Wineskins Archive

December 20, 2013

I Just Want to Testify (Sept-Oct 1997)

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by Dan Dozier
September – October, 1997

28In the congregation where I grew up I never heard anyone give a testimony during the worship assembly about what Christ had done in their life. That, we felt, would have been as out-of-place as the proverbial pearl in a swine’s snout. We simply did not do that, nor a lot of other strange (yet biblical) practices some of our religious neighbors did, like kneeling to pray, voicing a hearty “hallelujah,” or lifting our hands in praise to God. I could not have explained why we did not do those things – we just did not. Perhaps you grew up with similar impressions.

I have changed my mind about testimonies in worship. In the congregation of which I am now a member, we do that sort of thing from time to time. As a matter of fact, the entire time normally allotted for the sermon recently was given to a series of testimonies. More than 60 teenagers and their adult supervisors had returned from mission trips to poverty stricken areas of Mexico and Nassau. What they experienced during those weeks of ministry was so life-changing that they were bubbling over with enthusiasm to share the news.

Six teenagers and two adults spoke briefly, as the rest of the group surrounded them on the platform. One of the adults showered the young people with compliments and declared to the congregation, “Contrary to popular belief about youth today, these kids are not going down the drain. Because they let Christ work through them, our kids were world-changers last week.” Several of the teens, many of whom had never seen abject poverty before, said things like, “Those people have nothing, and we have so much. I felt so ashamed that I’ve got so much and feel bored when they have so little and have learned to be happy.”

The whole assembly was touched to hear about kids who were so moved by compassion for hungry, ill-clad children that they spontaneously gave their own spending money to buy clothing and food for them. We listened with excitement as the kids told of teaching the children about Jesus. We thrilled as they told us of helping to build a house for the poorest of the poor in the shanty town. We wept as one of the adults told us about one of our teenage girls who voluntarily took a bucket of water and gave a bath to a young crippled child whose mother was so uncaring for her child that she regularly left him sitting naked in the street.

The message of God’s love and transforming power he gives to those who will serve him was more powerful coming from those kids that Lord’s day than if the preacher had tried to tell the stories which he himself had not experienced. The service concluded with a father baptizing his son into Christ. God was glorified. Christ was lifted up. People were moved deeply in their hearts, and all were edified by the wonder of all that occurred that day.

Testimonies in the New Testament

Testimony comes from a word that refers to one who remembers and can tell something to another person. In both the Old and New testaments, the word is often translated “witness.” Its earliest application is a legal term, referring to someone who comes forward as a witness to something he has seen or experienced. This usage is seen, for instance, in John the Baptizer, who bore witness that Jesus was the lamb of God (John 1:7). Another example is the Apostle John, whose purpose in his account of the gospel was to testify about the teachings and events in Jesus’ life that would lead people to believe that he was the divine Son of God.

Two other events demonstrate the power of testimony. After the Lord healed a demon-possessed man, he told him, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Everyone was amazed! Again, after Jesus’ revealing conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4:39-42 informs us that many townspeople believed on Jesus because of her testimony concerning him. “Testimony” is a rich word. By the second century, many Christians were being persecuted and killed for bearing witness to Jesus. Since the Greek root word for testify is martus, it is easy to see from where the word martyr comes.

But What About Testimonies in the Assembly?

The biblical illustrations above all had an evangelistic purpose, and not one was given in a worship assembly. Actually, all the recorded sermons in the New Testament are delivered in evangelistic settings, and none of them appear to be in the Sunday morning worship assembly of Christians. What was the nature of those messages? The Apostles’ sermons about Jesus recorded in the book of Acts are based not only on the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture, but also on the personal encounters and experiences of his disciples who lived with him three years. Even Paul told King Agrippa of his blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:12-22).

No one objects to witnessing outside the worship assembly – that is the basis of personal evangelism. But the question still stands: Is it right to have testimonies in worship? How can we know? We know that sermons were delivered in Christian assemblies, but Scripture supplies the contents of none. The New Testament does not even record the order of worship for a single service. That fact alone ought to give us pause in being too dogmatic about whether or not testimonies occurred in the assembly.

What Is It We Fear?

If you were taught as I was, you probably learned to be skeptical of personal spiritual testimonies, especially in the assembly. But why? Our greatest fear, probably, is that people will elevate personal experience over biblical authority, that emotion will overrun reason. We are afraid that they highly emotional people in the body will stand up and talk about what they happen to be feeling at the moment, and we are terrified that what they say may not be appropriate. We fear that things will get out of control, that unspiritual individuals will start a competitive game of “I can do you a better story than that!”

Will Campbell illustrates some of our anxieties. In his book, The Glad River, Campbell describes a fictional worship service in a congregation called the “Church of the Almighty in Jesus’ Name Amen.” The preacher screams:

“We don’t have a printed bulletin that’s sent to the printer on Tuesday for next Sunday’s service. You know what I’m talking about! … They’ll have all this fancy stuff. Processional, Call to Worship, Invocation. Or whatever they call it when the preacher gets up and reads something out of a book. Congregational Hymn. Offertory. First Lesson. Second Lesson. Responsive Reading. All that. Sermon. Recessional. Prayers of Intercession … Now brother, we don’t write it down in advance because we don’t know what the Spirit has in mind for us to do until He leads us to do it. We don’t have printed on a piece of paper Processional, Call to Worship, Hymn, Sermon, Lift Up Serpents! We lift up serpents when the Spirit of the living God tells us to lift up serpents! Not when some elder or bishop or pope tells us to. You know what I’m a-talking about out there!”

Testimonies do not have to fall prey to such subjectivism. Just because a testimony is personal does not mean it has to be wildly irrational or uncontrollably emotional. My daughter, Amy, recently returned from a six-week mission trip tot he land of the rising sun where she established a good friendship with a young Japanese girl. Yasuyo does not yet believe in God, eve though Amy, and others, have taught her. Yasuyo was interested in the teaching about God, but what touched her heart most were the personal testimonies my daughter and others shared with her. Amy told Yasuyo of her conversion to Christ and how her life has been remarkably changed since that day, that she has a purpose in this life, and a confident assurance of eternal life hereafter.

That’s only one of several testimonials Amy shared with Yasuyo concerning her walk with the Savior. my daughter’s initial testimonies to her oriental friend were about Jesus. But along with that foundational witness about the Lord, Amy shared practically and personally how Christ is at work in her life. The message of Christ is of primary importance, but it very well may be Amy’s personal testimony that someday helps lead Yasuyo to Jesus Christ. While such testimonies are often shared in private, they could just as well be shared in the public assembly where many others could benefit.

Most Churches of Christ have not practiced personal testimonies. One reason has to do with the view held by many that the New Testament is a blueprint for every practice in worship. This view holds that there is a clear pattern of worship in the New Testament, and it is to be replicated exactly in every age. It doesn’t seem to matter that the New Testament does not give a standard order of what worship was to be for any church. The reasoning goes like this: If a worship practice was present in the primitive church, that act of worship merits repetition today. If the New Testament is silent on certain activities, they had best be left out of our worship today. If you follow the reasoning, the conclusion is that we should not do “testimonies” because we have no specific, unquestionable illustrations of such being done in an assembly of worship in the New Testament.

At least this view takes Scripture very seriously, and that should be applauded. However, to use the New Testament as a detailed description of worship that outlines every form and sequence of the service is a mistake. At best, the New Testament gives us sketches of what worship looked like in a few congregations. To get the fuller picture, we literally have to gather specific elements and practices of worship from all over the book of Acts and the Epistles. How one congregation orders its worship, making use of those various elements, is up to each congregation. That is why Christian worship services look different in different cultures, and yet each one may be thoroughly acceptable and honoring to God.

The New Testament provides elements, concepts and principles of worship, but no fixed pattern or style of worship. There was variety of worship styles in New Testament churches. The earliest Christians were Jewish converts who assembled at the temple precincts to worship. Their Hebrew background must have made their worship style quite different from the worship among the predominantly Gentile converts in Corinth or Rome. There is good reason to suspect that as Christians gathered for worship, regardless of the congregation or city, personal testimonies played an important role in all of them.

Proceed, But Be Careful!

There are obvious possible dangers with testimonies. There are good reasons to listen carefully to those would caution us. I offer the following suggestions with some reserve and a lot of humility. I claim no expertise in, what is for me, a relatively new-found areas of expression. Since they are merely my opinions, feel free to share your own suggestions with me.

First, examine every potential act of worship. Just because someone thinks something would be nice to do in worship does not necessarily mean it would be right or edifying to the body. A good theology of worship requires us to ask, “What does this act lead people to believe about God?” Individual preferences and idiosyncrasies have to be subjected to the needs of the entire body. Whatever is done must be done for the strengthening of the body (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Second, do not allow testimonies to become a badge of super-spirituality in the body. Those who do not have a marvelous testimony may feel spiritually inferior to those who do. No one should feel any pressure to give his or her testimony to find acceptance among fellow Christians.

Third, focus on the witness of Scripture first and foremost. Only as you are well-grounded in the revelation of Scripture and are growing in its knowledge will you be able to test your own experiences. Look for outside-of-me realities before you look for inside-of-me phenomena. If you are quick to talk about what God is doing in your life, but you are slow to study the Word, you are wading in very uncertain water.

Fourth, give your testimony only when you think it can benefit others. Never use a testimony to fulfill selfish desires for personal attention. That kind of unhealthy craving can easily lead to one-upsmanship and sin.

Fifth, be just as willing to make public confession of weakness and sin as you are to give a glowing testimony of the victories Christ has given you. No Christian is perfect, and to tell only the positive things is to live a life of pretense. Confessing sin is the hardest work of worship because it requires us to face the dark side of our natures with absolute honesty.

Sixth, practice moderation in the use of personal testimonies in worship. Too many too often would tend to make them trite, even banal. Let a testimony be unique, powerful, encouraging, memorable.

Testimonies can benefit the assembly if shared by those who are guided by the Spirit of God. Let us not forget, however, that the primary function played by testimonies in the New Testament was to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the saving grace of God to the lost. Any unwillingness to testify privately to the sinner about what God is doing in our lives tarnishes our most powerful testimony in the public assembly of worship.Wineskins Magazine

Dan Dozier

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