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A Message To Evangelical Christians

A Leap Into Faith

By Ellie H. Ashby, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

A spotlight illuminates part of the church’s stage as the hymn slowly fades. An individual emerges and places a sheet of paper on a music stand. They test the microphone.

“A few years ago…” they begin.

What follows is a “personal testimony,” a staple in the Christian faith, especially in evangelicalism.

There is a rhythm to these testimonies, a specific cadence and plot that mimics a social drama. A breach, a crisis — the individual is tested. Through that test, God’s love and truth is revealed and Christ enters into the person’s life.

A beginning, middle, and end — a story that resolves itself with acceptance and salvation.

Church and youth group meetings felt incomplete without the offering of a personal testimony. I can remember countless stories told on Sunday mornings. They celebrated, they mourned, but they always ended in the recognition of Jesus and unequivocal acceptance of Christianity.

For many, the act of finding and reciting a personal testimony was empowering, liberating. For me, it brought an intense and painful feeling of guilt.

I didn’t have one.

Questions riddled my head in a never-ending loop, turning my mental sanctuary into an apologetics-themed pinball machine. Being raised in the church meant I never knew what my life looked like absent from the rhetoric of Christianity. How would I know that God was important or what was keeping my life together if I never had experienced the supposed opposite? (Very burgeoning dialectical scholar of me.)

Personal testimony after personal testimony spoke of being ‘lost’ and then being ‘found.’ As a child, I wondered why I would need to experience being ‘lost’ if I already had the answer: their conclusion. Why go through the pain of loneliness that they went through? Did accepting Jesus have to arise with an ‘aha’ revelation born through the precondition of sorrow?

I remember a conversation with my parents about predestination, the concept that followers of God are preselected. At its crux, you can’t do anything about your salvation; whether or not you accept God is decided before you are born.

“What if I’m not one of those chosen ones?” I asked. “What if I don’t have that ‘born-again’ experience for a reason?”

Others would question my intentions.

“Are you sure your heart is open to the voice of God?”

Youth leaders would tell me their own narrative to try and make sense of my own. It never worked.

Alienation followed my lack of personal testimony.

When I had to give a personal testimony in high school, I lied. I knew what I needed to say; the cadence was second-nature. People came up to me afterwards and said it was beautiful. Only I seemed to know — or care — about its true nature.

And like that, I was left in a liminal space, speaking the language of evangelicalism, but struggling to find content of my own.


Over time, I’ve pinpointed my discomfort with the personal testimony: It implies a static version of faith, it is sometimes created for the wrong reasons, and it brings shame to those who may not fit the linear model.

Rather than a painting you work on a bit every day, a personal testimony, to me, is like painting a picture and carrying it around as your ultimate state of being for the rest of your life.

Without an ‘aha’ moment, I felt like I was never allowed to start on my painting. And even if I did have one, I feel that the personal testimony fails to encompass the life-long learning and growing process that I believe faith necessitates.

Many Christians who talk to me today ask for my personal testimony. I feel uncomfortable, forced to turn pain into plot points, and the story I end up telling is so far from what I know to be true. But, according to many Christians, “all Christians have a personal testimony.” You can ‘out’ yourself if you don’t have one. Thus — shame, guilt, and lying.

But my biggest concern with the personal testimony is how part of Christian culture understands it. Many of the how-to guides provided by large Christian organizations promote consolidating a marketable narrative with the purpose of evangelizing. Statements like “Sharing how you came to know God personally is one of the most powerful ways you can help friends grasp how much God loves us” showcase this theme of designing ‘sharable’ testimonies.

Guides that encourage you to “Keep it short… Three minutes is a good target,” “Have a before, how, and after,” and “Practice, practice, practice!” then demonstrate how storytelling can be distorted by a concise, flattening, entrepreneurial culture. This norm can fashion inauthentic narratives, as depth is sacrificed for brevity. Christians attempting to find their testimony may feel ashamed if they question the format or cannot seem to conform to it.

It’s one thing for personal testimonies to be encouraged in Christian culture. It is another for them to be constructed with the sole purpose of being shared, rather than catharsis or healing or personal reflection.

What I realize now, and what I’d encourage evangelical Christians everywhere — especially organizations and churches that serve young populations — to realize, is that a narrative does not need to be complete and tied with a bow to be told. It does not need to come to a conclusion regarding the acceptance of Jesus to be a worthy narrative of faith. Just because a story does not agree with what you’d like it to say does not mean it should not be hidden away until it’s ‘ready.’

Your testimony is not a cover letter. It does not need to be created with the purpose of being shared.

Faith and religion are complicated, delicate, personal, and powerful topics; stories, with their capacity to compel, play a central role. But all forms of storytelling, regardless of ending, should be respected. Those who are sketching their paintings as they go are just as authentic as those who made theirs all at once. We must brace against the instinct to trade the ‘mess’ for snappy, sub-three minute speeches that make a more convincing proselytization.

The flattening effect of pressuring personal testimony is something I’ve confronted in writing this column.

In doing interviews, I ask people to tell me their stories. I ask people to reflect on how faith has interacted with and shaped their lives. I essentially presuppose the existence of their own personal testimonies and rely on them to write and ground my column.

To those I’ve interviewed, to those whose stories may have been flattened or provided out of pressure to have a cleanly packaged faith narrative, I apologize.

I encourage national evangelical Christian ministries, especially those like Reformed University Fellowship, Christian Union, and Cru (all of which are present on Harvard’s campus), to question the assumption that personal testimonies must come to specific conclusions to be shared on a platform, and question the imperative for narratives to be created to be shared. Question why you encourage people to craft testimonies. Encourage the ‘messy’ narratives, and not just in private.

Ironically enough, many will likely read this piece as a personal testimony. I urge you not to. I am painting the picture as I go.

Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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