Friday, February 1, 2019

Psychology of Religious Testimony

Religious testimonies are like stories of good news. We enjoy celebrating good news when we know the family. A recent study might explain a decline in public testimonies.

 Imagine visiting a group of Evangelical Christians who are about to study the Gospel of John. They sit on hard plastic chairs while chattering about the weather, problems at work, and some aggravating post on social media. At some point, a leader asks the group to share their news stories and prayer requests. They’ll pray before beginning their Bible study. One woman tells the details of a sister struggling with cancer—she’s not expected to live. There is a concerted sigh of sadness. A man mentions worries about finding work. Heads nod in sympathy. Someone makes a note. Then an excited woman has some good news. She has a large smile on her face as she announces, “We’re pregnant!” She’s gesturing to her husband whose grin widens as his face reddens in response to all the attention. Smiles spread around the group. The good news lightens the mood. Eventually, the long list of pain and suffering dominates the prayer.

In decades past, Pentecostals stood in worship services to share their testimonies of what God had done for them. The spiritual stories were often about recovering from an illness or someone getting converted. Others reported finding work or another life blessing. In recent years, Pentecostals and other evangelicals are likely to share their good and bad news in small group meetings like the fictional example above.

The psychology of testimonies is related to the psychology of emotion and something psychologists call symhedonia, which contrasts with sympathy. Edward Royzman and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania found that unlike our capacity to respond with sympathy toward people who have experienced tragedy—even people who are strangers, it is more difficult to share in a celebration of joy (that is symhedonia) unless we have an emotional connection to the one reporting the joyful experience.

The finding by Royzman and Rozin (2006) fits well with the shift in testimonies. Praying for people with various needs continues in services large and small. It is easy to respond to troubling experiences. But those old services where people stood up and shared personal good news have largely been replaced in large congregations by sharing stories in small groups. This makes sense. The personal connections in small groups not only enhance compassion but they also increase the experience of joy. 


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It’s hard to have a close connection with hundreds of people in mega-congregations. Sympathetic responses still evoke compassion. But small groups have the edge when it comes to testimonies of joy.


Royzman, E. B., & Rozin, P. (2006). Limits of symhedonia: The differential role of prior emotional attachment in sympathy and sympathetic joy. Emotion6(1), 82-93. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.6.1.82