An Odd Christian Genre?:
in practice, the giving of testimonies is rather odd. First of all, people often add strange emotional responses into their delivery. More disturbing than that, however, is the pre-determined narrative structure into which testimonies are supposed to fit. There are, in my experience, only two narrative forms that are permissible—and really they turn out to be the same. The first is the “I was born into a Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age, but it didn’t really make a big difference into my life until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” The second is the “I was born into a non-Christian family and lived like the devil until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” You see? So the first really big problem, in my observation, is the assumption that everyone’s life ought to fit into one of these two almost identical story-patterns. And what’s worse, this assumption is built upon certain theological beliefs that (I think) are unexamined and probably wouldn’t hold up to severe doctrinal critique or exegesis.
I once participated in an evangelism training programme, Evangelism Explosion. One of the first things that new trainees were required to do was to write out a testimony, and read it out to the training group. And most of these testimonies did in fact fall into one of the two categories that Iambic Admonit describes: the "Christian upbrining" model or the "reformed gangster" model.
And when trainees went out to evangelise (two trainees with an experienced trainer) then at the beginning the only thing the trainees would be expected to do would be to give their testimony.
Since the Evangelism Explosion training programme was developed by a Presbyterian minister, D. James Kennedy, I assume that its basic presuppositions were Calvinist, but that also seemed a bit odd -- if Calvinists believed that people were predestined to be saved or damned, a testimony seemed to be redundant.
I felt a bit awkward about this requirement. I could see the point of it in the training. If you are trying to commend the Christian faith to others, then you need to be able to articulate why it is real to you, and many people, faced with the need to do that, don't know where to begin. Hence the training, awkward as it may seem to begin with, is intended to help people become confident in speaking about their faith.
Yet in my experience the best testimonies have been spontaneous and unrehearsed, called forth by circumstances. There's an Afrikaans saying, "wat die hart van vol is, loop die mond van oor" -- what fills the heart flows out of the mouth.
What seems most odd to me about the genre is the expectation, in some Christian circles, that people can be put on the spot and asked to give a testimony in front of a bunch of fellow Christians. For some, indeed it is a fixed part of the ritual. It is that, rather than the genre itself, that strikes me as odd. I'm glad to say it is not part of Orthodox ritual.
But I found Iambic Admonit's thoughts on the matter interesting.