Three-Minute Testimony

Three-Minute Testimony: The short, polished story of one’s conversion to Christianity. These are to be rehearsed, memorized and ready to pull out on a moments noticed, whether on a missions trip or simply over lunch with a friend who is seeking.

Three weeks before the big missions trip, and we were all sitting around the room, writing our testimonies on 3×5 index cards.

There was a certain formula to the whole thing, an order. Before I got saved…How I found Jesus…My life now…, and the outline was tripping us up who prayed The Prayer before we stepped foot in a kindergarten classroom. Us who took our first steps on the Straight-and-Narrow.

Mostly, my life had taken place in the fuzzy glow of after Christ. Ice cream in the church basement, memory verses, torn youth group couches. I’d been walking down the halls of my high school feeling a certain sense of otherness, and I wasn’t sure how to put it into words.

I remember summing it like this: “Jesus is my best friend now, so I don’t have to ever be lonely again.” The words looked good in my loopy cursive on that note card. They sounded like they should be true, so I kept them.

But then, if you can tell it like that, in three minutes, tell it like an infomercial, a sound-byte, Before-and-Happy-Ever-After, then it’s not really the whole story, is it?

Grace, I have come to believe, is the thing that you think you know until you smack into it unexpectedly.

You find yourself, for example, sprawled, puking, over the toilet of some dirty bathroom at some sketchy bar. You find yourself small and tired, and the failure tastes awful and metallic in your mouth.

That’s when it comes whooshing up behind you, great and mysterious, bigger than you ever imagined.

I’m not saying you have to kamikaze off that cross-shaped bridge in order to understand God. It doesn’t have to smell like tequila or even look like rebellion.

What I’m saying is that I thought that faith was something that could be summed up. That grace could be defined. That you could explain the whole thing in a tidy three minutes.

I’m saying that for those who are born in the Christian subculture, there is a pull to cloister ourselves. Logic and Focus on the Family would both tell you to play far away from the dangerous precipice of the endless dark.

But grace is one of those things that you don’t know until you know. You have to get close to your own brokenness, see how easy it would be to push that Self Destruct button,  feel the razor-sharp edge of your pain against your wrists.

You have to look at the darkness to comprehend the Light.

Grace is not an after, it is a during, an ever-present, a hand soft and firm on your back as you cry in a bathroom stall.

It’s not a miracle cream for the sin-rashed soul, not an ointment that makes everything easier. It is wild and big and it makes you question everything. It is an ocean, ever-shifting, but somehow constant. You spend your life learning how to swim in it.

How can you describe it in three minutes, three hours, three months, three decades? Your story comes in pieces, reveals itself over a lifetime.

One shored seashell washes up, bleached and broken, and it is just a piece of the whole big thing: imperfect and convoluted. Waterlogged and beautiful.

  • http://sharmeetsworld.blogspot.com Shar

    I read something great recently, right along the lines of what you’re saying, and I cannot remember who on earth wrote it–but the question was “Why do we always start our testimonies at The Prayer or The Moment, especially if those things were thirty or forty years ago?” Not that The Moment isn’t important, but it’s like describing married life by talking about the wedding day.

    A little old lady from church recently wrote a letter to inform me that no one is interested in hearing my long stories–they just want to know how to pray for me. Ouch. As if the two could be disconnected! I’m still trying to find a kind way to write her back, to acknowledge that yes, I probably take too long to tell a story–but while I believe in editing stories, I’m not sure I believe in making them “efficient” enough. Efficiency is for business deals, fast food restaurants, and lots of things that aren’t stories. The best testimonies I’ve heard take their time being told.

    • Addie Zierman

      I’m so sorry you got Church-Ladied Shar. I’m absolutely positive that it’s not the length of your stories but the divergence from “the formula” that’s making it feel wrong. Of course people are interested in your stories! Story is what unites and connects us! I love what you said about efficiency and how that’s not a word for faith or testimony but for business deals. Spot on.

  • http://www.dialogueventure.com John Backman

    Brilliant. Thank you, Addie. That’s a meditation on grace that just couldn’t be said any other way.

    • Addie Zierman

      Kind words, John. Thank you.

  • http://mostlyquestions.wordpress.com Bernard Shuford

    As usual, you’re just totally inside my head, writing the stuff that I have no idea of how to put to words. It’s clear that I don’t even need to have a blog, because you are so clearly my total ghostwriter.

    I don’t mean that in any weird, inappropriate way – it’s just that church, Christianity, religion, salvation, and LIFE are such a monstrous puzzle for me, and somehow, insanely accurately, you manage to put words to things that I don’t even really consciously think on my own. Time and time again, I think – “How does she have the SAME thoughts I do even though I don’t really know I have them?”

    • Addie Zierman

      Alright. I confess. I planted your spiritual thoughts, Inception-style. ;-)

      Honestly, though, thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the externals with writing (publishers and editors and whether or not my book will ever find a home.) But THIS, this is why I actually do it. To connect with others who are sorting out the faith puzzle, same as I am, and to hopefully bring something helpful and encouraging and true to the conversation. So again…thanks so much for the comments and the encouragement.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jen

    The best lesson on grace I ever learned was from my father, the pastor, struggling with his own personal failures, not from my father the pastor standing in the pulpit waving his finger and raising his eyebrows. After a painful experience, after recovering from that painful experience, my father, the human, said, “I didn’t know what grace was until I really needed it.”

    Kicker is, he didn’t find it, necessarily in The Church. He found it in the people. And in his Father.

    We who have never been poor, who have never lived under bridges, who have never known a life apart from Christ, whether steeped in it or simply walking through it, have trouble understanding the vast narrative of grace.

    • Addie Zierman

      This was my experience too, Jen. I found that the Sunday-morning congregation crowd did not know what to do with my darkness and pain; it was a few scattered people — both Christian and not-so-much — who spoke grace into my life. I don’t know if there’s a way for a large group of people (like at a church) to emit that grace-light in a true way. I hope so. But I don’t know.

      Yes, grace is a vast narrative. Love, love, love how you said that.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    You’ve really captured how many of us have changed our testimonies. I believe, I have faith, I follow, I pray, I meditate, I seek Jesus all because I know him. He’s a part of my life. I meet with him. It’s not about purpose, meaning, peace, or anything else we can quantify. It’s about knowing him and being known, worshiping him and finding life.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks Ed. Love all of your present tense verbs. For me, that childhood prayer has become almost parenthetical to the story. Yes, it happened and it’s important, but it’s not the climax of the story. It’s more like a preface. An introduction.

  • http://ecclesiaextraneus.wordpress.com Matt

    Even though I didn’t grow up in church, after I started going I still went to my fair share of “training classes” for how to write these testimonies. I always found it odd that they spend so much time training you how to remove those evil “churchy” words that non-Christians might not understand. And then, of course, not bat an eye when you used them all the time in church. I think all these trainings did was to make me more afraid to talk with anyone about spiritual matters. I might mess up after all! Funny thing is – pretty much the one post that I have written on my current blog is all about those trainings – “Jesus Is Going To Chop My Head Off Like Brave Heart?” Which was an actual response someone gave me to my nice, polished three-minute testimony. But you can read about that there if you want. I realize none of this is the point of this post, just a random side thought. But I do agree how hard it is to summarize our testimony. Which is probably why I always had a hard time fitting in at evangelism classes :)

    • Addie Zierman

      I’ll have to go read your post, Matt. It sounds excellent.

      I think you hit on something important here: “I think all these trainings did was to make me more afraid to talk with anyone about spiritual matters.” I felt that too: like there was a certain way to do it, and I was going to get it wrong and screw up someone’s eternity. There’s something so inorganic about this, so contrived. I hate that.

      • http://exfake.com Bernard Shuford

        “Screwing up somebody’s eternity” is STILL a fear of mine. I’m terrified that my doubting of the certainty and ease of obtaining atonement will destroy their desire to find grace completely. In other words, I often have such question about whether I even believe these things that I sure feel stupid trying to convince someone else.

        • Addie Zierman

          I was just checking through my email and realized I never responded to this. I think that one of the things that these tactics sort of breed is this insecurity. When really, I think God knows that faith and doubt go hand-in-hand. Why else would he have told us that all we need is the faith of a mustard seed?

          The truth is, it’s on God, not on us. We give what we have to each other, the most honest version we know how to give, and we pray, and in the end, it’s up to him.

  • http://everydayawe.com Stephanie Spencer

    As always, love it Addie. It is so complicated- figuring out how we can share our stories effectively when God gives us the opportunity, but not over-summarize and simplify to the point of misrepresentation. I think about this with blogging, too. Sometimes the stories I want to share are more than 700 words.

    “How can you describe it in three minutes, three hours, three months, three decades? Your story comes in pieces, reveals itself over a lifetime.” That is quite a question. And answer.

    • Addie Zierman

      I agree, Stephanie, about the blog stuff too. The nice thing about blogs though is that you can keep going back and telling more pieces of the story, and eventually they all add up to something like the true story. With that three-minute testimony delivered to the group of unsuspecting villagers in the Dominican Republic, not so much…but that’s another story for another time. ;-)

  • http://hoxeyville.blogspot.com/ Eric Snider

    My confidence in and devotion to God was never deep and meaningful until I realized “I am like this, God knows it, and God still loves me? That is nuts!”

    • Addie Zierman

      Yes, Eric. I agree.

  • http://www.zenichka.com Zee

    Wow, I read this post and wondered “Ooh, I know what it feels like.”

    In the past, I always stumbled through my testimony – especially when I had to share it after someone with a “dramatic” one – people who were drug addicts, alcoholics, with terrible backgrounds… And here I come, with my “Well, I grew up in the Church and my mom is a pastor…” speech.

    However, lately, I’ve been thinking that sometimes we focus too much on how God changed the past instead of focusing on how God continues to change our lives now that we’re with Him. And I love your phrase – Grace is not an after, it is a during. So true.

    • Addie Zierman

      Yes, I’ve felt that pressure too…like because of how it started my story is not interesting enough or true enough. I agree 100% with you: it’s so much less about the past than about what’s happening now. I think that’s what people want to hear about, not some moment 25 years ago that you barely remember.

  • http://www.kellenfreeman.net Kellen Freeman

    Excellent post. I don’t know if I can point to a time when I “converted” to Christianity. But I do know the exact moment that I doubted God. The fact that I still believe in God today is proof that God walks along with us when we’re at the edge.

    • Addie Zierman

      Yes, that’s how I feel too, Kellen.

  • http://www.theactsproject.wordpress.com Angie

    Holy whiplash. (I think my head is still swiveling). Still digesting and already, I’m yearning, yet again, to forget all my words and be still in His grace. Your prose spreads pretty & powerful towards that end.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thank you, Angie! So happy to have found you! Love this: “to forget all my words and be still in His grace.”

  • http://sweetpeasandbuddies.com Gianna

    Wow!
    You know in your whole explaining how you can’t define grace, you totally drew a picture of it. And sometimes that all we can do. Paint that picture. Not explaining. Painting!

    Thanks!

    • Addie Zierman

      Thank you, Gianna. That feels like a great compliment!

  • http://oneironwaiting.blogspot.com/ themooninautumn

    “I’m not saying you have to kamikaze off that cross-shaped bridge in order to understand God. It doesn’t have to smell like tequila or even look like rebellion.”

    I love that you mentioned this, and I love how you said it. You don’t have to go off in open rebellion to live a life of depravity. You don’t have to be a “bad girl” to understand the depths of the darkness within your own heart. I think you probably just have to look. (That’s sure how it worked for me.) Grace can be that huge, mysterious rock solid thing you bruise yourself running into when you are tottering around feeling lost in your own finitude as a professional good kid learning how to really think in college.

    “You have to get close to your own brokenness, see how easy it would be to push that Self Destruct button. . . ”

    Grace is wherever you are, no matter how far down or how high up you are. “All you gotta’ do is turn around” as the song says. You may not recognize it right away, but it’s there.

    Also loved “They sounded like they should be true, so I kept them.” A big trap for writers sometimes even now, especially writers who deal in ought and not just is.

    • Addie Zierman

      Great thoughts. Thank you for sharing and fleshing this out a little more!

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