Lillian Daniel is senior minister of the Church of the Redeemer (United Church of Christ) in New Haven, Connecticut.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 4, 2006 pp. 20-25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Lillian Daniel discusses the shortcomings of unplanned congregational input but argues positively for it. If one is willing to face the unpredictable and to release some control, it is in the very release of that control the blessings come.
The church I served in New Haven had a moment at the beginning of worship when anyone could come forward to make an announcement. People had a love-hate relationship with this time. On the one hand, it was a chance to see the diverse vitality of the congregation and to match a face and a name. For newcomers, it was a wonderful introduction to the strong lay leaders of our church. On the other hand, announcements could become long and tedious and interrupt worship. Some announcements overwhelmed the listener with details or referred to events only one or two people might be interested in.
Apart from noticing this ongoing struggle with the announcements, I noticed something else. People who could have taken 30 seconds to say where and when a meeting was going to be held were getting up and sharing anecdotes. People were using the announcements to tell stories, to tell one another something about themselves and their faith.
In talking about the next community organizing event, a person might testify to the power of the previous one and the beauty of seeing people of faith together. In announcing an adult education opportunity, someone might speak first about how it was adult education that drew him into deeper community. In general, few people minded these announcements; in fact, they generated conversation and strengthened community. But as the announcements grew more creative, they introduced an unpredictability to worship, especially regarding the length of the service.
I began noticing how other opportunities for unplanned congregational input were being used. Prayer requests were turning into small testimonies. We were hearing more background information about the prayer requests, and stories about prayers that were answered.
People offered their prayer requests from the pews, and the ministers would report back to the congregation the gist of what had been said, using the pulpit microphone. Much was lost in the summary. People complained that they wished they could hear the stories from the speaker, but the layout and acoustics of the church made this impossible.
We could have encouraged people to come forward to the lectern so they could be heard, but there were too many prayer requests each week to make this feasible. I wondered if we could occasionally single people out and ask them to prepare a few remarks.
During this time, there was one member who had a tradition of giving a lengthy and beautifully crafted testimony each year on his mother’s birthday. The anniversary of his mother’s death would lead him to talk about lessons she had taught him about faith and life. I came to expect that he would speak on such occasions, and I allowed time for it. Since his remarks were well prepared, like a mini-sermon, I asked him to speak from the lectern rather than the floor.
Meanwhile, I heard people saying that they looked forward to stewardship season because at that time members offered short reflections, called "giving moments," about their walk with God in the life of our church. Sometimes the remarks were funny. Sometimes people cried. "I love stewardship season because I get so excited about what people will say," one member said.
While probably no one would use the word testimony for these kinds of speeches, I sensed that our congregation was in fact hungry for the practice of testimony. I presented the idea to the deacons, who agreed.
We wanted to introduce the practice in a way that honored our church’s culture. The deacons 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 Sunday service during Lent.
As pastor, I laid down just one rule: Lenten reflections must not be godless. If this was to be a Christian practice, our testimony was accountable to the tradition of Christian testimony itself. What could we testify to on Sunday morning that we could not just as easily testify to on National Public Radio? I didn’t want Lenten reflections on "all the good that civic-minded people can accomplish when they work together,’ or "why New Haven needs a stronger living wage ordinance," or ‘what I have learned about myself in psychotherapy." But as long as God was part of the reflection, those things could be too.
Trusting that God would be in this, I tried to keep myself, as pastor, out of it. When members offered to show me their reflections beforehand, I told them that I trusted them and would prefer to hear them with the rest of the congregation.
But what if someone were to stand up and offer a cruel or crazy vision? What if someone were to use the moment to air a grudge or propose an agenda that reflected poorly on the church?
Testimony is a risky practice, but if it is a regular one, you can rest assured that the following Sunday someone will set forth a different vision. It takes a confident church to introduce testimony, I suspect -- one willing to face the unpredictable and to release some control. But it is in the very release of control that the blessings come.
Churches can easily become places where control and order shut out spontaneity. Worship that seeks to be comforting in its ritual can become boring, especially when the only creative voice comes from the pastoral staff week after week. At our church, testimony opened worship up. Used to being in control, I longed to be surprised myself.
Just as hearing testimony is risky, giving testimony is risky. We open ourselves up to be known by our community of faith in deeper ways. What if someone does not care for your words? What if people end up feeling distant from you rather than closer? Not everyone will want to take this risk, nor should everyone be expected to. I would resist a practice in which people are forced to give testimony as a requirement for joining the church or to serve in leadership. Testimony should be offered as a gift. It should be freely given, albeit with an occasional bit of begging or prodding.
People seem to understand that even when the words of a testimony do not connect to them, they are still a precious gift to be handled with care. With testimony, the listener plays as important a role as the speaker.
Over and over people told me that testimony was opening up our church, creating excitement not only in worship but in the coffee-hour discussions as well. We were making new friends, hearing new stories of faith, being awakened by the Word.
A member named 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 from the testimonies about our history and about where the church was headed. This feature 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 Bible stories, we are calling people into the larger story of God. In an individualistic culture, preachers struggle to remind people that we are part of a salvation history that is much larger than any one individual experience. Testimony showed us that all the time.
In hearing the variety of testimonies, we began to see the connections among them. We saw that while the person might talk about her grandfather’s love of the Bible and another person might talk about ugly neckties, in the end they were 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 make a connection to the larger story. They get used to the pastor’s ideas and ways of speaking. When laypeople speak, those in the pews hear the same story told in many ways, and can imagine where their own story might fit in God’s history.
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, 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 journey. We are called to live as disciples, calling one another into the walk with Christ in the world. Testimonies call us into new ways of living.
Many of those who spoke in church were already leaders in the congregation, but it seemed that after giving testimony, they stepped up their leadership. Sometimes they volunteered for a new ministry or showed new enthusiasm for a church project. They became more likely to speak up at meetings and to offer their voice on issues facing the congregation. By making themselves known through their testimonies, they found they suddenly had more relationships in the congregation. Leaders who were already relational became more so, and people with few relationships built more. We also saw people beginning to wonder if they were called to serve the church as pastors. As people heard others’ calls to ministry, they started to examine their own calls more seriously.