Read companion article: “Why We Don’t Have Altar Calls in Our Church”
The recent appearance of Nick Vujicic at a Manila megachurch brought again to the forefront the power of a testimony to draw big, adoring crowds. Especially if the speaker is a celebrity such as Vujicic, Tim Tebow, Christian Bautista, Piolo Pascual or Gary V.
First-time or even regular visitors to our church will never see or experience a powerful “personal testimony.” Why not? If you want hordes of people to come to your church and be saved, then celebrity testimonies are the way to go.
But our worship services include only one kind of testimony: the testimony of the writers of the Holy Scriptures who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This testimony—martyria in Greek—is nothing more than the faithful preaching of the pure gospel of Christ, which brought about the martyrdom of almost all the apostles (and is still is today):
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son (1 John 5:9).
So let me tell you ten reasons why we don’t have personal testimonies during our worship services. Not all testimonies are the same, but these are generally their flavors.
1. Public worship in the Bible never included testimonies.
Have you ever stumbled upon a personal testimony being given during a worship service in the Bible? In the Old Testament, the priests, psalmists and prophets testified about God’s goodness and mercy, and his justice and righteousness. They spoke to the congregation only what God had revealed to them. The priests offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. The psalmists wrote songs of worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the congregation, proclaiming God as Creator, covenant LORD, and Savior (Psa 18). The prophets declared God’s warning of judgment, as well as his blessing of restoration
(Isa 43-44). Examples of congregational worship in Exodus 19-24 and 2 Chronicles 5-7 do not mention any personal testimony.
In the New Testament, the Lord’s Day worship consisted of “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In the Gospels, Jesus gave a testimony about himself and his work of saving his people from sin. Peter “bore witness” (testified) to the crowd on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:40). Paul was “occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus” (Acts 18:5). The closest thing to a personal testimony in the New Testament is when Paul defended himself against his accusers before King Agrippa (Acts 26:1-29), but this obviously was not in a worship service.
2. Public worship in early church and Reformation history never included testimonies.
From the second century description of early church worship by Justin Martyr to the early medieval church, there was never any mention of a believer giving a testimony during a worship service. And in the Reformation church, obviously there was also none. Testimonies of converts only started during the revivalistic meetings of the Second Great Awakening in the early- to mid-19th century, especially after the heretic revivalist Charles Finney started his “new measures.”
3. Testimonies denigrate Christ and the gospel.
They shift the focus from Christ’s story to the individual’s story. They lack the gospel of Christ, becoming the gospel itself, but they are not the gospel. In “Gnostic Worship” (Modern Reformation 4/4 July/Aug 1995), Michael Horton analyzes today’s obsession with small groups and their stories and testimonies:
In many ways, the church is becoming patterned on this talk-show approach. Recovery and self-help groups, discipleship groups, and other small groups, are often more important than the worship service—which is understandable—if the regular service is simply a larger gathering of these small groups! We share our experiences, or our personal testimony, and this often becomes the center of discourse.
Testimonies are popular because preaching Christ and the gospel has become not just unnecessary, but “boring” to many evangelicals.
4. Testimonies denigrate the sermon.
“Touching” testimonies relegate sermons to the realm of the irrelevant. People look forward to them rather than the sermon. After the service, most people remember well and talk about the testimony, but who remembers what the sermon was all about, much less what the sermon text was? The sermon is relegated to a sideshow by the main event, the testimony. Horton again writes in “The New Gnosticism” (MR 4/4):
The Word is primarily seen as an instrument for coaxing the individual into accepting the new birth. The new birth, especially if one judges by the testimonies of converts, is not so much the result of hearing with human ears, in human words, a declaration of things that happened in human history. In short, it is not so much the preaching of the Cross, but the preaching of “my personal relationship with Jesus,” the day when “Jesus came into my heart,” that is central.
The result is that in many evangelical services, the sermon is non-essential, while testimonies have become an indispensable part of the regular worship event.
5. Testimonies denigrate the Bible and its doctrines.
|In a court of law, a testimony is a “statement or declaration of a witness under oath or affirmation.” Since a testimony is a person’s story of his life before and after conversion, what Biblical truths or principles can be gleaned from it? Most evangelicals do not even know the very basic doctrines of God, man, sin, the person and atoning work of Christ, salvation, justification, and sanctification. Obviously, this is the result of the emphasis on experience and emotions, not on facts and doctrines. But as Horton writes,
If I don’t have a solid understanding of the doctrines of the Christianity, I will inevitably end up talking about the effects of religion on my life, rather than the objective message of the Gospel itself … Effective, Christ-centered, evangelism must therefore be based on the “facts” of Christianity, not the “effects.”
How can we testify of the truth when we don’t know what the truth is?
6. Testimonies denigrate the pastor.
A pastor of a church almost never receives a compliment from his congregation. This is expected (and rightly so), because a faithful pastor performs his preaching and oversight duties without looking for accolades from others. And the faithful congregation knows this well.
However, it is so common to hear those who heard a testimony, especially that of a celebrity, say, “So-and-so is a great preacher! He’s inspiring. I was so blessed.” But the poor pastor who faithfully studies, prepares and preaches the true gospel Sunday after Sunday does not receive even a “Thank you” from his people.
7. Testimonies denigrate the testifiers.
A person and his changed life will always disappoint the audience and even himself. The common denominator in a testimony is his life before and after conversion, often painting a rosy picture of sanctified living. But sufferings, afflictions and temptations come, and he falls into sin, just as all of us do. When this happens, he might begin to despair and even wonder about his own salvation.
A testimony then is a personal moral lesson, just as many sermons today are full of moral lessons, making Biblical characters as examples. The testifier becomes the moral example. But like all the rest of us, the person testifying is as flawed as all Biblical characters. Even the congregation might doubt as to the reality of his conversion testimony.
8. Testimonies denigrate those who don’t testify.
A person who has no spectacular testimony is marginalized. Because of this, some people are pressured to give testimonies, and even embellish their testimonies. If a testimony is not spectacular, it becomes boring! Comedian Tim Hawkins related his thoughts growing up in a testimony-oriented church:
Do you ever do that—do you wish you had a better testimony in your life? You’re sitting in church, listening to a guy on stage like “man, he has an awesome testimony. I have a horrible one! I wish I was addicted to crack. Thanks, God!”
This is a big problem for many who don’t have a “mountaintop experience.” A reader once wrote to Christianitytoday.com’s Advice blog: “I don’t have a dramatic conversion story. I’ve just always believed. I’m starting to wonder how well I really know Christ if I’ve never felt these things.” So then, some people shy away from attending the service because they have “boring” testimonies.
9. Testimonies always include a personal “decision for Christ.”
This is the only reason with a Reformed flavor. We don’t coach a person to “make a decision for Christ.” We preach the gospel of the life, death and resurrection of Christ to save us from sin and God’s coming wrath. We invite people to come to rest in Christ’s redemptive work. We pray that the Holy Spirit will make them new creations.
But we do not invite them to come to the front or pray the sinner’s pray, and then declare them to be God’s children, as if we are able to see the invisible regenerating work of the Spirit (John 3:8). Horton writes in “When Your ‘Testimony is Boring”:
from our Lord’s invitations in the Gospels, to the urgent appeals of the apostles, the call is not to conversion, but to Christ. The challenge is not to do something, but to believe something. Christ’s appeal is not, “Convert yourself and you shall be saved,” or “Whoever makes a decision and makes Me Lord and Savior will be born again.” Rather, we read, “Repent and believe” (Lk.13:3). Peter charges people to “Repent and be baptized … The promise is for you and your children….” (Acts 2:38-39).
In contrast to these apostolic preaching, all modern testimonies end in these kinds of “altar calls,” which are nowhere to be found in the Bible.
10. Testimonies are out of touch with reality.
Lastly, testimonies are almost always happy-ever-after stories. This is in line with the happy-clappy and entertainment-filled “contemporary, seeker-sensitive” worship today. Why offend people with the gospel of Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross, a call to mourn and confess their sin, to make their priorities heavenward not earthward, and to cease from neglecting the Lord’s Day in favor of sports? All we hear in the church is the false gospel of health and wealth and happiness: “God is good all the time”; “God wants you to have an abundant life”; and “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Horton again in “Beyond Culture Wars” (MR 2/3 May/June 1993):
Aren’t our testimonies designed to show people how God made me happy, how he satisfied me, how he worked for me? … Don’t we tell people that once they become Christians they too will experience the abundant life? … [C]hurches don’t center anymore on the old rugged cross, where God saved us from himself by putting his own son in our place to bear the wrath justly meant for us. No, that would make us unhappy, to talk about wrath and hell. More often church services center on us as if our happiness was the goal of the universe.
Carl Trueman, in “Tragic Worship,” comments about evangelicals’ obsession with entertainment and triumphalism, and their aversion to the sad and tragic:
Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.
We don’t hear much about the Christian calling to “take up your cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24), and “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). All we hear are testimonies about what life is after Christian conversion: a bed of roses. Nothing can be farther than the truth than this false gospel of prosperity.