Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Testimonial Evangelicalism

St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna
St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna

In my previous post, O Theophilus…..

Please forgive my “borrowing” from the Apostle Luke from the beginning of Acts. I’ve done so because I’m trying to figure out the nature of testimony.

Long before we studied Biblical Theology to figure out the systematic meanings of doctrines, the writings of the new testament were actually written from real people to other real people. When we say, “I just want to follow the Bible“, we need to remember that we’re following things particular people wrote as expression of what they had seen and believed.

I am not taking anything away from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when it comes to scripture. But the scriptures we hold so dear are full of reminders of personal relationship. While we don’t know all of the details of the house churches in Corinth or Rome, it’s safe to assume that Paul had particular people in mind as he wrote letters to those churches. When the letters were read in the church, the hearers would be remembering their prior conversations with Paul. His instruction carried weight because they knew him and his character.

This is where what I’m calling Testimonial Evangelicalism begins. At its heart we find basic communication between two human beings. The one sharing puts a priority on being understood by the one listening. That’s all. As Parker Palmer put it, “No fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight”. It is simply about the sharing of one’s experience with another.

This is different from actual testimony services I heard in church when I was younger. I don’t want to be unkind to those well-meaning souls who stood up and shared their struggles, but it often seemed to be an early form of performance art designed to elicit a duly sympathetic response — We’ll pray for you; hang in there and trust Jesus. Those collective settings stopped short of actual engagement between individuals.

Back to Palmer’s quote: the interaction between individuals in testimonial evangelicalism is not utilitarian. In other words, it’s not designed to bring about a designated end-product. Too much of evangelistic crusades involved orchestration to bring the end goal of coming forward. Too much of apologetics is designed to bring about the end goal of the listener acquiescing to the speaker’s argument. Too much of relationship evangelism was about being nice to neighbors so that you could bring them to church and then Jesus. (I always worried that the neighbors would come on some contest Sunday and they’d think they were there so I would win accolades.)

I just finished the chapter in Molly Worthen’s book where the pentecostal movement “catches fire” (sorry, it was too easy) in American culture. The pentecostals, and to a lesser extent the holiness movement and the anabaptists, presented a challenge to the neo-evangelical structures that existed. The challenge comes because they aren’t looking to provide answers — they are sharing experience.

The Wesleyan in me wants that experience to be mediated by the rest of the “quadrilateral”. It must be tested against scripture. It must be seen in light of church tradition. And it must stand up to some measure of rationality. We don’t just have experiences — we use them to construct larger understandings.

This is important because those larger understandings are malleable. It’s not that we lack commitment. It’s that we build what Peter Berger calls plausibility structures: scaffolding which make sense of the experience. In his classic Invitation to Sociology, he has this remarkable passage about alternation:

The intellectual situation just described brings with it the possibility that an individual may alternate back and forth between logically contradictory meaning systems. Each time, the meaning system he enters provides him with an interpretation of his existence and of his world, including in this interpretation an explanation of the meaning system he has abandoned.

This is far different from the ideological certainty of Industry Evangelicalism. The point here is to tell of the experience is such a way as to best connect with the experience of the hearer. One cannot afford to presume to know their meaning system and seek ways to combat it.

Let me push a bit deeper. Proof-texting play no role in the kind of evangelicalism I’m imagining because there is no way to know a) if the hearer is biblically literate (or the speaker, but that’s another post) b) if their interpretation of the quoted passage matches the speaker’s, or c) if they prefer an altogether different passage that doesn’t align with the speaker’s view.

What then is the speaker to do? Perhaps it’s enough to explain why that particular passage is meaningful. Not that it’s right or the answer to all questions. But that it’s been borne out in the life of the speaker in authentic ways that the hearer can relate to, at least in part.

This is where the millennial focus on authenticity come in, even in the honest sharing of doubt. The conversation becomes about how each person makes sense of things. More correctly, this is an honest conversation that doesn’t always make sense. Things get left undone. All the pieces don’t come together all at once and maybe not at all.

But maybe fitting the pieces together isn’t the point. Maybe it’s enough to share the attempt. I mentioned earlier that I found it helpful to imagine the church in Rome hearing Paul’s letter read. When he gets to the point in chapter 7 where he says that he does not do the good he wants but finds himself doing bad, do they nod in understanding? Do they say, “oh yeah, like that time when…“?

I’m reminded of a book Bethel University professor Daniel Taylor wrote called The Myth of Certainty. It was used in a number of classes in schools where I’ve been. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it. But I did read his Tell Me A Story. In the latter work, he examines how our lives unfold in narrative and what it means for us to act as characters in each other’s plots. I think that Certainty gets in the way of Story because it denies the possibility that there are perspectives I haven’t considered or experiences I can’t possibly imagine.

The most powerful pieces we read on the internet are not systematic explications of how this and such worked together. They are painful moments of real life: the miscarriage experienced by a young couple, the struggle another couple had with infertility, the sometimes crippling nature of depression, the happy couple in their first apartment, the birth of a grandchild, the completion of a doctorate.

And in the midst of all that is faith. Not a blind faith that says that “God has a plan” but one that says that God is present in the struggle and the joy and the accomplishment. Testimony of that sort can change the world.

Testimonial Evangelicalism is trying to Bear Witness.

It denies power because it’s not trying to prove anything. It doesn’t need celebrity because celebrity calls forth emotional distance in place of authenticity. And it can deal with the complexities and vagaries of life because it can leave closure to the work of the Holy Spirit, just like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

In my next post, I’ll try to unpack what Testimony looks like in real life when set alongside Industry Evangelicalism.

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