The kinds of testimonies at altar calls often involve booze, car accidents and wild partying. Mine qualifies, but I still hesitate to share it openly. My reasons will probably surprise you.
Spiritual “testimonies” are personal stories of how an individual comes to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. Mine have some embarrassing realities that I don’t like to romanticize. When you hear the story, you may hesitate to send your teenager to one of my youth camps. Then again, maybe you will, because (I hope) you want your teen to have an authentic “conversion.” (More on the idea of “conversion” when I end this story.)
The bigger reason for my hesitation is because it challenges what you and I have probably been taught about “testimonies.” Most stories of conversions I have heard are drum-beating, trumpet blasting crescendos to a totally transformed life of perfection. I hate to admit it — and I feel bad for doubting anyone’s personal testimony — but I find many conversion stories unbelievable. Well, at least I come away from many of them feeling played, like they’re hyped up or cheezy. Perhaps this is being unfair, but suffice it to say, I don’t relate.
Becoming a Christian for me was different than what others seem to think it should have been.
This sounds weird, but hearing my story will probably bring light to this idea. I suspect there are more people like me who have — from the day they accepted the mystery of the Christian faith and became a “believer” — struggled, stumbled and fallen from side to side of their path. My story goes all the way back to the summer before my senior year in high school.
It starts with a road trip. I was cruising on backroads with a few friends in my parents’ new car. Drinking. I wasn’t quite used to the new vehicle, took a sharp turn on a rainy night, and flipped the car. Everyone was fine but me. I flew out the sunroof, cracked my pelvis, and bruised my heart. I spent a week in the hospital.
My parents were clearly shaken. They visited the hospital in tears and reminded me several times of their love for me and their thankfulness that I was alive. I walked with a cane for about a month before my hip felt steady enough to walk on.
But it didn’t shake me up much, or at least I didn’t let it known.
My parents were better parents than I thought at the time. They grounded me. I remember them sitting me down in the living room to have one of those premeditated talks. “We’re sending you on a religious retreat, and you have to go.”
Today at 44, what I would give for a retreat! But at 17, I was tough, and tough kids don’t go to retreats. I cared little for anything other than my friends. I argued, but I gave in. Had to. The consequence for not going: no car. So I signed up for Together Encountering Christ, a youth retreat in Central Minnesota.
I was given the choice of about a dozen dates. I chose the very last one, a good eight months away.
I didn’t admit it to my parents at the time, but the car accident shook me up, too. They were worried about me, knowing full well I was into harmful behavior, having a difficult time managing myself. Like most parents whose kids were wigging out, they were concerned with who I was hanging with. They didn’t realize that my friends were likewise softening.
There are two significant recollections that I part from the typical born again testimony. First, my pre-Christian life was not “miserable.” I really enjoyed the sinful life.
I partied hard, enjoying the company of the darkest characters, looking forward to the next party with wild anxiousness. I wish I could say I was miserable, but I was having a blast. Furthermore, my “dark” friends — the messed up “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” AC/DC lovers — weren’t all that dark. We were great friends and loved to enjoy one another. Over beer and booze, Jesus was working among us, right there in our spiritual discussions.
I find comfort in this whenever I encounter “sinful” youth today. I do not doubt that Jesus is at work.
Second, I didn’t reason myself into faith. In fact, I recall believing bizarre things. One oddity had to do with my parents: I wished they were divorced. They were concerned with me and my insistent atheism and chemical abuse, but the parents of my friends didn’t seem to care much. Therefore, I concluded, I’d be able to do whatever I wanted if my parents were messed up and divorced.
I wasn’t the smartest logician. This was the way I rolled in my youth.
One night was an all night drive with my best friend, Travis. He was struggling with his parents’ divorce, I was struggling with my parents being in a good marriage, so we drank away our sorrows while driving the streets of Alexandria, Minnesota. We talked all night long about our doubts, anxieties, wonders about life and the universe.
Obvious disclaimer: do not drink and drive. It’s dangerous and stupid. Really stupid if you didn’t learn the first time after spending a week in the hospital recovering from your first accident. My logic wasn’t sound, but I hope yours is. Needless to say, Jesus continued his work on me despite my stupidity. You’ll see how in a little bit.
Travis had recently become a Christian. For whatever reason, there wasn’t a party to go to, so we drove and drank and talked all night — mainly of his experience as a Christian believer. I had some serious doubts about the existence of God, and that was what we wrestled with in the cab of his dad’s Mazda pickup.
I don’t quite remember the details, but I remember it was 4:00 am when I finally had to admit: there is a God. I didn’t have it figured out from there, but Travis convinced me that we weren’t alone in the universe and that yes, indeed, God exists.
Then Travis drove his dad’s truck into a lake.
Think Dukes of Hazard in a quarter-ton pickup, airborne, right into a lake on the north side of town. Heading down a steep hill, Travis hit a streak of ice. We hit the T in the road over a steep curve. Bam! Nosedive into the water. The front of the pickup began filling with water. We crawled out the back window, trudged to shore, and walked home.
Perhaps Satan wanted to kill us. I suspect God wanted to make sure we remembered that night.
The next morning I went home, leaving Travis to tell his dad about his truck. I’m not sure how that conversation went, but mine went great at home. “Mom and Dad, I believe in God now!” They were relieved to hear my intellectual conversion.
Then they reminded me of the retreat I was signed up for, just a week away. I had totally forgotten about it. Together Encountering Christ #115 was coming up in November 1987.
“Now that I believe in God, I don’t have to go,” I told my parents, and I expected them to agree.
They were rocks. “No, Chris, you still need to go.”
Penance or Party?
My parents didn’t realize it, but the biggest party in my high school life was coming up. Travis had it all planned out (his newfound faith in Jesus hadn’t quite cleaned up his life). Live band, kegs, girls. To this day, my high school buddies talk about that party.
I was scheduled to be at a religious retreat the same weekend.
For the entire week leading up to that retreat, I tried to find a way to attend both. My friends were egging me on, “Jeub, just don’t go to the retreat! This party is going to be the best in your life!” As a teen, it was an incredible conflict, a genuine wrestling with God.
When the day came, I drove the two hours to the retreat center in my parents’ newer car, rolling all sorts of strategies through my mind about turning around and deceiving my parents. I felt the duty to serve my penance for totaling my parents’ car, but also wanted to party with my friends. The demons fought the angels hard:
- Go to the party. Lie to your folks just like always. You’re missing the best event of your high school years. Your friends are waiting and they want Jeub there!
- Go to the retreat. You promised to go. You may be missing a very significant, much deeper experience of your life. Don’t forget that revelation you had last week. That new God wants to show you something real.
Here’s the conviction that won me over: I was very much enjoying the more honest and open relationship with my parents. I knew they loved me, they were unusually trusting of me and their car, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Yes, I wanted to party up with my friends, but I didn’t want to let my folks down.
This, too, gives me hope today when I hear of rebellious young people, including my own children. They may be hard on the outside, but chances are good they are desiring honest relationship on the inside. At least I should assume so.
So, the good angels won the battle. I went to the retreat.
For 27 years I have been involved with youth ministry. I’ve witnessed countless numbers of Christian retreat operations. I run some pretty dandy events myself, but I have yet to come across a deeper, more impressionable retreat than the Together Encountering Christ (TEC) retreat in Central Minnesota.
For a moment, let me be a little critical of youth events. Trust me, this is critical of myself, too, as I run camps every summer through Training Minds Ministry. There are three things that youth ministers (like myself) underestimate, and all three of these the TEC Retreat nailed most perfectly:
- Solitude. Youth ministers think they need to stuff every minute of every hour with activity. Much of it is stupid stuff, just to keep the kids busy. At TEC, there were intentional times of solitude, just me and God, and that was extremely necessary for me at 17.
- Prayer. It’s strange how easy this is to brush off the to-do list. I had just recently come to believe in God, but I was rather stoic to any part he wanted to play in my life. The prayers of the leaders of TEC blew my mind, and I was challenged at TEC to take it just as seriously.
- Jesus. TEC is so far from the typical youth retreat — there are no stupid water dunking games or corny youth speakers. It is an extremely genuine and authentic experience getting to know Jesus. The picture here was on the wall all weekend long, and it still makes an impact on me today. I was encountering Christ.
Again, here I break away from the typical testimony, especially one from a youth retreat in the 80s. There were no “Four Spiritual Laws” or “coming to Jesus” moment. I wasn’t “saved” or “slain in the spirit” or whatever other Christianeze term that is popular among believers. I attended a retreat, one that was filled with folks who knew how to genuinely pray to God for relationship, and I meditated on and met the living Jesus.
I can’t explain it more simply than that: together, we encountered Christ.
It was a transformative time in my life, one that seemed to shift the direction of my central purpose. Honest to God: This testimony is not fabricated or hyped up. It is the honest truth. I remember the Holy Spirit of Christ living inside me, and though I have lived a life of ups and downs since then, I have never doubted that initial encounter with Christ.
This was a long story, and thanks for sticking with me. But let me return to what I opened with: why do I hesitate to share this publicly? Since my conversion, I have run with evangelical circles that have subtly tried to change this testimony up. I don’t believe this is healthy or genuine. Three thoughts (and I hope these thoughts resonate with you):
- “Conversion” is really encounter. I don’t particularly like the word “conversion.” It implies that all your troubles go away. Yes, the change is significant, but coming to Christ is more of an “encounter.” At least that’s how I experienced Christ. He was revealed to me, and ever since Jesus was as real as a brother or old friend. I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
- “Conversion” is really convicting. Most “conversions” suggest radical change. Real life changes came later. For me, it was conviction that characterized my encounter. Like I said, I very much enjoyed the sinful lifestyle, but the gnawing and somewhat painful conviction was the reminder that there was more to life. I wrestled with a higher spiritual reality, and I had to choose between conflicting desires. I didn’t really change many of my behaviors, at least for the first few years, but at my core I was transformed.
- “Conversion” is really the start, not the end. I find it difficult to reflect on my testimony and say “I crossed over from death to life,” like so many testify. It sounds too much like the end of a story. I guess “born again” is more like it: a beginning of life. I’ve been walking with Christ since that time period as a budding young adult. I like to think that today my story is only half written.
So, there you have it. My testimony. If this resonates with you, share it far and wide. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.