You may have occasion to attend an evangelical service which includes testimony.  These will be dramatic, personal stories designed to win converts via an altar-call: ‘Come forward if you want to be saved!’

The problem with conversion stories is that they might not always be 100% accurate.  Some church members regularly tell their journey of conversion.  After a time, they embellish.  What were interesting, true human-interest stories become incredible, shock-and-awe ‘testimonies’ which move further away from fact with each recitation.

R Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, and who writes Heidelblog, explores this subject in light of the recent revelations about Ergun Caner, former Dean of Seminary at Liberty University.  Dr Clark was not always a member of the United Reformed Church but grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention. He was accustomed to testimonies. He describes the problem with this type of activity:

I don’t remember what I said the first time I gave my “testimony” in church. I do remember, however, the intoxicating feeling I had from being in front of 300 people eager to hear a good story. I remember the approval I received from the pastors and from others. It was a powerful inducement to make smaller details larger than they really were

Later, as a young pastor in a Reformed church, he participated in an Evangelism Explosion (EE) programme.  The problem of enhancing his testimony arose:

I embellished the story because the genre and program demanded it. If I didn’t have a story I couldn’t do the program and if I couldn’t do the program then I couldn’t do evangelism, at least not successfully. The tragedy of the entire Finneyite  aisle-walking, sinner’s prayer-praying model is that it’s about the wrong story completely.

So, you see the problem with personal testimony.  And this includes many ‘Christian’ books written in the first-person.  Although reading and understanding Scripture should more than suffice, many people say, ‘I read these books to enhance my faith’. However, as Dr Clark and his readers point out, these stories become about the authors themselves, not God and His infinite grace. 

Our full, uncompromising faith really is the conversion testimony.  Dr Clark explains:

That’s the only story we really have to tell. What we did or didn’t do before we came to faith, if we can even remember such a time, is inconsequential. Praise God many covenant children never remember when they did not believe. They feel no need to embellish their personal stories because they don’t live in an ecclesiastical culture where that sort of narrative is highly valued. Here is a concrete, practical difference between Reformed piety and conversionist, revivalist piety. The focus of Reformed piety is on the gospel and the gospel tells me that what matters most of all is not what has happened in me but what happened for me, outside of me, in salvation history. What matters most is that I believe it now.

Dr Clark’s readers concur.  Some of them were also told to embellish their testimonies in an evangelical setting because it was for the good of their church: more converts, more growth, more money.  Yet, as they now realise, their stories were all about them.

It’s well worth reading the post and the many comments in full.  There are cautionary tales among them.  Some converts committed greater sins to tell better stories.  Some told better stories every time and then moved backward into a truly dissolute life.  Even the lad pictured above, Marjoe Gortner, had a crisis of conscience in adulthood about his own embellished testimony.