At work, I am more than just a nurse. I am the hands and feet of God. … I am trying to be family to them. Faith is giving me strength to do that.
The congregational response to this young woman’s testimony, spoken during an online worship service in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, was overwhelming. The people I talked with spoke of being in tears because of her resilient, courageous faith, which she brought to her work in a tactical COVID-19 unit at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital.
Testimony as a Way to Connect
During the pandemic, pastors observed their people hungering in unprecedented ways to hear stories of where God was showing up despite unemployment, grief, despair, anxiety, loss, uncertainty, and isolation. To address this desire, many churches, like the nurse’s church, Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, began regularly to include testimonies during every online worship service. When I asked the pastor why testimonies, he gave this response:
We decided that we would do everything we could to involve the congregation creatively during this COVID period. Testimonies and other kinds of video events were one way to do that. Baptists have a long history of testimony. In decades past, it was a feature of Sunday night worship. People were encouraged to speak to the church about what God was doing in their lives. It gave encouragement and called people to reflect on their faith. In some cases, it was a form of witnessing that led others to faith.
Then, in the wake of COVID-19’s denouement and the desire to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, many churches left behind the creative expressions initiated to connect us to each other, often with a word of testimony about how God showed up, even in the darkest hour.
From my own experience of the power of testimony in corporate worship, renewed during COVID-19, I became passionate to help pastors and churches find their way to providing a time and space for testimony when the faithful are gathered together. To that end, I now direct a Lilly Endowment funded grant, Testimony as Community Engagement (www.testimonyhq.com), for the purpose of helping churches create a culture of testimony in their worship, which then spills out into God stories shared in the community around them.
The Faith in Story Form
Here’s how some pastors in our cohort churches speak about the power of testimony in corporate worship.
At First UMC Denton, on the town square of a college town north of Dallas, Rev. Don Lee invites people to turn to someone sitting near them in worship and share briefly their response to a prompt. On Easter Sunday, the prompt was, “What gives you hope?” On another Sunday, the prompt was, “Share with your neighbor a good moment that is also a God moment.” Folks responded positively and engaged each other in both the traditional and contemporary worship services. Rev. Lee explained that “Inviting worshippers to share their story with each other in the context of worship became a powerful experience creating the opportunity to share their testimony in a non-threatening and playful way, reinforcing that testimony can be a natural expression of their life together.”
The sharing of testimonies continued after the worship service. During the benediction, folks were invited, as they entered the fellowship hall, to write their responses on a graffiti wall created on a large, white marker board with the prompt for the day written on it. The graffiti wall extended the testimonies visibly to all who read them.
During Sunday morning worship services at Brock Methodist Church, which sits strategically at a rural crossroads forty miles west of Ft. Worth, worshippers are given an opportunity to share a “God moment.” The pastor, Rev. John Nader, explains that a “God moment” is a time when God showed up in someone’s life in a powerful way. He acknowledged that “When we offer this time, we have to be intentional in knowing that regardless of our own priorities for worship, we are dedicating this time to God. It is kairos (God’s time) not our time. By opening ourselves to God, God then opens the space for testimonies.”
When Christians engage in testimony regularly in the worship service, children and youth, even adults, are catechized in and through the language of faith. In this process, testimony provides a venue for intergenerational learning, because children and youth hear adults telling about their faith in story form. “I’m thinking generationally,” said a UMC pastor in Arkansas. “Many of the people who live authentically well and have a story to tell are older. They’ve grown to a place where they embody their faith stories and have a confidence in themselves and God, so they’re more comfortable.”
Experiments With Testimony
Bestselling author, Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel, substantiates this point in her book, Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony (The Alban Institute, 2006). When Daniel began to integrate testimonies into the Sunday morning worship service, she noted that children, often restless at first, settled in at the testimony time. “They [the children] appear to find these moments as fascinating as the adults do. Perhaps they can imagine themselves up there one day, sharing their faith.”
Getting a church started with testimony in worship works best, Daniel suggests, as an experiment during a special season, like Lent or Advent, because it involves a finite number of Sundays. In other words, there is an ending date, which encourages innovations and sets people’s mind at ease about the practice of testimony.
Testimony in worship can also be launched, in a less conspicuous way than designating a season for testimony, by the worship leaders themselves, including the pastor. Kim Eiffert, Communications Director and Worship Curator with Grace Avenue UMC in Frisco, a suburb north of Dallas, finds
“that our best response to using testimony during a worship context is when it is modeled from those in leadership. When those leading prayers, leading music and those speaking from the pulpit present an appropriate level of vulnerability, it invites others to do the same. It creates a softness in the space and encourages reflection that connects people with their own stories. Testimony has a ripple effect.”
When Rev. Charles LeSure, pastor of Williams Memorial CME Temple in Shreveport, LA, gave a testimony during a Sunday morning worship service, he testified that “Through my trials and troubles, I have reached back and heard what mama always said to me ‘What God has for you is for you.’ I have experienced abuse, loss, divorce, and I have had triumphs, Masters Degree, Business Owner, School Administrator. Through it all, I have learned that it may not look how I want it to look, but I can’t tell God how to bless me, I can’t tell God when to bless me, but I can thank God for blessing me.”
Hearing his testimony was significant for the laity. It gave credence to the power of testimony. “Because we heard the Pastor’s story,” wrote Saundra Roberson, “the trials and triumphs that have shaped his life, we have a deeper understanding of how God has molded him into the person he is today. We also identify with him on a different level, because though he is the spiritual leader of the church, he has also faced some adversaries that he had to trust God to overcome. Sharing testimonies to the entire congregation have affected us relationally. New, stronger bonds have developed.”
An Invitation to Tell Stories
So how about starting this Sunday to experience the power of testimony in worship? Begin in a simple way by inviting worshippers to turn to their neighbor and respond to this simple prompt – “Share with your neighbor a good moment that is also a God moment.” And watch what happens!
Priscilla Pope-Levison, award-winning author, historian, pastor, higher education administrator and professor, has a heart for the ancient yet contemporary Christian practice of evangelism.
In her most recent, award-winning book, Models of Evangelism (Baker Academic, 2020), she gathers together her vast experience over several decades of teaching, speaking, and writing into a compelling and coherent one-stop shop for all things evangelism. In previous publications, she unearthed a large cadre of North American women who engaged in evangelism across the country. These women and their accomplishments come to life in two books: Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2015) and Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Over the past five years, she has received two million-dollar grants from the Lilly Endowment for her work to revitalize congregations. Priscilla currently works at SMU/Perkins School of Theology as Research Professor in Practical Theology and Director of the Testimony HQ Thriving Congregations Grant, funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Models of Evangelism
Outreach 2021 Resource of the Year (Theology and Biblical Studies)
Many sincere Christians dismiss evangelism due to enduring evangelistic caricatures. This book helps readers move beyond those caricatures to consider thoughtfully and practically how they can engage in evangelism, whether it’s through one-on-one conversations, social media, social justice, or the liturgy of worship services.
At once biblical, theological, historical, and practical, this book by a seasoned scholar offers an engaging, well-researched, and well-organized presentation and analysis of eight models of evangelism. Covering a breadth of approaches–from personal evangelism to media evangelism and everything in between–Priscilla Pope-Levison encourages readers to take a deeper look at evangelism and discover a model that captures their attention. Each chapter introduces and assesses a model biblically, theologically, historically, and practically, allowing for easy comparison across the board. The book also includes end-of-chapter study questions to further help readers interact with each model.
Also available in Spanish.
The Latest From Our Blog
Note from TPW: Kara Martin addresses life in the secular workplace, sharing insights to help you lead your congregations to understand their faith and work and also to bring the Kingdom into your own workplace. This was originally posted on March 15, 2017 on...
A Valentine’s Day Tradition What better way to say, “I love you,” than passing your beloved some sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, and glycerin wrapped in a chalkly Necco wafer heart? Maybe some of you remember your fifth grade crush surreptitiously sneaking a bag of...
The Necessity of Memory Memory—or, more actively, remembering—plays an all-important role in our lives. Our culture likes us to focus on the now, "looking forward rather than looking back"—to be people of action, focused on doing—rather than contemplating remembering....