Information or Conversion (part two): Personal Witness
Testimonies As Change-Oriented Talks
In the previous post I talked about a retreat where the enthusiasm of the students pushed me to go deeper with them in my talks. My response was one of two options: either I switch to a more information-dense presentation, or I push them further in conversion. Going with option two, you have to start with testimony, especially your own.
Introduction to Witness: Story Time
There are few things as powerful as a testimony in evangelization. Proclaiming your witness with all of the up's and down's that life has thrown at you, and drawing out those connections to Christ and how He has moved in your life personally has its own gravity. It pulls people in without being preachy or pushy.
Moreover, testimonies are narratives, and everyone loves a good story. People remember stories far more than they do talking points, quotes, jokes, or footnotes. The morals and dangers stand out like billboards. The lessons are felt because they are real. Teachings come alive. Plato used dialogues. Jesus used parables. People love a good story.
But you aren't reading this because you love a good story. You are reading this because you talk to people about Christ. People need to see the Gospel living and active. People also need to get to know you (the importance of relational ministry!). What better way than to tell them the story of your life in Christ? The witness talk makes the Gospel message accessible to pretty much anyone.
Gomer's (hardly original) First Rule of Change Making: If you want to change other people, first be the change. Then, tell them how you changed. Finally, encourage them to change.
Stories are dramatic, that is, they reveal conflict. The most boring stories are those without believable conflict. In a testimony the conflict is Man Versus Himself, struggling against doubt, despair, presumption and weakness. Redemption and conversion occur only as a result of God's rescue. It is His movement in our lives that changes us.
A good testimony communicates this, showing how his/her conversion is entirely Christ's. And as the narrative ends the hearer realizes the story is not finished, because the speaker is not finished living. It is only the beginning of a new life, and the drama continues.
Mentors, Models, and Misfits
The personal witness talk allows the hearer to see the Gospel writ large in human life. They see and hear how a concept, like forgiveness, is really lived out in one's daily life.
Testimony as Mentoring
The testimony is a form of mentoring. You are holding up a real world example and saying, "This isn't perfect, but see how Christ has changed me. Come experience what I have known." Mentors are survivors. They went through it all and came out alive on the other side. They teach us how, giving us a share in their experience.
Testimony as Modeling
Furthermore, testimonies model the type of behavior that needs to be conveyed to the audience. Modeling is important to the learning process, like an instructor swinging a bat or playing guitar for the amatuer. They learn by seeing it done right. Modeling also makes it easier to apply a lesson to their own lives. They hear about how a person really walked away from broken relationships or a life of drug abuse. Real change is not only possible, but it really happened in someone's life.
The beauty of the testimony is the misfit saint. He's been through a lot, and is still a work in progress, but look at what Christ has accomplished so far! Hearers who are far from God or lukewarm in their faith, find the misfit saint creates a "come as you are" atmosphere. No one is pushed away. God's mercy is offered for everyone, and the speaker proves it. God embraces our misfit lives. No one on this side of Heaven is perfect. St. Francis de Sales tells us that we are not perfect because we have no faults, but rather, "our very perfection lies in diligently contending against them". Thus, all are welcome here with Christ.
Testimonies are an important way to communicate the Gospel to your hearers by giving them lived examples: a mentor for the newbie, a model for the amateur, and some comfort for the broken.
That is, if they are good.
In my next post I'm going to tell you about how not to give a testimony. Just remember that if you want to bring about change in people's lives, like during a Confirmation retreat, make the testimony a priority in your presentations. Show them the change that is possible, that it is real, and then catechize them to that end.