Even before I was “born-again”, I had seen enough examples of the “born-again” transformation to understand the “born-again” script. The basic schema is generally the same for fundamentalists & evangelicals. Think Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws.” Briefly, recognize you are a Sinner, repent (change direction and start going God’s way), believe in and decide to follow Jesus the Son of God and you will be saved from Hell. (Alternatively, some milder versions instruct you to “ask Jesus into your heart and life” enabling you to have a “relationship” with God through Christ, etc., which also leads to salvation).
Being born-again is/ or is expected to be a life transformation. In many church cultures, this transformation is followed by the command to “Go NOW and tell others.” One of the most common ways to share the gospel is by sharing one’s “testimony” (an account about what God has done in your life).
***In the church that I joined, every aspect of Christian life was more “radical,” public and expressive than most other churches so my experience might not be the average Evangelical experience if there is one.***
In my church, the testimonies were larger than life! Often they contained more personal information than the average person on the street would share with a stranger! People would become highly convicted of their sin from their pre-born-again days (convicted= strong feeling from Holy Spirit instructing person of rightness or wrongness of her actions). To evangelize, they “testified” about how the Lord had changed them. In witnessing, they would explain to perfect strangers:
“Hi! My name is Jimmy, and I used to be a compulsive fornicator, adulterer and drunkard, and the Lord saved me from being an immoral heathen and has turned me into a man of God!”
Ok, someone can see the humor in that, right? Folks publicly labeled themselves, using colorful hyperbole, in terms of some of their most egregious sins.
Humorous? Or perhaps rather sad.
People thought they were such horrible people without God. Some of the folks labeling themselves (or being labeled by the leaders) as former drunkards, adulterers and the like, may have been saved at 22 years old (Or even younger!) I wonder if that person’s life was as bad as she or he made it sound or as bad as she or he might have felt about it? People were labeled as a particular type of sinner based on an activity they may have done many times or even once!
Then once you have publicly confessed, everyone else knows your named sins as well and they may use your life as an example to witness too, “See that girl over there?” Attempting a discreet whisper, a person would say, “She was addicted to porn and drugs! But God has now made her PURE! A born-again virgin, holy to the Lord! And one day God is going to bring her a pure husband! Glory!”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that this was THE standard introduction, however, if a member thought that the information about their past, or someone else’s past would help another person to be able to find God an enter the Kingdom of God, well that information was fair game. One should use information, even if it humbles and denigrates you or someone else, if it will bring someone closer to God. Right? It was all for the Glory of God! What else are we on earth for except to win souls for Christ? In addition, you and that person were terrible sinners once and so let us at least be honest and use it to bring Glory to God for the miraculous transformation he brought about!
This was just the culture. This was how people talked about themselves: What a horrible person they were, name sins [fill in the blank sins] . . . and then explain how Jesus saved them and made them into a new person. I spoke this way about myself, as well. At the time, I believed that I had been “radically saved” and I wanted to show my thankfulness to God by testifying of his “miracles” (i.e. the miracle of saving me from my life of sin.) I thought that this would bring glory to the God who had gloriously saved me! I was like the leper that Jesus healed that went and told everyone how Jesus had healed him and to which Jesus asked, “Now where are the rest of the other 12 that I healed?” For those other former lepers did not come back to thank Jesus or to testify of His Glory.
Sometimes, when I gave my testimony, telling people INCREDIBLY intimate details of my life, I did feel shame, embarrassment, hesitation and misgiving, but I pushed this quickly out of my mind and kept testifying. After all, wasn’t it more important that the person to whom I was witnessing could learn from the sordid details of my life so that they too could see the power of Jesus and turn to Him to be saved from their sinful life? We were also encouraged to write our testimonies so that we would not forget what God had done for us and to be able to use our written testimony to evangelize more effectively.
Telling one’s testimony, often with extremely personal details was part of the culture. The veterans often talked this way, including the Pastor, the Assistant Pastors, the lay ministers, the bible study leaders, the radically saved converts – everyone there who had been saved! This must be the right way! Moreover, by hearing the many testimonies of how God has saved those around me, I became convinced that God could save me too, as terrible as I was, since they told me their terrible stories and I could see how wonderfully God had saved them. Now they were successful and free from sin. Besides, those sordid details in my story were true (or I believed they were true at that time). I was a wicked sinner. I knew that from my acts and my bible clearly told me so. And if I started to think that maybe I wasn’t really all that bad, by discussing my testimony with the others who were saved and seeing their reactions to my sins, I was reminded that it truly was a miracle that God had saved me from such a terrible, sinful life. I might as well own up to the sinful acts I had committed. God saw them, the angels in heaven saw them, and all the principalities and demons of the earth could see them so why not just tell everybody?
In sharing my story, wasn’t it worth it to degrade and humiliate myself so that others would be saved?
Tanya Erzen has another explanation of this sort of group speak. In the book, Straight to Jesus, by Tanya Erzen, an ethnographical study of some of the Homosexual Reformation Ministries (the groups that claim to heal homosexuals of their homosexuality) she reviews some of the scholarly ethnographies and theories about how fundamentalists use language to create, instill and reinforce the group identity by language patterns. She summarizes that current members use such testifying language patterns, such as the ones I saw, to create identity.
As an example, one might say, “I WAS a very immoral person who was in bondage to sexual immorality and couldn’t stop sleeping with people (or drinking, drugs, etc.) and my life was horrible. BUT THEN I met Jesus Christ and he saved me! AND EVER SINCE THEN my life has been changed and my life is cleaned up and in control, etc. . . .”
Erzen explains how new members come into the group and hear the veteran members speaking about their life through the testimony scenario, and as the new members become more involved they also begin to fit their experience into the testimony scenario and it becomes part of the explanation and interpretation of their life as well. She explains how, in repeating their testimony, the group members are integrated into the group identity. I saw this element, as Erzen describes, at work in my congregation and in my life. It is not just repeating the language. It is through the means of using this language framework that the individual religious experience is partially created. When used within the group, a group experience is also created and sustained.
I would also suggest, that at first it is just a few people with these testimonies, but then as more members are added to the group, and they each fit their life into the testimonial framework of the group, that the power and the effect of the collective group grows in strength as well. “See, look what Jesus has done! Now we have 50 people in this room who were once in bondage to sin and the devil and had horrible lives, but who now are saved and Know Jesus! Any of these 50 people would be happy to tell you their story and to help disciple you in the Lord’s true path of repentance and salvation.”
Once this church “discipled” its members (i.e. fully trained the members in the church’s methodology of Christian living), some of the discipled members would then go off to another place or campus or city to plant another church, replicating the process. You start out with one, two, or a few evangelists who testify to Jesus and recruit some young people who have messed up lives, they become part of the group, and the cycle continues. . .
Wow, I feel strengthened just imagining the power and momentum that could be created in such a group! Hmmm. Maybe I should start my own group. 🙂
Now, why am I rehashing all of this?
First, I was part of a church group that critics have criticized as being over-controlling. I am still reprocessing events that happened there and I am trying to analyze manipulative behaviors and resolve lingering feelings I have towards those behaviors.
Second, I am in the process of deconstructing my faith experience to determine what is “real” in what I perceive to be my experience of God and I am reviewing events to see if there are other “explanations.”
Third, I joined and became HIGHLY involved in one of the more controversial, strident Christian groups and it was a life-altering experience, and I am still trying to figure out how I got there, how it affected me and how I found my way out.
Fourth, I became & continued as a Christian because after some investigation I believed Christianity represented the truth about life, human origins, history and the supernatural. I am in the process of re-evaluating the evidence for much of my Christian belief and seeking to uproot ideas and beliefs that I find to be “untrue.” I want to live my life based on truth, as closely as I can understand it and am trying to do so. This blog is part of that process. Again, thank you for joining me on my journey.