The abuse of sharing “my testimony”

Christians love to share their testimonies, or life stories, or whatever you want to call it. These stories range in depth and scope depending on audience but they usually cover before you choose to believe and follow Christ and after, centering on Christ’s redemptive work in the middle. Christians share testimonies for a few reasons: to share their faith with a non-believer, to bolster the faith of another believer. What I have participated in most has been sharing testimonies for the purpose of getting “real”, being vulnerable with a small group I was participating in through choice (e.g. a Christian ministry) or compulsion (e.g. mandated by work or school). The intention is that, through showing who we all really are, we will better understand and love one another.

The intentions – increased love and understanding – are well and good. But the means? Is it really necessary to share my testimony in the way it is generally expected to accomplish these ends? Or do the ends even justify the means? Allow me to argue that small group testimony sharing as generally practiced is abusive.

It is abusive because the expectation is that you will give others some means to understand you better whether they merit this personal knowledge or not. That you all accept Jesus as Lord does not qualify you all to know each other personally. The idea is strange: we share the same presuppositions, we claim to have a mutual friend named Jesus, so we ought to spill all our beans to each other.

I am not arguing that privacy or secrets are somehow better than disclosure. The inability to let others into your life must surely be problematic for anyone desiring to thrive as a social being. Furthermore, there may be something powerful in confession, or at least discussing our inner thoughts with others, to help us reform our peccadilloes or idiosyncrasies. I am arguing that the information of who touched you when you were younger, or what makes your heart sing or why your father went to prison is information no one else has a right to, and thus small group testimony sharing operates on false and potentially destructive premises.

In small group settings there is a lot of pressure to perform, to be real, to expose your dirty laundry with all of its stains. The result is that many people feel pressured to say things they should not have to say or simply should not say or they end up spinning yarns that deceive others and conceal themselves. I love honesty. I love truth. But I’ll echo Bonhoeffer and say that truth belongs to those who deserve it.

I like Duke’s small groups and I like the idea of creating a vulnerable, authentic community. But I think the idea of “testimony time” needs some re-thinking. What would you recommend?

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2 thoughts on “The abuse of sharing “my testimony”

  1. Pingback: Self-loathing, suicide, seminary | a Devil at Divinity school

  2. Jeff

    Devilatdivinityschool – I’ve been following your blog for a couple of months now, and often resonate with the questions that you raise. I always look forward to reading your updates because they challenge and refine my own beliefs. However, the point that you’ve made in this particular post is one with which I profoundly disagree.

    I’ve never been involved with a “testimony-time” at Duke, so I can’t address your specific experience. I have, however, been involved with many years of small groups with Christians where sharing one’s testimony is common practice. I think that any gathering of people who share deeply personal experiences with one another would naturally create an environment where an outsider might feel a social pressure to also share something (or even contrive) personal. This is an effect of social dynamics, and I struggle to see how this is an abusive practice. At best, it offers people an opportunity to bring to light a personal experience in an ideally safe and uplifting environment. It’s therapeutic for the sharer and offers encouragement and understanding of the person to those who listened. At worst, it’s uncomfortable for everyone there because someone felt pressured into sharing something that they didn’t want to share. In all my years of participating in and leading small groups, I have always felt that sharing personal stories facilitated deeper and more meaningful relationships. If someone did not feel comfortable sharing something, the group always accommodated. I’m not trying to assume or suggest that your “testimony-time” at Duke is not unhealthy or uncomfortable. I’m simply saying that it’s not abusive.

    One more anecdote: my younger sister used to do musical theater, and it was common practice at the start of the season for the directors to turn off all of the lights and give the students an opportunity to share wounds of their past. No one was forced to share, but as more and more people would share deep wounds, the more people felt at ease to open up about their own story. The interesting thing about this story is that my sister, who at the time was a regular church-goer and small group attendee, felt pressured to contrive something because EVERYONE else was sharing something really deep and crying. She realized that most people (non church-goers) do not have a regular small group outlet to share their personal problems and naturally bottle up the issues when they really should be opening up about them. Our western culture, being rights-based and individualistically focused, does not provide a regular outlet for group therapy. The church small group model provides a uniquely safe and healthy platform for people to share deeply personal experiences with the help and emphasis of deeper community.

    Reply

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