorded when spoken and then watched on video, but they really do come to life when told live in the company of others. It’s even better when they are told in the context of worship (‘and now we come to the faith story slot in our service’). In this way, testimonies are seen to be a quite ordinary, everyday, part of life. Yes, there are times when we want to bear witness to the surprising, the spectacular and the unexpected, for God can do all sorts of stuff.
But if we think that God only does the spectacular then we do, in fact, limit God. We might even want to say that the spectacular is the unusual – and possibly not even the way in which God chooses normally (ever?) to work. For God Incarnate is tangled up in normal everyday life, and therefore it is more in the midst of the ordinariness – where reconciliation is worked for, where healing happens, where crises are struggled with, where unexpected joy appears – that our witness to God’s presence may be most keenly, and most often, felt.
Third, we come up with a different understanding of ‘church’ than we sometimes work with as a result. Yes, we are a worshipping community; yes, we are a community of the redeemed/being-redeemed; yes, we are formed by the Spirit as the Body of Christ. But as well as being all those things we are also an ordinary bunch of people, living out our faith in everyday life, who have different faith stories to tell. Perhaps, then, we could all practise telling those stories a bit more: to each other, to our neighbours, to people we work with, to members of community groups we belong to. And that’s also everyday evangelism.
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 17 Jan 2020.