Back in 1999, after my first three years serving Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, CT, I began to wonder what might bring us deeper into the faith while lessening the resistance to growth that small churches can feel. Could we share our faith and preserve our intimacy? I believed there was not only a need but a hunger for this sort of opportunity.
For one thing, I noticed that our church announcements were getting long again. Redeemer has a time at the beginning of worship when anyone may come forward to make an announcement. We have a love-hate relationship with this announcement time. On the one hand, it is a chance to see the diverse vitality of the congregation, a chance to match a face and a name to a special event. On the other hand, announcements can become long and tedious and interrupt worship.
Yet apart from this ongoing struggle with the announcements, I noticed something else was happening. People who could have told you in 30 seconds where and when the community organizing meeting was going to be held were getting up and sharing anecdotes first. In telling the church about the next community-organizing event, they might testify to the power of the last one and the beauty of seeing all those people of faith together. In telling the church about an adult education opportunity, they might speak first about how it was adult education that drew them into deeper community. Few people minded these announcements; in fact, they generated conversation later and strengthened community. Yet as the announcements grew more creative, they introduced an unpredictability to worship, especially regarding the length of the service.
In addition, I noticed that the other opportunity for unplanned congregational input was changing as well. Prayer requests were turning into small testimonies, as some people did not want to offer requests but stories about prayers that were answered. We were also beginning to hear more background on the prayer requests. The problem here was that people simply offered these prayer requests from the pews. The ministers would report back to the congregation the gist of what had been said, using the pulpit microphone, but much was lost in our summary. People complained that they wished they could hear the stories from the speaker, but the layout and acoustics of our church make this impossible.
Still, it occurred to me that there might be a way. If we could encourage people to come forward to the lectern, they would be heard. There were too many prayer requests each week to make this feasible for everyone—instead we occasionally singled people out and asked them to prepare to say something. This was well received.
For the third year in a row, people were telling me that they looked forward to our stewardship season, because they hoped to hear the members of the church offer “giving moments,” which were, in effect, our first testimonies, I now see. What happened with the giving moments was that people told stories about their walk with God through the life of our church. Sometimes they were funny. Sometimes people cried. As one member put it, “I love stewardship season because I get so excited about what people will say.”
I sensed our congregation was hungry for the practice of testimony. When I presented the idea in early 2000 to the deacons (who are the lay leaders responsible for the worship and spiritual life of the congregation), they agreed.
The lay leaders at Church of the Redeemer were a remarkably open group, willing to try new ideas but also willing to scrap them when they did not work. I am convinced that this openness allowed us to experiment in a variety of ways that contributed to our growth. But together as leaders, we had to be creative in how we introduced testimony, given the wariness of change in the church. While it has been carried out by Christians throughout history, it had not often appeared in the middle of worship at Church of the Redeemer—but we had hopes for the revitalization it could offer, based on the few experiences we had had listening to one another.
So we had to introduce the practice while honoring our own church culture. In 2001, it was the deacons who came up with the phrase “Lenten Reflections,” sensing that these were words the congregation would understand. We invited five people we had not heard from before to prepare something for a worship service during Lent. Our definition of testimony ended up being simple. A testimony was your spoken story about how you had experienced God, offered in the context of our community worship.
The practice of testimony in our church has now become an accepted practice. We have moved the testimonies to different points in the service, but usually we placed them in the first half of the service, when the children are still with us, just before the passing of the peace, when the children usually leave for Sunday school. From the beginning, we wanted the children to experience testimonies too, since it was our custom to include them for many significant liturgical events. We continued to invite and recruit members to give testimonies.
It is my thesis that the practice of testimony strengthened the bonds among us as a community and drew us closer to God as individuals and as a community. Yet there were many other transformations that occurred as a result of this practice. To put it simply, the practice of testimony drew us into a closer examination and understanding of other practices of the faith. You see, what I learned as a pastor is that the practice of testimony turned out to be testimony about practices .
This article is adapted and excerpted from Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Power of Testimony
by Lillian Daniel
When a study group at the seemingly traditional Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, Connecticut, read about the practice of testimony, members approached the descriptions of people sharing their faith as if they were reading an anthropology article—an intriguing account about what other people from some entirely different culture did. During the 2000 Lenten season, however, the congregation slowly began exploring the practice of testimony—a practice that would eventually revitalize their worship and transform their congregational culture. In Tell It Like It Is , Lillian Daniel, pastor of the congregation, describes how the practice of testimony strengthened lay leadership, fostered more intimate community, and drew the congregation closer to God. .
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
by Diana Butler Bass
In this provocative book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are 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 for the church in the 21st century. Diana Butler Bass’s groundbreaking project to explore encouraging signs of vitality among mainline Protestant churches is now gaining the momentum of a movement. The author’s cover story in this month’s Sojourners magazine offers a compelling overview of what characterizes these healthy, vital, and inspiring congregations. The Practicing Congregation is a central text on the road to envisioning a new way of being a church.
Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality , Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country. .
Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World
by Dori Grenenko Baker
The authors who collaborated on this book launched a quest for vibrant, life-giving, greening congregations and observed the diverse practices that grow there. They named these churches “Greenhouses of Hope.” A Greenhouse of Hope is a Christian congregation freeing itself to experiment with both newly imagined and time-honored ways of following the path of Jesus. Its members respond to God’s love through practices that genuinely embrace the gifts of youth and young adults. Out of these greenhouses emerge young leaders who want to change the world.
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November 12-14, 2013, Holy Family Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
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