called to testify

This article is about one congregation’s rediscovery of the practices of testifying to the good news of the gospel. Many congregations in the mainline church find testimony to be, at best, a problematic practice. Testifying is something undertaken in tent meetings and free churches, beyond the mainline. That is, of course, unless one is called to testify in court before a judge and jury. Both settings for testimony - in the church or in the court room - evoke fear. And for good reason. To testify under oath is to keep the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16). It means telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God”. Whatever else it means to be living into post-modernity, it certainly includes a widespread sense that the truth is ‘up for grabs’. To speak the truth of the Christian gospel in such an age is to place oneself at risk - at risk of losing friends, esteem, opportunity and more. And, if one is to be believed, speaking the truth requires living the truth that one speaks. Otherwise the spoken testimony is seen to be perjured. Yet without voices and lives that risk speaking and living as if the gospel is true who will hear and see the good news? Such is the argument of a growing body of mainline theologians and practitioners.

Testimony is undergoing a surprising recovery. Building on the work of Paul Ricoeur and others Walter Brueggemann has imagined the biblical witness as a collection of witnesses disputing the truth about YHWH in court ("Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy"). Brueggemann argues that testimony is the appropriate mode for preaching in the decentred context of the once mainstream church. But testimony is not only for preachers. Thomas Long’s recent book - “Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian” - intends to awaken congregations to the power of testimonial speech beyond the pulpit and out to the back fence, the office corridor and the dinner table. In her new book - “Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony” - pastor Lillian Daniel narrates the story of the Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, Connecticut as it is transformed by the recovery of testimony in its life together. Her book invites pastors and lay-leaders to ponder this question: How are we to call forth a people who find a voice to speak and live the gospel in bold, honest and vulnerable ways?

After over a decade in ministry at University Hill Congregation of the United Church in Vancouver, I find myself in the midst of a people who are learning to testify and who understand that this is central to congregational life. Yet I am not entirely sure how it is that we have come to this new common sense. This article is an attempt to jot down some field notes, some observations, some initial findings in hopes that they will prove useful to others seeking to cultivate the practice of testimony in congregational life.

A Passover Story
I was nearing the end of my initial interview with the Pastoral Relations Committee of University Hill when I asked the group to tell me one or two problematic areas in the congregation’s life. I suggested that even in the healthiest of congregations there are certain controversial issues or arguments that the new pastor should be aware of before he or she steps into the pulpit or a council meeting. The response was a lengthy silence. At the beginning of my second interview with the same committee, a respected member turned to me and said: “We have been thinking about the question that you asked when we last met. It didn’t seem right that we could not give you an answer. The truth is, of course we have problems and arguments and issues that trouble us. But something has changed in our life. Have you ever talked with a person whose doctor has given a terminal diagnosis but who miraculously survives? Yes, they still have problems. But the problems are hardly significant given the alternative! We had been told to expect death. We had prepared to die as a congregation. So the fact that we are alive, and that we have energy and hope makes our problems seem so minor in comparison.”

This passover story in which the congregation recites its journey through the sale of its property, its uncertain future and its discovery of a new calling on the other side of that loss provides a crucial link between contemporary communal experience and core Christian memory. It has been some two decades since the break with property and building occurred. Yet that season of loss, risk, dreaming and hope is as contemporary to newcomers at University Hill as the Exodus is to a new generation of Jewish children who learn to recite “We were once slaves in Egypt ...”. The story of University Hill’s journey is not one of careful planning or the result of a consultant’s vision. The congregation simply could not continue to carry on with the burden of a building that was far too large for its size. But somehow it survived, now as a tenant rather than a landowner. And that very survival has led some in the congregation to ask “Why?”. Lorraine, who returned to the congregation just as it was going through its exodus, likes to remind us: “I believe that God saved this congregation for a purpose. Now our work is to listen carefully and to watch closely in order to discover the calling that God has in store for University Hill Congregation.”

The root story of the Christian church is cruciform. The testimony of the Christian church in every time and place announces the news of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every congregation is invited to bear witness to this good news by participating in this three day, three chord progression of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday in its own time and place. Of course, few congregations willingly participate in Good Friday loss, ache and grief. More than a few imagine that such Friday endings are the opposite of God’s good news. But the witness of our mothers and father, grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith has left us with the story of a surprising resolution of Good Friday tragedy. They have taught us to wait and prepare in hope through our own Holy Saturday seasons of despair and silence. They have sung songs of “Amazing Grace” and “Blessed Assurance” that promise deliverance on an Easter Sunday that lies ahead.

This cruciform figure of speech has been key to the recovery of testimonial speech within University Hill Congregation. Giving testimony is not simply “telling my story, sharing my faith”. Testimony is not actually about me or you, or about my congregation or yours. The testimony of the Christian church is the announcement of what the God revealed in Jesus Christ is up to here and now. In order to see what this God is up to, we look at our journey through the cruciform lens of the scripture. Learning to see God at work in the places of loss, heartbreak and absence is no easy task, given a culture in which the predominant interpretive lenses can hardly be described as cruciform in shape.

Praying in Public
If my first glimpse of the testimony of University Hill Congregation occurred during my initial interviews with its Pastoral Relations Committee, my second glimpse came on my first Sunday at worship with the congregation. I had been told about the congregation’s practice of asking a lay member to be “worship elder” for the congregation. This is the congregation’s way of designating a lay worship leader each Sunday whose calling is to prepare and lead the communal prayers of the congregation. The practice of inviting participants in the worshiping community other than the preacher to lead in prayer began at University Hill during the interim ministry of Thomas Harding. It was continued throughout the ministry of my predecessor, Alan Reynolds. By the time I entered into covenant as the congregation’s pastor the practice had been in existence for ten years. Now, eleven years latter, lay led prayer is more than one thousand Sundays old. It is impossible to quantify the impact that this single practice has had on the life of the congregation. But it is obvious that the varied voices who have risked speaking prayers to God on behalf of the congregation have been practicing testimony.

That is what I noticed on that first Sunday, and have noticed on every Sunday since. Leading public prayer is risky. It invites the one voicing the congregation’s prayer to consider what words must be spoken in light of the events of the week and the texts that have been preached and the life of the congregation and the activity of God. Leading public prayer also provides some safety for the one who speaks. It is our common custom to bow heads and close eyes during this corporate turn to God. The attention is not placed on the speaker, but on the One who is addressed. This is testimony directed to God on behalf of the people. I did not think of this as public testimony at first. But as the weeks and years have passed, I have come to recognize that my predecessors have gifted the congregation with a formative testimonial practice. It has become the norm that a wide variety of disciples respond to the calling to serve as Worship Elder by leading in public prayer. It calls each Worship Elder to offer their own voice to the drama of salvation, interceding with God on behalf of the world and congregation, and in so doing, revealing their own witness to the nature and purposes of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The next thing that I noticed about prayers led by lay participants in worship was the range of voice, theological location and concern. Each Sunday the prayers reflect the variety of witnesses who make up the congregation. They can be carefully crafted, poetic voices or simple, direct, roughly phrased prayers. I well recall visiting with June after she had attended University Hill for a few Sundays. We were soon speaking about the variety of voices offering prayer in the congregation. Knowing her concern for language, her theological acuity and her frustration with cliches, I began to apologize for the roughhewn prayers of the preceding Sunday. She stopped me in my tracks, saying “Ed, don’t you understand? That is the genius of it. There is not one proper way to pray. I may not agree with all the words that are spoken. But I cannot deny the faith of the one who is speaking those words. Don’t change a thing!”

This is the nature of testimony. It is varied. There is not one version of the story, there are a variety of accounts. Four gospel portraits ... and Paul’s letters, like a fifth gospel. A mix of witnesses take the stand. Each tells the truth that has been witnessed from a particular vantage point. The church I grew up in seemed suspicious of churches that invited and expected testimony. I was never quite sure of the reason for this suspicion, though I sensed fear - fear that we, too, might be called to testify. I do recall concerns about false witness, about a kind of ‘canned testimony’ that seemed pre-packaged. Some seemed to have only heard one particular testimony voiced over and over - a witness to the precise moment when the witness giving testimony “gave my life to Jesus”. This suspicion can be justified. The jury is naturally suspicious of witnesses whose testimony seems to have been carefully coached by a team of lawyers or to have been ‘cooked up’ by defendants trying to pass off a lie as the truth. Yet I notice that the very church that is rightly concerned about overly programmed and rehearsed testimony is often careful to homogenize its own witness to the gospel. Creating a safe sanctuary for witnesses to speak the truth about what God is up to in the world and in the church and in the soul requires ongoing practices of testifying under oath without danger of retribution. To my surprise I discovered that this occurs every Sunday in worship at University Hill Congregation when the Worship Elder invites the congregation to pray.

From Classroom to Courtroom
How can the pastor faithfully foster the congregation’s testimony to the good news of God in Jesus Christ? What is my part in a congregation that is learning to testify? I have been pondering this in my ministry for a number of years. As a called and covenanted leader in the congregation, openly encouraging testimonial speech and living is key. The congregation notices when its pastor names testimony as a key practice of congregational life. It should come as no surprise to the congregation that I consider testimony to be a priority in our life. Simply calling on the congregation to testify will not, however, be all that is required of the pastor. Providing a rationale for this testimony will also be crucial. Educating the congregation in the roots of, and reasons for, testimony makes room for a new culture of gospel truth-telling to emerge within the congregation.

At University Hill Congregation this educational pilgrimage began with a study group that read Walter Brueggemann’s “Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe”. Here we came to recognize that the evangelical role of the congregation in telling and living the good news would depend upon witnesses who dare to share the news:

"Evangelism is a drama, a narrative account that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is not an isolated event or simply a decision. It is a process that has many characters. For the drama to work properly, each character must play a proper role. This drama, in its narrative shape, has three scenes. In the first scene, there is a combat, struggle, and conflict between powerful forces who battle for control of the turf, control of the payoffs, control of the future ... In the second scene, there is an additional character not present in the first scene. It is the announcer, the proclaimer, the witness who gives testimony and tells the outcome that he has watched .... The transferral of significance from one time to another, from one place to another, depends utterly on the effectiveness, trustworthiness, and artistic capacity of the announcer. It is the announcer who retells, reconstructs, and reenacts for new listeners ... In the third scene, the announcer has now spoken and the listener has heard. The conflict is over, the announcing has ended. Now the listener must make an appropriate response to the new situation, letting the newly announced reality reshape life in new ways ... This drama in three scenes is not finished. Each scene must be endlessly reenacted." (Walter Brueggemann, "Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe", pp. 16-18)

Recovering an evangelical identity in a congregation of the United Church of Canada is not a straightforward enterprise in which education leads in a direct line to adoption of that identity. Knowing that we are called to be a people who un-apologetically speak and live the Good News does not immediately translate itself into becoming an evangelical congregation. This occurs text by text, Sunday by Sunday as we tell the old story in our own voice and time.

< note: I am using the term "evangelical" here to refer to the whole church as a herald of the good news that God is up to a new creation in Jesus Christ. I am not intending to refer to a particular theological encampment within the church that may claim - or be labeled - as capital 'E' evangelicals. In North America, in particular, the naming of some Christians as 'evangelicals' has caused others to abandon this essential aspect of Christian identity. This is surely akin to 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' for any church worth its salt. >

In my own practice as a pastor I have found that shifting my understanding of the pulpit from lectern to witness box has been a crucial factor in cultivating testimonial rhetoric and life in the congregation. In a congregation named “University Hill” it is very tempting to adopt the preaching stance of a lecturer, offering education about the Bible and the gospel and the church at every turn. The congregation can even encourage the preacher to remain a teacher. But when the preacher risks moving beyond teaching to testifying there is an unmistakable increase in voltage. Now the biblical text is not something to be studied for our mutual edification. Now it is a holy stranger to be hosted, a sacred voice to be heard, a daring truth to be told. The preacher’s calling is not so much to explain as it is to speak the surprising truth that he or she hears God speaking to this congregation at this time. The resulting sermons are ‘rougher around the edges’ and regularly include the preacher’s own struggle to grasp what the text is saying here and now. The sermons are often open ended, inviting the congregation’s testimony in response. They intend to convey a sense of urgency and incompleteness, placing the focus not on the preacher or the congregation but on the God who is making a new creation.

Inviting Witnesses
Finding suitable places and real reasons for those in the congregation to practice testifying is necessary if one is to invite testimony. So we simply invite testimony whenever we can. When we gather at the font for profession of faith we invite those who come for baptism or renewal of baptismal vows to write their testimony and share it with the congregation. We ask them to tell us how God has brought them to this place. When people move away from the congregation we invite their testimony to what God has been up to in their time with us before we lay hands on them in an act of commissioning and blessing. For nearly a decade the congregation’s practice during Lent has been to invite forty-seven people to respond to the call to host each of forty-seven texts, listening for a word from God for us as a congregation. These testimonies are then published for devotional use within the congregation during Lent. During Stewardship seasons, when we are encouraging one another to consider financial commitments to the congregation’s ongoing life, we invite spoken testimony rather than education about the congregation’s finances. And when we gather for meals, for study groups, at our church council we do not hesitate to invite honest witnesses to speak the truth about what God is doing in our life.

The variety of voices who risk speaking in these various settings is a constant reminder that the good news can be spoken by anyone. The evangelical task of witnessing is not restricted to the preacher, or to the highly educated, or to the experienced. We are learning that the most powerful witnesses are often those who stumble for words or who speak through tears. These simple, humble witnesses are often the best models for the kind of testimony that is most often needed. Sometimes simply acknowledging our baptism to neighbours is a significant risk to relationships. One person in the congregation admitted that hanging a Christian Seasons Calendar on the wall of her kitchen caused her great anxiety. She was unsure of the reaction she would receive when her friends from yoga class came for coffee and discovered that she is a Christian. In such a cultural setting it is essential that congregations provide a classroom where Christians can find their voice before neighbours ask for the truth.

Witnessing Repentance
When discussing Christian testimony we most often think of an individual’s voice. Yet the most powerful testimony witnessed at University Hill Congregation over the past decade has been communal. It began with the congregation’s growing awareness of the deep pain and hurt caused by the church’s participation in Indian Residential Schools. Searching for a means to live out a journey of repentance the congregation was reminded that the Native Ministries Consortium brings First Nations leaders from across Canada and beyond to its doorstep every summer. One person in the congregation said: “I imagine that if we showed up in Bella Coola for two weeks every summer that we would receive at least one invitation to dinner”. The congregation responded enthusiastically to the suggestion of inviting First Nations guests to a meal, as a sign of our desire for a new relationship based on a turn in our way of being with them. One of our elders warned the congregation to begin such a journey with care: “Too many congregations have promised this kind of partnership to First Nations in the past, and then have forgotten soon after. If we begin to invite the Native Ministry Consortium to dinner, we must be prepared to pass this tradition on to our grandchildren. If we begin the meals and then stop, it will prove our promised repentance to be a false witness.”

That first meal saw hosts and guests nervous, wondering how to proceed. It took the shape of an Agape meal (a traditional Methodist love feast). Now, nine years later, both hosts and guests have learned what to expect. The ongoing custom of a meal hosted by University Hill Congregation has become a scheduled event on the Native Ministries Consortium summer calendar. Every year we tell the story of how this meal began, and of our continuing desire to be in a new relationship with First Nations peoples. Every year the meal carries on late into the evening, as our guests step forward to say thank-you, to lead in song and to testify to the power of God to heal, to save, to make new and to reconcile. Listening to this testimony the people of University Hill Congregation hear the gospel with open ears and hearts. In the very act of witnessing to our desire to live a repentant life we have been given the great gift of the good news of God’s surprising love, from the lips of those who we have wronged. We begin the evening as hosts. We end the evening as guests. The welcome Table of Jesus Christ saves the lost once more.

Opening Lips and Hearts
We are learning that bearing witness is not a one time performance nor is it a solo activity. Testifying to what God is up to is a communal practice undertaken over time. We host the testimony of scripture and speak the cruciform truth to one another, making room for stammering, stumbling and faltering voices. We discover the power of mutual witness to encourage the church and to call muted voices to speech. And we testify to the power of God who opens these once silent lips and hearts.
                                                                          - Edwin Searcy
                                                                                  originally published in Touchstone 2006

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