When I was a kid, one of the things I hated most about church was the Popcorn Testimony period. The way this worked was that the worship leader would give a brief testimony, then say, “I call on [fill in a name here] to give the next testimony.” This would continue until either everyone in the room had been compelled to testify (or openly refuse to do so – which had consequences to be discussed shortly) or time ran out. I used to dread it when my mother led Popcorn Testimonies, because it seemed to me that she always called on either me or my brother. And we, in turn, were compelled to call on other hapless victims.
Looking back on it now, I realize that one of the primary purposes of the Popcorn Testimony ritual was to delineate the saved from the unsaved. After all, anyone who loved Jesus should be willing to say so at a moment’s notice – shyness is not a virtue in the evangelical world. The corollary to that, of course, is that anyone who didn’t want to testify was obviously either an unbeliever or not strong enough in the faith. Both types made juicy targets for “fishing expeditions” in the prayer period that followed the sermon. If one didn’t want to play the role of “fish” later in the meeting, then one made up some bullshit and quickly called on someone else to testify. It was critical for everyone present to know that, ideally, everyone in the room was in good standing with Jesus. If it happened that there was someone present who clearly wasn’t saved, or was suspected of being unsaved or backsliding, then that person would have an opportunity to correct that state of affairs before the meeting was over.
Evangelicals have an assortment of tricks, like Popcorn Testimonies, that they use to force people to publicly identify themselves as either insiders or outsiders. Anyone who’s attended more than 2 or 3 fundogelical church services has certainly been exhorted to “raise your hand if you love Jesus,” or “say amen,” or respond to the phrase, “God is good” with the words, “all the time.” Sometimes hip preachers have the congregation break up into small groups to pray. People who don’t raise their hands, or respond with the group, or pray on command, or give their testimonies when singled out will be identified, and someone will come fishing for them later in the meeting,
And now we get to the fishing expedition. You may be familiar with the Billy Graham-style “mass appeal” to repentance. The preacher invites people to sing a prayer song, and if they feel led to do so, come up to the altar at the front of the church and get right with god. Some evangelicals supplement this mass appeal with direct, one-on-one appeals. Someone will identify a target that he or she thinks needs to pray about something or other, and will go over to that person’s seat and start talking and praying with that person about the state of her or his soul. It’s not unusual for the “fisherman” in these scenarios to ask the “fish” extraordinarily personal questions about his or her life. (The term “fishing” refers to Jesus’ statement that he would make his disciples “fishers of men.” Just in case you’re curious.)
As I look back on all of these practices, I marvel that anyone remains in fundogelical churches upon reaching the age of majority. The peer pressure in such churches is astonishing at times. And yet, many grow up thinking such experiences are normal. Sometimes the peer pressure tactics are given polite names like “accountability.” That terminology is just the fundogelical equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Fishing, popcorn testimonies, call-answer chants, small prayer cells and other similar tactics are not really about accountability. What they’re really about is conformity, control and group identity. I don’t know about you, but I’m hard pressed to think of an unholier trinity than that.
— the chaplain