It’s not just for the early church!
Has your congregation ever tried to have a testimony-based worship service, in which volunteers share personal testimonies as the basis for the worship hour? This kind of worship service often goes well, but can also be a less-than-edifying experience when the congregation feels uncomfortable or pressured to speak, or when the testimonies get out of control and the implicit messages distort biblical principles.
In 1 Corinthians 14:26 the apostle Paul warns against worship services that miss the mark: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” What if the structure and lead-in to such a testimony time could be planned in such a way as to cultivate the best features of testimonies and reduce the negative features? There are, in fact, some effective ways to facilitate this kind of testimony time.
A Longtime Tradition
Testimony sharing has a long history within Christianity, particularly within Seventh-day Adventist churches. In the early years of the Adventist Church in the United States—in the late 1800s—believers were frequently invited to publicly share experiences and testimonies of God’s leading. During that early period congregations had to be less dependent on pastors because each pastor had many congregations. Therefore, laypeople frequently led the worship services. Along with more lay leadership of worship services, testimony services were used frequently and were common in other Christian traditions, as well. When part of the church service, these testimony times were sometimes called “social” worship, and Ellen White had insightful comments and guidance for these services. 2
Benefits of Public Testimonies
These testimony, or social worship times offered significant benefits to the participants, benefits that continue for contemporary participants. They cultivate a sense of community among believers in which people learn the names and personal spiritual experiences of others. Participants are also reminded of God’s providence and real presence, and are encouraged to pursue an active prayer life.
When laypeople share personal experiences, it . . . encourages listeners that a life of living faith is also possible for them.
Public testimonies have additional and important impacts on the congregation’s faith. Although it’s essential and appropriate for the pastor to share experiences that encourage the congregation in their faith, the influence of testimonies by laypeople is also important and needed. When laypeople share personal experiences, it validates the availability of God and His Spirit to every believer, and encourages listeners that a life of living faith is also possible for them.
Facilitating the Experience
What are some specific ways to facilitate an effective testimony sharing time, a “Testify Sabbath”? Based on principles embedded in the guidance of Ellen White, as well as practical lessons gained by facilitators of such services, here are some suggestions.
The testimony facilitator can encourage participants with such guidance as: “Please consider sharing briefly [three minutes or less] an experience of . . .”:
- God’s leading and presence
- God’s instruction and insight
- God’s comfort and strength
- God’s empowerment for service
- God’s answer to prayer
The facilitator should also minimize the following behaviors that dampen participation and potential blessings:
- Allowing a few individuals to dominate the testimony-sharing time, especially across multiple testimony services.
- Allowing participants to speak on monomaniacal or pet topics, to speak in a judgmental tone, or to promote nonbiblical thinking.
- Allowing the testimony period to extend too long for audience attention or engagement.
- Allowing the congregation to feel pressure to contribute to the testimonies.
By contrast, the following facilitator behaviors will typically encourage beneficial testimony time:
- Informing the congregation ahead of time regarding the testimony Sabbath or meeting time.
- Cuing participants to give their names as they share, as a way of helping members and participants to know one another by name.
- Guiding participants to adhere to a time budget.
- Keeping the interaction warm, supportive, nonjudgmental, spiritual, and aligned with Scripture.
- Restating or clarifying a point within a testimony that keeps to the spirit of the testimony but makes it clearer to the audience.
- Gently correcting, reminding, or placing within context a nonbiblical statement by a participant while restating it biblically.
- Using gentle humor to diffuse tension or to enhance of sense of community and support.
- Arranging to have two or three volunteer testimony sharers ready to start or prime the sharing in case there is hesitancy on the part of the congregation.
- Making connections among individual testimonies to highlight a theme or principle across testimonies.
- Offering a brief wrap-up summary of key points that were shared in testimonies.
- Providing or facilitating on-the-spot support and/or prayer for a member in emotional need.
- Being ready with a backup sermonette in case congregants are too shy or are unwilling to share.
When the program is prepared properly, presented carefully, and managed effectively, participants have the satisfaction of sharing Jesus, listeners reap the benefits of spiritual and scriptural insight, a sense of community and connectedness grows, participants receive emotional support, and the church service has a different and engaging format that brings a change of pace and glorifies God. Malachi 3:16 sanctions this by these words:
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name.”
Although requiring some preparation, this testimony-based worship service complements the offering of more conventional sermons in other Sabbath worship services. Social worship, or testimony services, can be as effective in drawing us to Christ in contemporary times as they were in the early Adventist experience.
- All Bible texts in this article are taken from the New King James Version, Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- For illustrative examples of this, see Ellen G. White’s counsel in Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), pp. 246, 247; idem, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 201; idem, in Review and Herald, Oct. 22, 1889.
Rob Erwin, Ph.D., is first elder of the Buffalo Suburban Seventh-day Adventist Church in New York, United States, and an associate professor and department chair at Niagara University in nearby Niagara Falls, New York.