Testimony saves lives.
That’s one of the reasons that when people ask me for best practices for starting or revitalizing churches, I almost universally recommend it.
Every week in worship, organize a layperson to stand up and share in five minutes or less what it feels like to undergo God in their own particular skin. Every week, make sure someone who is not the preacher tells a true story of faith, that is to say, an honest personal account of gratitude or struggle or changed perspective or joy or lament or doubt or beauty or surrender or anger or trust or love or anything that finds and searches for a grounding in Christ. Call it testimony, call it spiritual autobiography, call it whatever you want – just start doing it. Every time you meet, make room for diverse people to translate their faith experience into public words.
Because of its capacity to channel spiritual power, testimony has been and still is a crucial part of the pioneering days of many Christian traditions and movements, but it often falls out of vogue as we grow more “refined” or bureaucratic and contract out our fundamental need for storytelling to clergy or other religious “professionals.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO ME
That may be one of the reasons that the first testimonies I heard were not in Christian worship but in the rooms of a 12-step recovery community that I visited one sunny Saturday morning to “do research” for a sermon series on addictions that I was planning.
I arrived a bit late, and as the meeting was in a grotty church basement and as I had a lot of assumptions about substance abuse, I expected to find a fragmented collection of miserables possessed by guilt and teetering on the verge of self-destruction. But instead I was greeted by a happy crowd of people and volunteers trying to add more cheap metal folding chairs to rows that already almost touched the walls of the packed-out room. I saw an open seat and squished in between a young white guy with dreadlocks and a cigarette tucked behind his ear and an octogenarian black woman touching up her lipstick and wrapped in a flawless floor-length fur coat.
After a short welcome, the meeting’s chairperson asked, “Is there anyone here who’s celebrating an anniversary or counting days?” and that’s when the testimonies began. People scraped their chairs back on the dusty tile floor and lined up in the aisles. One by one, they moved toward the front to say phenomenally beautiful things:
“Yesterday I celebrated a year of continuous sobriety,” someone almost sung into the microphone, and the crowd broke out into applause.
“Today I have twenty-five years free from alcohol and drugs” someone else said, to whistles and cheers.
“Today it’s two weeks, and it’s hard as f***ing hell, and I’m just trying to take it day by day, but I’m here. Two weeks.” The already enthusiastic clapping intensified to ovation, and I started to cry.
I was genuinely surprised by the tears running down my face, and off my face, and onto my notepad, smearing the “research notes” I’d taken for my sermon. Why am I crying? I asked myself, but I knew – somewhere deep down, beneath all the calcified layers of self-deception, I knew that these testimonies of lives-in-the-process-of-being-saved were meant to save my life, too.
I managed to pull myself together for the rest of the celebrations. “I’m just here for research,” I said to the fur coat woman, and she looked me in the eyes, nodded her head, and called me “Baby” as she offered me a tissue to dry my face.
The meeting didn’t stop with the testimonies of celebration. My tears continued as two other speakers got up to share slightly longer stories that included not only that their lives had been and were being saved but also what they had been and were being saved from – all the addictive, compulsive stuff that had gone down, that had landed them in the pit where they finally accepted they needed help that they couldn’t conjure by themselves. From relational misdemeanors to serious slips to colossal moral bankruptcies, people were telling the truth – in detail. Stories of waking up next to people who weren’t their husbands or wives in foreign countries where they hadn’t been three days before on the last day they had any clear memory of. Stories of losing their life savings or their jobs or their dignity or the custody of their children. Stories of losing everything. Stories of lying and falling and failing and embarrassing themselves (and many others) in epic or everyday fashion.
Interestingly, while I was crying, it seemed like everyone else in the room was laughing. It wasn’t a laughter that made light of these testimonies or tried to cover over their thick descriptions, however grave or garden-variety. You could easily intuit that there wasn’t an ounce of denial or shame anywhere. Rather, it was the laughter of joyous freedom, fueled by the deep knowledge that telling the truth, a miracle in itself, was the doorway to a life of miracles. The knowledge that God can use even the most ersatz sense of freedom (which is finally all your drug of choice can offer you) to break you out and into the Something More that is shatteringly freeing and truly saving and always, always on offer.
Why don’t we do that in the church?
Probably for a host of reasons: the idol of polished “excellence” in worship, clergy control freakery (I cry “Guilty!”), Christianities that have prioritized the rational or the official or the “liturgical” over the subjective, the false notion that “real” testimonies are only about dramatic events and not the boring, ordinary parts of day-to-day human life, the individual fear of exposure, the pain of invidious comparison with others’ stories and the anxiety that “my story isn’t _____ enough” or “I don’t have a story to tell.”
WHAT CAN HAPPEN IN CHURCH
Make room for testimony and as true storytelling becomes a norm in worship, these negative barriers will begin to diminish. Your community will begin to teem with new verve and potential. People will listen more attentively, as they recognize themselves in the testimonies of others, as they relax into the awareness that they are not alone in their own stuff, both good and bad: Oh, right, she’s talking about me! I totally do that, too. I’ve also felt that way, or wondered about that. I want what he has. Yes! Laughter, tears, and deep existential rest — all symptoms of the spiritual assurance that can be opened with testimony – will begin to transfigure congregations and individuals that before seemed stagnant or hesitant or repressed.
Make room for testimony and your church’s mission statement about changing lives will no longer only be something that you print in your bulletin every week; now it will be narratively demonstrated every week in people’s stories. And a mission story is always better than a mission statement. Missional power and humility will expand as people come to subjectively experience what they might have cognitively believed (or not) for years, that their true stories are what God wants. Which is why regular lay testimony is also one of the most evangelical commitments a church can make. In my experience, most unaffiliated folks are not that interested in checking out a worship service to hear an unknown preacher’s sermon, but they’ll show up to hear a friend of theirs tell a story. I’ve baptized a number of adults who came to worship only because of a friend’s testimony and ended up sticking around and rather unexpectedly coming to faith.
HOW TO DO IT
So, how do you start a regular ministry of testimony in your congregation? For some longer reading, check out two wonderful books: Lillian Daniel’s Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony and Thomas Long’s Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian.
But to get you started, here are some basic suggestions:
For church leaders:
- You can start whenever you want, but some find it helpful to launch a testimony trial run that is framed in a particular season of the program, liturgical, or calendar year. Whenever you start, share in advance with your congregation what testimony is and isn’t and why you’re embarking on such an experiment.
- Since the first experiences of testimony in a congregation will begin to establish a culture, choose the first 8-10 testimony givers with several things in mind. You’ll want a diverse range of people (age, gender, race, sexuality, etc.), a diverse range of experiences and stories (incorporate the wide spectrum of the human experience so that you don’t privilege one personality or spirituality “type”), and people that you trust to take it seriously.
- Reach out to these individuals well in advance, tell them what you’re hoping for, and ask them to pray about it. Give them a list of guidelines (see below) and if they say yes, schedule them for a particular worship service. I like to have testimonies scheduled at least 6 weeks in advance so that testimony givers have time to reflect and prepare.
- Especially if the practice is new for your congregation, offer to read folks’ first testimony drafts or meet up with them one-to-one to encourage them. When they stand up to share in worship, you want them to feel as confident as possible. As the practice continues and deepens in your congregation, you may decide to add an additional one-to-one meeting afterwards, as the experience of testimony often unlocks callings, purpose, and questions in those who give it.
- You can place testimony anywhere in the service. I personally think it works best in the first half of worship, perhaps before the Scripture reading, so that people connect it to the other proclamations of the Word.
- Have someone briefly introduce the testimony each week, sharing in a sentence why your church does it, and inviting the testifier up by name: “Here at ___ Church, we believe that stories change lives. So let’s give Demetrius a round of applause as he comes to share testimony with us today!”
- Have the testimony giver close the time with prayer, or have someone else pray for the testimony giver.
For those giving testimony:
[The following is from an email I send to people several weeks in advance of their testimony.]
Thanks for being willing to share some of your testimony in worship on [date]!
Plan on your testimony lasting no more than 4-5 minutes. The time goes quickly, and written words take longer to speak than we might imagine, so be sure to prepare in advance and to practice.
We’re trying to help people get connected to each other and so we would like to include your email address in the worship program so that folks who identity with your testimony can be in touch directly. If you would prefer us not to do that, just let us know.
There aren’t a ton of dos and don’ts for testimony, but these suggestions may help as you prepare:
1. Your testimony is your testimony. Don’t feel like it has to be like others you’ve heard in worship. If yours is funny and full of levity, that’s great. If it’s more introspective or chill, that’s great, too. A short reflection, a story, a poem that you’ve written or some other media: share authentically how God is moving/active/present/working in your life and you’ll be just fine.
2. We hope that testimonies will share “new life” experiences – a new perspective, a change of heart, a new belief or practice or question, a new community, etc.
3. Don’t try to cram too much in; pick a point or two and let that be it. Remember: 4-5 minutes goes quickly.
4. If you are sharing something marked by pain, we suggest, as some have put it, that you “speak from your scars, not your wounds.” Both scars and wounds are part of the Christian experience, of course, but scars are perhaps better material for testimony as they often include the reflection and wisdom gained by walking through time in the pain, whereas speaking in public about open, current, unexamined wounds can sometimes hurt more than help.
5. Don’t diss directly on other churches or denominations or religions. We understand that we all come from some place and sometimes this includes a difficult religious experience. It’s totally fine to be honest and to reflect on that, but we ask that you not single out particular groups; for example, please don’t say anything like “the Baptist church is horrible and exclusionary” or “Roman Catholics don’t understand” or “Muslims don’t believe in grace.” We want to avoid the potential stereotyping and demonizing of other traditions.
6. Be yourself, for Christ’s sake. You can only be where you and who you are. No need to pretend, because, after all, it’s your testimony.
7. Don’t forget introduce yourself by name at the beginning of the testimony and to close in prayer at the end.
8. Did we mention 4-5 minutes? 😉
So, that’s it. Try it for a few seasons in your congregation, and see what happens as people start to tell the honest-to-God truth, in detail, in public. Church renewal is not guaranteed, but lives-being-saved are.
If you’re looking for coaching or consulting around church revitalization or church planting/pioneering in the US, UK, or Europe, you can find out more about my coaching ministry here.