Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it? How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Louise Westfall
Tell me something good, tell me, tell me, tell me. . . . . The Stevie Wonder lyrics have always reminded me that sometimes you have to use words to express feelings, values, meaning to another person. In our commitment to demonstrate the transforming love of God, we Presbyterians often forget to use our words to tell others something so good it changes everything. We’ve resisted reducing the breathtaking power of the gospel into a formula or four-step process. But as one preacher put it, “There may be many routes to the train station, but would you please tell me one?!”
Telling the story has prompted us at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Denver to develop the spiritual practice of “witness.” For now, it’s an element in our traditional Sunday morning worship service, but it’s served to broaden our vision as well as sharpen our skills.
A witness is a short (4-5 minute) testimony by a member, mission partner, or visitor with one primary purpose: to describe what God is doing in their lives. We’ve long had “mission moments” that described some ministry or initiative, ending with an invitation to contribute, get involved, or learn more. The focus was on information and persuasion. Nothing wrong with that, except it mostly felt like an “advertisement” for something the church thought you should be doing. For visitors and newcomers in particular, these announcements were filled with insider jargon and church-speak. I once heard a mission moment that used the acronym OGHS throughout, never once sharing the powerful impact of the One Great Hour of Sharing offering!
Because witnessing is different, we developed a simple template to help tell the story around responses to three questions: What is God doing in your life? How is God’s love demonstrated in this ministry? How has this ministry made a difference to you? I thought people might be uncomfortable with this personal approach and truth be told, some claim it more readily than others. Yet people long to experience God in daily life, and these witnesses make those experiences accessible.
In a witness during the annual stewardship campaign, a woman spoke frankly about her husband’s job loss and their financial difficulties and the intentional decision they made to pledge nonetheless. “God has been there for us through every hard time; we want to share so that others remember that God will be there for them too.” A couple told of their gratitude for prayers, visits, meals and child care when their youngest son was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. Though their son is in remission, the force of their witness came from their experience of God’s presence amid the terrifying diagnosis and debilitating treatments.
Occasionally, members hesitate because they’re afraid to show tears or vulnerability. Several times, we’ve videotaped their witness and shown it in the service. John, for example, had served a long prison sentence for theft before he came to us through our transitional housing ministry. He described how he found Christ while in prison and wanted to share his transformation with the congregation that had been a friend to him as he struggled to reintegrate into society. His video witness, shown during worship moved the congregation deeply, and spiked contributions to the housing ministry (even without asking!). Exposing human vulnerability isn’t easy for any of us, but we’re learning that we’re safe in the company of God’s people. People receive our tears, our brokenness, even our regrettable decisions, with acceptance and kindness. That itself becomes a powerful witness to members and visitors alike.
Tell me something good. . . . tell me that you love me. . . . A witness is a love song, a way of telling others that the very heart of the universe is love. Why would we keep that a secret?
The beauty of witnessing is that it becomes an expression of the variety of ways and means God’s love comes to us.
Louise Westfall is pastor/head of staff of Central Presbyterian Church (@centralpresden) in downtown Denver, Colorado, one of the top five destinations for millennials (though not her son. Yet.). Even after three decades of ministry in diverse settings, she believes congregations are the very best communities of transformation. An ardent church choir member and whistler, Louise enjoys making a joyful noise unto the Lord.