How is a congregation shaped as its members share their stories in worship? And how does telling one’s story shape that person’s faith? These are the questions that lie at the heart of Tell it Like it is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, by Lillian Daniels. Daniels tells the story of the practice of testimony within the congregation she was leading, a practice which became an important aspect of their worship and, like a stone thrown into still water, its effects rippled through the congregation.
Daniels led a congregation within the United Church of Christ (UCC), a faith tradition that she describes as being less-acquainted with having its members share their personal stories of faith than other traditions. As her congregation began its experiment with testimony they believed that they were recapturing a practice described in a number of places in the Bible. While there are varied accounts of testimony in the Bible they are consistent in this: “People of faith are called to testify to God’s power and presence in their lives, and in the New Testament this is a call to proclaim Christ.” (xvii) This explicit understanding of testimony led them to define it simply as “a spoken word in the context of worship, and it could not omit God.” (xiv)
Daniel’s congregation began their use of testimony during the season of Lent, with leaders of the congregation taking turns sharing a moment when God was present in their life. The person sharing didn’t have any firm guidelines beyond the definition above, which provided a wonderful variety to the types of things that people chose to share. As time went on a people from all parts of the congregation took part in the practice. They were young and old, long-time members, new members and even some non-members who had been in the habit of worshipping there.
Reflecting on the experience after she left the congregation whose testimony the book is drawn from, Daniels writes, “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.” (13) I would say that she successfully demonstrates that there is much for a congregation to gain from the practice of testimony.
There are times when we may have powerful experiences of God, but we may only share them with our closest friends. And at the other end of the scale are those moments of group fellowship after worship when we may only share the most superficial of things, omitting God completely from the conversation. Testimony can be an intermediate place of relationship building, both for members of the congregation among themselves and as individuals with God.
Testimony involves risk. The risk is that seemingly universal concern over what people may think about us after hearing what we have to say. But perhaps there is a greater risk, the risk that the very words we are being led to speak go unsaid, and in that silence the possibility of God using us as his instrument is passed by.
Daniels has written a book that encourages congregations to use testimony as a part of their witness in the world. In reading it I am also reminded that God has called me, and all who follow Christ, to be his witnesses, both in church and in the interpersonal relationships we have every day.