Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Question of Testimony

I grew up in the church. Went to youth group, went to camp, went to youth rallies. Then went to Christian schools, went to a lot of chapels. Then went into youth ministry, where I took a lot of youth to all those camps and all those youth rallies.

Many of those events featured a "testimony." A youngish woman or man (come to think about it, 9 out of 10 times it was a man) would get up and share the story of how they came to faith in Christ Jesus.

Inevitably, the story went like this:

Said person grew up in a (good/bad) home, and (in spite of/because of) that they entered into a time of rebellion. Sex, drugs, alcohol, partying, hot women, wild and crazy nights. . .that all gave way to feelings of loneliness and desperation. At some point, they were confronted with the claims of Jesus, they turned their life over to God, things were straightened out, and now they are living faithful lives telling others to live for Jesus. If you hear an echo of the Prodigal Son story, that was usually pretty intentional.

Over time, I began to realize there was a subtle, unintended subtext going on below that message; namely, this: go ahead and party now, have lots of sex, drink and do drugs for now, and then when you're 25 you can turn back to Jesus and he'll make everything better.

Here's the problem. That original testimony works if it's being told to people who are down there at the bottom, people who are desperate, in the mud with the pigs, looking for a way out. But when you're telling the same story to a bunch of relatively good teenagers/college students who are facing all sorts of peer pressure to jump into the partying/drug/casual sex scene, you've essentially told them: Look - here's somebody who chose not to seek righteousness, and in the end it turned out okay for them! Following their example, you get all the fun of the sin, and redemption if things turn out less-than-stellar.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that was the intent of the testimony-teller. And I'm sure the testimony-teller would say they regret all the bad choices they made, the memories and scars they live with, that going down those roads just wasn't worth it.

But that's not the story most often told. Instead, it's "I got to do all the sins, and God made everything ok!"

Never, in all those years, did I hear even one testimony that went "I got married last year, and I was still a virgin on our wedding night." Never did I hear "I chose to stay home when my friends went out and got drunk, I sacrificed any hope at being cool because I didn't sleep around, I didn't go out to the keggers. I've never been drunk, never done drugs. . .it wasn't easy, and it took the help of a lot of people around me, but I have spent my whole life pursuing right living, and I can say to you, it's been worth it!"

Let me ask: which do teens who are struggling to make right choices need to hear more: a whole litany of people who chose wrongly, who behaved immorally, messed up and then received forgiveness, or the stories of people who actually did survive their teenage years and young adulthood, who chose not to sleep around, who made it to their wedding night with their virginity intact (and didn't die along the way), who avoided the pitfalls of excessive drinking, and of drug use?

Okay, it's a false question. They need both. The church needs both. I get that. And I get the push back - if we focus on getting it right, that can lead to empty legalism. If we always hear of the people who are "good," that can be shameful to those who have chosen the way of rebellion and sin. The focus is on God's grace, not our own righteousness. I get that.

But I would say we've gone too far. We've sold out to the sensationalism of the "powerful story of God's grace to reform the worst of sinners," and we've done our youth a huge disservice along the way by silencing the voices that would say "you know what? You can actually do this. You can say no to sex. You can say no to drugs. You can choose to not cheat on those tests. You can be a "good" kid, and have a lot of fun along the way. Look - look at all these people who did live their lives seeking holiness, accountability, righteousness. Listen to the saints saying "we chose obedience, and it's been the best choice we could have made."


rebecca said...

I know a few people who could share that testimony, but they generally feel that their story isn't exciting enough. Maybe your article will encourage them. They have suffered degrading comments from their peers so maybe that also holds them back.

Anonymous said...

It's a funny thing to read this. I grew up in a happy home, didn't get into trouble, no drinking, no drugs or wild parties. I was never worried about being "cool" or whatever. I found faith fairly young in life. And when I am asked for my story, I find myself almost embarrassed to say that I don't have that kind of story about turning my life around, instead I led a pretty boring, yet contented life. I had a great group of friends growing up that did not have the expectation of living wildly. And I have to say, we all turned out ok. Most have gone on to have good families of their own. I have a wonderful husband and a career I enjoy and a great extended family in Lakebay Community Church now.

You have made me rethink how I see it all, and I can just be happy I didn't have to suffer first.(Tammy)