spring break vacation in Playa Norte Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Falco Ermert, CC.) Spring Break in Mexico, 2018. I hope they all had a great time.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Beach Reach. That’s a short-term mission trip (STM) organized by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For two weeks, college-age SBC-lings descend on a beach during American universities’ Spring Break. During their trip, these volunteers offer charity services to a truly deserving group that is desperately in need of help: partying college students. In reality, of course, these volunteers are there to make sales pitches to anybody who’ll stand still long enough to hear one. Everything they do is based around those all-important sales pitches. And in our Beach Reach training today, we’ll learn how to craft attention-getting testimonies — and learn why evangelicals still think testimonies are so important.

spring break vacation in Playa Norte Isla Mujeres, Mexico
(Falco Ermert, CC.) Spring Break in Mexico, 2018. I hope they all had a great time.

(Fundagelicals are evangelicals who are also fundamentalists. Typically, this group is extremely sales-oriented. When I talk about evangelism as a sales process, the product isn’t Jesus or even belief in Jesus. It’s active membership in the evangelist’s own group. Related posts: The Truth About Christian Zingers; Being Genuinely Helpful vs. Being Christianly Helpful; The Duggar Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Grifting Tree; Teen Evangelism Hits a New Low; How John Stott Moved the Evangelism Goalpost.)

I Once Had a Common and Lamentable Fundagelical Problem.

Long, long ago, I realized I had a problem.

My testimony was boring.

Don’t laugh! This was, and still is, a serious problem for young fundagelicals. (We’ll be coming back to this topic sometime or other. Holy cow, peep those search results!)

See, I became a fundagelical in the smack middle of the Satanic Panic. The Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (Or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) was my tribe’s big enemy du jour. Consequently, all of the cool kids’ testimonies were thrilling, titillating tales of nonstop mayhem and off-limits sex. Cool Christians back then boasted about sinful pre-conversion lives full of demons, possessions, spells and witchery, wealth, sex rituals with hotties, drugs, organized crime rings serving demonic overlords, and all that stuff. Whew! People launched themselves into superstardom with these testimonies.

But me?

Alas, I grew up a fervent Catholic kid. I converted to fundagelicalism in my teens. I’d never done anything really awful or wild. Even tabletop roleplaying games, which I loved, weren’t demonic, and I knew that. Even my mom figured that out fairly early on.

As a result, here’s about how my testimony ran:

“After an entire life of being Christian, I realized that was fake Christianity. So, I converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Now I’m a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and it’s great! I deny myself everything that might potentially be fun because I’m terrified out of my skin about Hell. You need to do the same — or else the god of love and mercy will torture you forever!”

Even as a true-blue fundagelical believer, even as truly dedicated and faithful and fervent as I was, I knew that story wouldn’t sound super-compelling to many people.

And I bet a lot of the SBC-lings heading to Beach Reach every year have much the same problem.

But don’t worry! Beach Reach will teach us how to overcome that difficulty.

Christian Testimonies: A Brief Overview.

A testimony, in Christianese, is a very short story in 3 dramatic parts (pre-conversion, the conversion itself, and post-conversion; some sources, however, advise 5 parts). Ideally, it describes how the person giving it became a Christian and how things are going for them since that conversion, and it’s all done in a way that makes this decision sound appealing and rational.

Christians are supposed to craft and deploy these speeches to help them sell their product to listeners. Sales-minded Christians, especially, put great store by these stories. They’re encouraged to craft their testimony right after conversion. Plenty of places offer help to do it. Others offer testimony collections that may inspire someone needing help.

Christians in general believe that testimonies are of huge importance in the evangelism process. The more spectacular a testimony sounds, they think, the more sales it helps its bearer make.

In addition to their function as a sales aid, testimonies also get Christians a lot of attention from their fellow Christians. Often, a group leader will invite a follower with a particularly spicy testimony to share it as a way to impress and boost the faith of the flock. Indeed, Christians themselves vastly reward someone with a cool testimony — with bearer money, attention, deference, and leadership opportunities. That much, at least, is completely true.

Unfortunately, nobody fact-checks testimonies. (Heck, if anyone even expresses doubt about a testimony, as I did, the tribe responds with hostility and attacks.) Nothing stops someone from lying about themselves. So, the more spectacular a testimony is and the more wonderful a Christian’s life sounds post-conversion, the more likely it is that it contains fudged and/or exaggerated details. That probability becomes an absolute certainty if the testimony-bearer makes any miracle claims or engages with any culture-war enemies.

I bring all of this up because Week 3 in Beach Reach Training pushes hard on testimonies as a sales tool.

Beach Reach: The Three Word Testimony.

In Week 3 of Beach Reach training, we endure learn how to make a “Three Word Testimony.”

Don’t get excited. It’s not three words long. It’s just made from three key words.

The technique may date back to 2014. I could find no references to it before that (though some Christians did play reindeer games by trying to make testimonies that were, literally, only three words long). Here’s how you do it, according to that 2014 source:

First Word: A description of your general overall life and situation before you converted. Their suggestions:

angry, independent, manipulative, miserable, hopeless, empty, addicted, aimless, restless, striving, confused, insecure

Second Word: A summary of the impetus that led you to conversion. Their suggestions:

creation, studied, concert, grew, Bible, friend, trouble, observation, evangelist, spouse, loved

Third Word: A description of your general overall life and situation after you converted. Their suggestions:

approachable, peaceful, generous, loving, brave, caring, teacher, mentor, servant, elder, hopeful, compassionate, confident

Once you’ve come up with your three words, you create a paragraph around each one. Each paragraph incorporates its key word. In the end, you make 1-2 sentences per word, and the whole anecdote should comprise 3-6 sentences — and take 30-60 seconds to say.

And this technique is totally supposed to help Beach Reach volunteers sell their product to partying college students enjoying their Spring Break.

Beach Reach Plagiarized Testimony Instructions.

(But Who’s Surprised?)

Remember those suggestions for each word, up there? Well, they show up in almost every single source I consulted about the Three Word technique, and nowhere do we find attribution for it. (One church added a few suggestions — but also did not attribute.) I can’t even say for sure that that 2014 source was the original creator. For all I know, that 2014 source itself plagiarized some earlier source.

Either which way, Beach Reach’s training module doesn’t even change the suggested words. It omits a few, but overall it’s the same list everyone else uses.

Here’s how the Three Word Testimony comes into play during a sales pitch in Week 3 of Beach Reach Training:

In pairs, practice sharing the gospel in conversation. Begin by starting the conversation and asking questions. Listen well and transition to spiritual things. Tell them the gospel. Try using your Thee Word Testimony on each other. Know that you can adapt your story to relate to the situation of the Spring Breaker. Include calling the person to a response in your gospel presentation using the questions above.

I cringed the whole way through that.

In addition, Beach Reach volunteers must perform “homework” around their crafted testimony. They must share it with “at least four more people” over the coming week, and “try asking for a response with someone.” That means asking for the sale, which means asking them:

After sharing the gospel the student can ask this or a similar question: 

“What would it take for you to turn from your sin and turn to God right now?”

Seriously. And that’s supposed to lead directly to the Sinner’s Prayer, which they call a “Prayer of Commitment.”

Beach Reach Takes for Granted That Testimonies Are Valuable.

It’s important to remember that all the most powerful people in the SBC (which is the denomination running Beach Reach) are very old. I guarantee you they all still remember when a “remote control” meant a small child who ran to change the channel on the TV upon their command. They remember when TV dinners could only be baked in the oven and how the “cherry-apple dessert” always tasted just a bit metallic.

And they obviously still remember with great fondness how people reacted to testimonies in an age well before advertisers took over our every waking moment through 24/7 internet and smart devices.

I don’t know when testimonies stopped sounded compelling to fundagelicals’ marks. However, I can say it must have been well before my time as a fundagelical, because my marks responded the way I’d been taught to expect — never, never even once, never even a little bit.

Beach Reach’s training module doesn’t even try to explain why students must craft testimonies. It doesn’t even try to make a case for the effectiveness of testimonies as a whole. Whoever wrote it just takes for granted that they’re important and valuable.

And I doubt the students doing this work and homework will doubt or second-guess their leaders’ commands.

The Truth About Testimonies.

When I told my carefully-doctored testimony to normies, they were never overwhelmed with awe at their first glimpse of the wonder-working power of my god.

Usually, this is what I’d get in return:

“That’s great. I’m glad that you found something that works for you.”

The implications: It doesn’t work for me. Or: You’re getting something out of it that isn’t supernatural. Trust me, I always understood what the implication was in the moment.

At some point, I suppose, people began to understand that testimonials aren’t worth the air currents that transport them from lips to ear, nor the bits and bytes that convey them from keyboard to screen. They’re simply a relation of one person’s experience, and it can’t be trusted because that experience has been doctored into shape as a sales pitch.

It’s really hard to find unbiased testimonies about anything these days. Amazon reviews? Often, bought and paid for. New York Times Bestseller List? Fairly easily gamed, as Mark Driscoll knows.

Once this problem developed, Christians were stuck forever. They never figured out any way to solve it. One hilariously cringey post I found talks about how to boost a testimony by adding irrefutable evidence. How? Oh, I’m sure her gig as a professional apologetics author doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with her suggestion to add apologetics to the mix. And I’m sure every Christian who’s ever crafted a testimony already does all that anyway.

In short, people know that sales-minded Christians’ testimonies are at best simply a curated anecdote, and at worst are completely fabricated. There’s just not a way to get around that problem.

Worse, it’s getting harder and harder for those Christians to get anybody to sit still long enough to get a full testimony out, much less the sales pitch around it.

Beach Reach: Creating a Captive Audience.

Week 3’s Leader Instructions positions testimonies after the van seating chart and van-evangelism simulations but before the “call to response.” So, it sounds like they expect volunteers to be belting out testimonies to captive audiences in their transport vans.

If so, then hoo boy, that’s gonna go over well with Zoomers and Alphas. They just love it when control-hungry religious whackjobs try to force them to do stuff.

It really says something about evangelicals that their entire training for Beach Reach, so far, has been about creating captive and obligated audiences. These wingnuts know perfectly well that nobody wants their products. They know 100% that nobody wants to sit still for their sales pitches and obviously exaggerated and spun-folded-and-mutilated testimonies.

So they offer supposedly “free” services and food to their marks, and try to get their marks into vans where they’ll be sandwiched between fundagelical kids with no idea how (or any desire) to have a real conversation but who’ve been stuffed full of false-news rah-rah and scripted talking points for six weeks, and who’ve been taught to pity their marks and view them as subhuman fix-it projects.

I can’t imagine a worse position for either the volunteers or the marks to be in than that.

a bus ministry I can get behind
(Paul Williams, CC.) The anti-Beach Reach van. This was part of the 2008 4chan protests against Scientology. (Wiki writeup.)

If we actually needed any more proof that Beach Reach is more of an indoctrination exercise for the volunteers than a valid sales and recruitment campaign, well, we sure have it here. When the marks of Beach Reach laugh at them and/or turn them down flat, all it’ll do is make the SBC-lings think even worse of them — and increase their loyalty to their own tribe.

NEXT UP: 1st-Century Friday! Over the weekend, we’ll learn how to totally have natural conversations with people outside the fundagelical bubble.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...