If you’ve spent any amount of time in Evangelical spaces, you know what it means when someone “shares their testimony”. It’s a phrase used to invite someone to spill their guts, their history (and very likely their personal traumas) and tell the story of how they “met” Jesus. It’s something we do in youth group, at baptism, altar calls, and membership services.
I’ve shared my testimony dozens of times. I have several different versions of my “how I came to Jesus” story saved on my computer, each written to highlight a different aspect, depending on the crowd I’m sharing with. What’s interesting, though, is that they all share one common thread.
See, in all the many times I’ve shared my testimony, I have said that well known line that we all use to start out our testimonies: “I was raised in a _______ family”. Maybe you’ve got a testimony typed up somewhere too from youth group days gone by that starts out “I was raised in a Christian family”, but mine always read “I was raised in a nonChristianfamily” — and I’ve only realized that all this time, that was a lie.
Maybe from an outsiders perspective looking in, I was raised in a “non”Christian home. I’ve known about Jesus for my whole life. I don’t have a lot of memories from that age, but I know that I went to church as a child, and that both my parents were taught about Jesus before they passed on those teachings to me. I know it was my mother’s faith in God that ultimately saved her from a violently abusive marriage — that it was also the thing that kept her in that abusive marriage. I know that my father’s faith that allowed him to hide among leaders of the church, even as a pathologically abusive husband and father. And long before I “came to Jesus” at 16, my own faith took the form of a guilt that wracked my heart each night as a young child.
So how could I say that I grew up in a nonChristian home, and that I didn’t come to faith until my adolescence? Why did I — dozens of times — share a testimony of being raised as a NON believer in a NON Christian home, experiencing trauma, and abuse, and addiction
I came to Jesus
And all that was washed away and I was white as snow.
Why was that the narrative I believed, digested, and reiterated when asked, “What is your testimony of having come to a saving faith in Jesus?”
Much of what we have accepted as the Gospel, or Good News, in Evangelical Protestant circles is really a message of consumer based Western ideals, sometimes known as the Evangelical Industrial Faith Complex. We have been sold a product, and a pretty faulty one at that. Here’s how this consumeristic faith works:
Insert your messy human heart with all it’s trauma and mistakes and questions (and a tithe!) into the church, and out of the conveyor belt of the shiny, middle class Christendom that is Western Evangelicalism will come a Clean, White, Shiny, and Certain faith.
You will be made new. You will be saved. You will be perfect.
And so we hear, again and again, testimony after testimony, stories of people who used to be drunkards, who used to watch porn, who used to gamble, who used to lie, who used to fornicate, who used to have depression, who used to used to used to. And then they met Jesus. And now they don’t! They don’t do those things, and they certainly don’t need to talk about them, for “it is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret” (Ephesians 5:12).
They are a new creation. They are healed. The old is passed and the new has come. And the new is better, cleaner, and more productive than the old. The new man is the man that Christ died for, and the old man has been crucified with Christ. Right?
It was a year ago that I shared for the first time about the spiritual abuse that I experienced at a large church in Manitoba. For the most part, I received a deluge of support from those still at the church, from those who have been badly injured by the church and walked away, and from those who have nothing to do with any church. I was shocked and honestly transformed by the way in which so many of you held my story with tenderness, and reached out to me with compassion and kindness. I was also shocked to be contacted by the leaders of the church who wanted to address my story, too. And even those who were critical of my story, still were able to acknowledge to some degree that the situation and how it was handled was faulty, and injured others, too.
It’s been a year of letting that story and the damage that it did to my soul and my faith, ooze out of my every cell and leak from my eyes. I have found new ways to see myself and the Gospel which I received and believed at that church. And I have also realized that this is when I learnt to tell my story as:
“When I was a child, I was raised in a nonChristian home. So many bad things happened. And then at 16, I met Jesus. And then I was fixed! And you can be too.”
It was within the walls of the Evangelical church that I learnt the narrative of Jesus being a product that fixes families and binds up all the pain that we ought not speak of. It was within the Evangelical church that I learnt that our best witness to the outside world is to let them see how we have been transformed and how God has cured our humanness. It was within the Evangelical church that I learnt that a man can beat his wife on Sunday afternoon, after coming from a church where he is respected and upheld as a godly leader. It was within the Evangelical church that I learnt that his battered wife would be told to stay married to her husband, because “God hates divorce” — even when it meant her children would be taken from her by child services. It was within the Evangelical church that I learnt that “accountability” looked like someone saying “I’m sorry you were hurt” and not actually have to change or address the hurt they caused. It was within the Evangelical church that I learnt that my own trauma could be weaponized and used against me.
The old has passed away, and the new has come.
What does that all have to do with sharing our “testimonies”? And, if you’re a _________ (insert your spiritual, religious, or faith tradition here) and NOT a Christian (let’s all be done with the phrase “NonChristian”, shall we?), why does this all matter to you?
Because this belief is not just within the walls of the Evangelical church. It pervades our entire Western society, and it harms all those who have believed that life, healing, and salvation (whatever that word means to you) are linear, a “this means that” equation. Unfortunately, and for many reasons that we don’t have time to discuss here, the Evangelical church has latched on to this idea in more damaging and insidious ways than the culture has, and sadly it continues to do so.
And despite the belief that somehow exposing the damage the church and Christians have caused is anti-Jesus, or anti-church, the opposite is actually true: I love Jesus, and I love the Church. But the message that a faith in Jesus somehow means we don’t have to address, or live with, or talk about that damage (or any of our own pain) is false.
*As happy as I was to see leadership from So*thland respond to the spiritually abusive legacy I exposed in part last year (and many others who have done so before me and continue to do so), there was little that was actually done. When it came to publicly or tangibly addressing the abuse, even something as simple as a statement or a sermon never happened. Why? My understanding is that those who feared revealing that kind of legacy, and what it would do to a “successful” church’s future, stopped any such action from happening. Because we care more about continuing to pump out our product than we do about restoring our past. Because we think honesty will reflect “badly” on Jesus, when in reality the church’s inability to be honest (historically) is what tarnishes the witness of Jesus. We don’t have to CANCEL church, or all the leaders who make mistakes, or minimize the power of the cross to ONE church continuing to thrive while they leave a wake of destruction in their path — but we need to be honest, and do the real work of the Gospel. Not the “sexy-we-just- need-better-branding-hashtageable-put-a-gift-shop-in-the-church” version of the gospel that makes us feel good but doesn’t address the impotency of that faith in our real lives. If the gospel you are proclaiming does not take time to kneel down and minister to the wounded, it’s not the gospel I read in my Bible.*
That is not the good news.
Here’s the truth: I did not become a Christian at 16. So why have I always said that? I knew Jesus many years before the summer I was 16, but what I did not know because no one was telling me, was that Jesus was in my mess. That my “mess” was not evidence for a nonChristian life. That my “mess”, and the “mess” that followed me well past 16 and still manifests in my life as a Christian, does not disqualify me from loving and knowing Jesus.
The faith I received and was galvanized in as a child, as a youth, and as a young adult was one that did not make room for the messiness of a human life. I did not hear the gospel that calls broken and messy people and loves them well, and stays with them when they are still broken and messy. I heard a gospel that took real and fractured people and stories, and reconstructed them to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It took the lives of broken humans — my father, my mother, myself — and put them on the conveyor belt of the Evangelical church, and if they did not come out shiny and productive and clean on the other side, it threw them out. That’s how I learnt that the faith I had as a child was not real, because it did not fix my life or prevent the trauma.
That gospel is what allows men like my father, like my former youth pastor, like Bill Hybels, like so many others to hold to a version of Jesus that needs them to hide their hearts’ darkness, while destroying lives “in the name of Jesus”. To expose their sin, their fear, their weaknesses would negate the gospel.
It’s that gospel that I witnessed as a child, seeing the real pain of my family pushed aside for the Good News of needing to appear a certain way — of course Jesus would think a battered and married woman is better for the image of the church than a divorced woman.
What about the faith that my father had, when he lied to his fellow leaders in church and said that he was not abusing his family? What about the faith that my mother’s pastor had when he told her to stay with her abusive husband, even though it meant leaving her children in foster care? What about the faith that my mother had when she prayed and asked if God would allow her to leave her marriage? What about the faith that I knew and desperately tried to cling to as a small child who felt afraid and ashamed every minute of every day, but never really knew over what? What about the faith I clung to when I was being spiritually abused and sexually exploited at the second largest church in Manitoba?
Was that real? Where do we put that faith, in our testimonies?
Beginning. Middle. End.
After the spiritual abuse that I experienced 10 years ago, I “recommitted” my life to Christ. That’s a theological wormhole we Evangelical Christians like to use to say when we’ve done something bad whilst saying we were Christians. By “recommitting”, we’re saying that before we did those bad things, we weren’t really Christians — we only thought we were. Now that we we’re done doing bad things and we’ve “recommitted”, we really are saved.
So I recommitted. I saw the pain I had experienced (and caused) as my own lack of faith, my lack of salvation. It couldn’t be a failure on Jesus’s part, because that would mean what I had bought into DIDN’T WORK, didn’t really change hearts. It had to mean that I had failed. So I told Jesus I was sorry and that I would really be faithful now.
And I meant it.
And then my testimony shifted. I whipped up another version. I went from saying the “I was raised in a nonChristian home, lots of bad things happened, but then I got saved at 16 after God fixed all my pain” to “I was raised in a nonChristian home, lots of bad things happened, I thought I got saved at 16, but then more bad things happened and at 22 God REALLY fixed all my pain and now I’m a saved”. It started to get harder and harder to fit my story into a “beginning, middle and end” that the Evangelical church taught me was a signpost for salvation. That’s the product. That’s how the conveyor belt works. Why could I not just get it together?
Because the conveyor belt doesn’t work. The Evangelical industrial faith complex is not the good news. The Jesus that makes your life shiny and easy and doesn’t require any hard work — any therapy, for goodness sake — is not the messiah of the Gospel.
We are supposed to come with our messiness, my friend. We are allowed to be in the Body, and to be broken. We are meant to be loved and known by God, all the whilst doing the work of healing, of grieving, of confronting, of exposing — of being a human.
It’s just so much easier, and neater, and more Instagrammable — not to mention it makes for much more profitable churches — when we offer a gospel that whitewashes (in every sense of the word) the human experience.
But it is not real. It is not Jesus. And it does not heal.
It only causes more pain.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my father would have received real help when his out of control anger began to negatively affect his relationships, instead of hearing an over spiritual “the devil made him do it” response from believers around him. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my mother would have been treated with dignity and respect and comfort, instead of being metaphorically hit over the head with a bible verse, when she spoke to her pastor about whether she should leave her abusive husband in order to get her children out of foster care. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I would’ve received compassion and recommendations for evidence based support for trauma healing and mental health from the church, instead of “inner-healing -Jesus-will-take-all-those-bad-memories” approach that ultimately did so much more harm than good.
And I even wonder, what would happen if potential perpetrators within the church would be faced with a gospel that challenged their tendencies to abuse power, that allowed for them to be honest about their weakness and fear and darkness, and actually offered real and lasting support and accountability, instead of offering positions of leadership to those most likely to abuse it, in order to keep that ol’ conveyer belt pumping.
This broken version of Jesus’s gospel negatively affects us all. It takes us out of the binary of victims and perpetrators (which are very necessary labels in some contexts, do not mishear me) and levels us all as individuals and systems that need the love of Jesus that does not run from our mess and also gives us ways to make sense of our mess.
I wonder sometimes what our churches would look like if we let people come, with their real lives and pain and humanity, and we did not eat them up and spit them out of our Evangelical Industrial Complex as either “cured” by Jesus, or so broken they no longer fit in anywhere in our theology or spaces.
And Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17