In our years with the practice of testimony, one of the most valuable things for me was hearing how people perceive their church. With testimony, you encourage members to reflect back to you their vision of the church, and in doing so, they reflect it to newcomers as well. We were constantly reflecting our ecclesiology, more so than our theology.
Church members reflect to one another how God has called us to be a church, telling one another when they think the vision has gone astray, rejoicing in hope when it seems to be the right vision. Testimonies often took us back to our vision, reminding us when we had strayed from it. Jonathan’s testimony reminded us of our congregation’s vision, along with a small correction for us about locking our doors. We heard these words from a “PK,” a preacher’s kid:
You would think it easy for this PK to find a church home to worship God. Not so. My search for a church home took me all over New Haven, Branford, and Hamden—literally hundreds of times past the closed, white doors of Redeemer on many-a-Sunday morn. The closed doors made me feel like I wasn’t welcome, like there was some secret way in. They seemed to signify the same closed-mindedness of most church communities I visited in and around New Haven. I think I’m going to have to talk with the deacons about this one.
I didn’t see what made this community different until I joined a worship service at the invitation of your steward of music, who shall remain anonymous but whose initials are M.B. I was drawn first by who sat in the pews and the diversity of races and ages. The music was moving and inspiring, and offered with genuine love and passion. The Word was spoken with provocative insight and inspired brilliance. So what finally tipped the scales for this PK to make a home at Redeemer? Something similar to the palms that welcomed Christ into Jerusalem—and that welcoming reads as follows:
We are the Church of the Redeemer, United Church of Christ, an inclusive community committed to the worship of God, the work of justice, and the recognition of our common humanity in the struggles of life.
We follow Jesus Christ, who welcomes all people to his table. We celebrate the rich diversity of God’s people: in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, marital and economic status, and culture.
Join us on a journey of the Holy Spirit, where faith and intellect meet, learning never ends, and music and the arts draw us closer to our Creator.
Thanks for opening those doors.
In those words, Jonathan not only reminded us of our vision, as expressed through a statement we had crafted and voted on as a congregation, but in reading our vision statement out loud to the church, he allowed us to hear it with fresh ears and reminded us to unlock those church doors as well. While every testimony was not that explicit in the vision it cast, they all cast one. The aspects of church life people chose to highlight, from a warm welcome to a provocative discussion of a social issue, all said something to us about what the testifier believed the church should be. Sometimes these words challenged or surprised us into a better way of being the church. It was intriguing to hear people’s many visions of what we should be in the diversity of Christ’s body.
Testimony Creates Community and Revitalizes Worship
Over and over again, people told me that testimony was opening up our church, not only creating excitement in worship, but in the coffee hour discussions as well. We were making new friends, hearing new stories of faith, being woken up by the Word. Having offered testimonies three times in the previous four years, David commented: “I think the practice of testimony has been an important part of the revitalization of our congregation.” Many church members echoed this theme. Newcomers often commented on what they learned about the church through listening to testimonies, from stories from our histories to ideas about where the church was headed. It added an element of anticipation to worship and helped us to grow deeper in our relationships with one another. David continued:
For each of us who have participated, the reflection and clarification has been a transforming experience in itself. For the worship service, it creates an atmosphere of openness and trust, and a sense of personal connection. It also reflects the diversity of our congregation: although we are inspired by those who have gone before, there is no pattern to the nature of testimony, no sense that there is an expectation of a right way to do it, just a recognition that each story is part of the fabric.
That recognition, “that each story is part of the fabric” of the larger story of faith, is what pastors are forever trying to put across in their preaching. We hope that when we tell the old Bible stories, we are calling people into the larger story of God. In an individualistic culture, preachers run uphill trying to remind people that we are part of a larger salvation history that is much larger than any one individual experience. Testimony showed us that all the time. In the variety of testimonies, we began to see the connections among them. We saw that while a person might be talking about her grandfather’s love of the Bible, and another person might be talking about ugly ties, in the end they were all pointing to the one true God. If all these stories in their variety could be connected to one church and one God, surely we were all connected to the God of history and to one another.
I wonder if people make these connections more easily when they hear from another layperson, one whom they cannot presume to be some sort of “super Christian.” People expect the pastor to speak of faith and a connection to a larger story. They get used to the pastor’s ways of speaking and familiar ideas. But when a different layperson speaks week after week, they hear the same story told in so many ways, and can imagine where their own story might fit in God’s history.
David’s testimony alluded to that in his point about the diversity of experiences. By listening only to the pastor’s experience of God, subjective and unique to the pastor, congregations get one perspective. But by listening to testimony, they hear a wide variety of ways God interacts with human beings, and there, in that mix, they may find themselves and look at their own life differently.
When we are exposed to a variety of faith stories, we may more readily accept the wideness of God’s mercy, or as David put it, in hearing, we realize that there is no one “right way to do it, just a recognition that each story is part of the fabric.” Listening to testimony helps us to find our thread in God’s fabric, and to know that we are never alone in our journeys. We are called to live as disciples, calling one another into the walk with Christ in the world, and testimonies called us into new ways of living.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims is the highly anticipated follow-up to The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass. Both books offer a hopeful view of a new and often overlooked renaissance occurring in mainline Protestant congregations. The contributors
to From Nomads to Pilgrims are innovators, representing some of the most dynamic leadership voices among today’s clergy. Their experiences challenge conventional thinking and inspire creative experimentation. Any congregational leader searching for positive models will appreciate these insightful essays.
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
The conventional wisdom about mainline Protestantism maintains that it is a dying tradition, irrelevant to a postmodern society, unresponsive to change, and increasingly disconnected from its core faith tenets. In her provocative book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are indeed changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation. Invigorated by stories from Bass’s own experience, The Practicing Congregation provides a hopeful and exciting vision of “the once and future church” that Alban founder Loren Mead first named over 10 years ago.