In ministry the least reliable thing of all is a testimony. I know that sounds a strange thing to say but when people stand up and tell their story you really have little or no control over what they will say, there is often little chance of verifying their back story and, especially if it goes to print, it can be a serious liability. Testimonies can also be heart-warming, encouraging, and inspiring, and I don’t want to discourage them. Its a question of how they are handled, what we make of them, and what weight we give them. Content is a good guide.
My wife and I were invited some years ago to a baptism in a local church. It was a pretty exciting occasion, in a charismatic church so plenty of music, ‘alleluias, and arm waving. If I tell you there there twelve baptism candidates that night you will understand all the excitement. We took our seats, but not for long, as the band struck up a hearty chorus and the congregation were on their feet, on their chairs – you get the picture.
After a while the first person was invited up and interviewed, before the whole congregation, about their faith, something I always admire no matter how often I see it. It does take great courage and is an encouraging evidence of faith. As I have already said, testimonies are not altogether reliable and so, when this one turned out to be all about ‘what the church has done for me,’ I wasn’t concerned. After all, the church does do a lot for people and nothing wrong with gratitude.
Alarm bells began ringing as, one after the other, the candidates stood and told a similar story. Their life had been a mess and the church had turned things around for them. Don’t mistake me, I am all for the church being Jesus in the community, reaching out to the poor, the disaffected. The trouble was that there was no mention of sin, repentance, the cross, forgiveness, from any of them, all things I would have expected as pretty basic to any convert’s story. I don’t say they weren’t taught these things, just that these things didn’t carry the significance I would have expected at a baptism service.
I am always glad when someone can give the church a good report, happy for people when they have found somewhere to belong. But if your testimony is founded on better lifestyle choices and the friendship and sacrifices of Christians, what will you do when you discover that Christians are sinners too, and can let you down? Where will you put your faith then?
How will you deal with the disappointments that any good Christian will tell you are bound to come, if you start off with a testimony based on being accepted among nice people, not on looking to a perfect Saviour? How will you be able to say with Habakkuk, “Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”? (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
And a Mormon
There was an interesting testimony in the January 6 edition of the Mormon Deseret News about the conversion of a young lady from Horsham, Surrey, England. It is, by any standard, a heart-warming story and concerns her being lifted out of a pit of despair by watching some YouTube videos by a Mormon family from Idaho. So impressed was she by these people, so lifted by their outlook on life that her own mood lifted, her outlook changed for much the better. When she saw, for the first time, Mormon missionaries in her own home town she leapt at the chance to speak to them. Soon enough, she and her husband and children were Mormons.
Just as with the twelve baptism candidates, I would be churlish and mean to begrudge her and her family the joy of finding acceptance and encouragement among a group of people who I know form my own experience are fine people. Unlike the twelve mentioned above, I had no serious expectations that her story would be other than it is. A Mormon testimony is about ‘the church’ and I wasn’t disappointed. You can read it yourself.
But the same questions arise as with the testimonies of the twelve. How will she deal with the disappointments that are bound to come with a testimony about being accepted among nice people? What will she do when she discovers that Mormons will let her down, not because they are Mormons, but because they are sinners? How will she deal with the discovery that the church is imperfect? This is before she even discovers, if she ever discovers, that what she has been taught is seriously questionable.
More importantly, who will be there for her and her family when the storm comes and they discover they have built on sand? Who will, without judgement, hold her hand through the turbulent times, graciously explain the truth, and bring her to a place of true safety and assurance?
My prayer is that your testimony is built on the one Rock that is Christ, your assurance founded on his finished work at Calvary, and your hope founded on his sure promises, and not on the ‘good phase’ your church was going through when you met them. I pray that if you get an opportunity to meet and witness to a cult member you will remember how shaky their testimony can really be, and not be taken in by their appearance of confidence. That you will be prepared to hold their hand through the storm that will come when their organisation fails them, and they discover they didn’t have Christ at all.