(Sixth in a series of reflections on the church of my childhood)
During Sunday night services in the little white church on Third Street there was usually time for testimonies. People stood to tell what Christ meant to them, or how they had been sustained by him in a time of temptation, or of a recent answer to prayer.
On some Sunday evenings testimonies came more quickly and freely than on others. For this reason, on rare occasions the minister might call on a certain person to give “a word of witness.” Fresh testimonies were encouraging and sometimes convicting to those who had fallen along the way.
I recall that Tom Patterson, the respected owner of an auto-repair garage on Fifth Street, usually gave the same testimony, word for word each time. True to his nature as a quiet man, it was brief and spoken in a soft voice.
I remember that when “Grandpa” Robinson, a farmer from west of town, finished his testimony he would stomp his foot and say with conviction, “Salvation!” It was his signature. As a little boy, sudden and unexpected expressions like that scared me. In fact, I would never let my father hang my cap under his hat in the vestibule because I wanted it handy so I could make use of it if needed.
I recall that “Grandpa” Robinson had whiskers at a time when whiskers were not in vogue. I remember him as lean and bearded whereas “Grandpa” Snider was round-faced and bald. They both sat up in the amen corner to the left of the pulpit. In my young mind I sensed they were pillars of the church, though I know I wouldn’t have known what that word meant.
On a few occasions the testimonies were quite spontaneous, offered by believers who had something fresh to bear witness to -– for example, either the Lord’s sustaining presence in a time of bereavement, or the news of a family member at a distance who had been won to the Lord. On such occasions the saints rejoiced with those sharing good news. This was community.
On rare occasions the testimonies would run into and fill the time for the sermon. This was regarded as a good sign by some that the Spirit had moved on the people and “the minister didn’t even get to preach.” I consider that now a notion that may have been well-intentioned but doesn’t have very good support from the Scriptures. The preaching of God’s word is foundational to the life of the church.
Testimonies still have a place in the evangelical church today but in some cases they’re given a different emphasis in two respects. For one thing, they are emphasized more as an activity to be engaged in outside church walls. In alive congregations believers are encouraged to share their faith with neighbors and friends, whether spontaneously or in pre-planned settings.
This is very much in keeping with the thrust of the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles. The text of that first historical record of the early church is, “You will receive power … and you will be my witnesses….” (Acts 1:8).
For another thing, testimonies given within the event of corporate worship are inclined to be more intentional. That is, they are carefully prepared in advance. I went to a morning service of a vital church of another denomination at which a young woman gave a gripping testimony of her experience of coming to Christ. She had it all written out and she stuck to her script, but this didn’t seem to reduce the impact of her words. The pastoral staff had obviously helped her to tell her story in such a way as to include in it the whole plan of salvation. It was compelling.
In looking back I realize that the Christian community of my childhood was basic. Perhaps it was in some respects like the house churches of the New Testament era. Burdens were shared, joys were expressed, the Gospel was embraced afresh. The thirties of the last century on the Western Prairies were hardscrabble and the sharing of testimonies of struggle and triumph were nourishing to the hungry spirit.
There’s something about a fresh, well-given testimony in a public service that adds authenticity to all that is going on. TV advertisers know this. How many times in the past two weeks have we heard radiant testimonies of weight loss of 35 or even 102 pounds –- thanks to Nutrisystem?
Testimonies tend to validate the truth preached. I think it was James Denny who said with regard to the compelling reality of a genuine conversion, that an argument (against the truth of the gospel) is never a match for a good testimony.
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