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How To Build A Culture of Lay Testimony in Your Church

Testimony saves lives.

That’s one of the reasons that when people ask me for best practices for starting or revitalising churches, I almost universally recommend it.

Every week in worship, organise a lay person to stand up and share in a few minutes or less on 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 is still 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.” Which is why these days you’re more likely to hear a testimony of true-life transformation in a 12-step recovery meeting than you are in Christian worship.

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Probably for a host of reasons: the idol of polished “excellence” in worship, clergy control freakery, Christianities that have prioritised the rational or the official 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.”

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 recognise 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 that before seemed stagnant or hesitant or repressed. And 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.

Make room for testimony and your church’s mission statement about changing lives will no longer only be something that you print in your notice sheet every week; now it will be demonstrated every week in people’s stories. And a mission story is always better than a mission statement. Which is why testimony is also one of the most evangelistic commitments you 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 baptised 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.

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.

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But to get you started, here are some basic suggestions.

For church leaders:

• Do some personal reflection and prayer on the short Methodist Church resource, Testimony: Core Theological Affirmations (find here). What comes up for you as you read this short document? How might you use this to guide your practice in the churches you lead?

• You can start a practice of testimony whenever you want, but some find it helpful to launch 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, sexual orientation, 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 to decide to add an additional one-to-one meeting afterwards, as the experience of giving testimony often unlocks callings, purpose, and questions.

• 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. 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 a list of suggestions that I email to people several weeks in advance of their testimony. Please feel free to adapt these for your context.

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 practise.

There aren’t tons of dos and don’ts for testimony, but these guidelines may help as you prepare:

1. Testimony is sharing publicly how your story is different because of God’s story. It’s not just your story (though it always includes part of your story), and it’s not just God’s story. It’s a public sharing of how your story has been changed, loved, liberated, expanded, and/or challenged by God. It answers the question “How is my life different because of God?”

2. Keep it authentic. Testimony is not a sanitized, over-polished version of reality. It’s an honest account of what it’s like for you to undergo God. 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. Testimonies are about sharing “new life” experiences – a new perspective, a change of heart, a new question, a new community, etc.

3. Keep it current. What is it like *right now* as you experience God? Not what it was like 40 years ago or what you hope it will be like in 5 years, but how is God part of your story right now?

4. Keep it simple. As you reflect on what you will share, lots of ideas or stories may come to mind. That’s wonderful. But choose one story or even one scene in a story that offers a snapshot of your encounter with God. Write it down – “what is the main thing that I feel called to share with the community in these 3-4 minutes?” Remember: 3-4 minutes goes quickly!

5. If you are sharing something marked by pain, we suggest that, as some have put it; 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 of walking through time in the pain, whereas speaking in public about open, current, unexamined wounds can sometimes hurt more than help.

6. 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 Mormon Church is 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.

7. Be yourself, for Christ’s sake. You can only be where you and who you are. No need to pretend, because it’s your testimony.

8. Don’t forget introduce yourself by name at the beginning of the testimony and to close in prayer at the end.

9. Did we mention 3-4 minutes? ;)

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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. Church renewal is not guaranteed, but lives-being-saved are.

For more information, or to share what’s working in your church, contact Trey Hall at [email protected] or 020 7467 3776.

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More resources

The Story Project - Logo Black
The Story Project - Logo Black