October 29, 2015

The Contagious Power of Testimonials

When an international student moves to the United States, and starts watching American football or baseball, they are often perplexed. When a North American student explains the game, they start to appreciate it. But when they hear a true fan of the game respond to a brilliant play by exclaiming “now that was amazing,” then their attention is focused in a new way. That exclamation—a testimonial, really—becomes an invitation not just to understand the game, but to fall in love with it.

When a new restaurant opens nearby, I may notice it. An explanation of what they serve and how they prepare their food may cause me to take a second look. But if a good friend starts raving about their experience there, that is really what will prompt me to try it out. And when the meal starts, and a friend utters a savory ‘mmmmmm’ after a bite of an appetizer, then my attention is awakened, and I enter into the experience in a new way.

When you visit an art museum, and start to look at a painting, you begin to experience the work. When an insightful docent explains the painting, you begin to see new layers of meaning in the work. But when the docent ends the explanation with wry smile and words like “my favorite detail here is the hidden image painted into the top corner of the work,” you are being asked to not only study the work, but to enjoy it. They slipped a testimony into their explanation, and that little testimonial becomes an invitation not just to ponder, but to savor the work.  

In sports, food, and the arts—and in a thousand other human pursuits—our engagement with a practice involves three rather different modes of engagement: the experience itself, an explanation of the experience, and a testimony about the value of the experience.

The same is true in worship.

Experience, Explanation, and Testimony

The Experience: Consider the practice of worship, the act of experiencing spoken and sung prayer, hearing the reading and preaching of scripture, sharing testimonies and offerings, receiving baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The practice itself is irreplaceable, irreducible, and quite capable (often) of eliciting deep participation. 

An Explanation of the Experience: The practice of worship can be supported and deepened by explanations. It helps to know why we take offerings in church (not just to pay the costs of the service), or about the symbolic meaning of the Lord’s Supper (where even small amounts of bread and wine or juice can convey a lavish amount of grace-filled meaning). These explanations—which could be called by the classical term ‘liturgical catechesis’—can happen in both a Sunday school class for 6-year-olds or in a graduate-level seminary course. They can be used by the Holy Spirit to significantly deepen our love for God and each other.

A Testimony about the Value of the Experience: These experiences and explanations, in turn, can be complemented by testimonials, by people who respond to worship by saying things like “that service was such a source of comfort for me” or “that hymn or song helps me express what I otherwise find it hard to say.” 

When they come to us unbidden, without any sense of coercion, these testimonies can be a profound invitation to engage worship on a deeper level.

There is no substitute for the power of testimony to deepen our engagement in worship. I recall some years ago being in a group of people who together visited a congregation on a spring Sunday morning. Half-way through the sermon, the person in front of us—a member of the church—leaned over and whispered “isn’t this the most amazing message of good news”. We marveled at the unforced joy in that comment, which caused us to prick up our ears and engage at a deeper level.

Musicians and artists know about this almost instinctively. A choir director can explain a given piece of music all day long. But when that same director becomes deeply moved by the music, then they create conditions in which choir members may end up engaging on an entirely different level.

This is also true for worshipers. When grandparents encounter a new song they really don’t like, their perspective can change a lot when they hear their grandkids say how much song means to them. When grandkids are tempted dismiss older hymns as quaint, their perspective can change a lot when they hear how a given hymn was a source of power during challenging moments in their grandparents’ lives. 

Testimonials and Faith Formation

This simple reminder about the power of informal, passionate testimonies came back to me recently in a conversation with a group of parents and church leaders as we discussed raising kids and shaping children’s and youth ministries. So much of what happens in faith formation ministries and in our efforts as parents consists of participating in practices (church going, Bible reading, praying), and, often, in explanations of those things.  

What so often really sticks with kids are the little testimonies they may absorb along the way—the way a pastor or teacher conveys that a given Bible verse is inspiring to him or her, the way a parent or mentor talks about how baptism or the Lord’s Supper is a source of inspiration for him or her.

Testimonies “stick” in many areas of life. We all recognized that our kids knew very well what our favorite foods, sports teams, and restaurants are, because we so readily testify about these things. Do our kids ever hear us say “This is one of my favorite Bible texts” or “this is one of my heartsongs”? or “I love the Lord’s Supper because…."

Gently Inviting Testimonies

The problem is that testifying can sound intimidating. This especially true if we associate testimonies with formal speeches in front of a congregation, or professing our faith in front of a group of church elders. But so many of life’s important testimonies happen right in the middle of casual conversation.

What could be a natural, low-barrier way of encouraging a culture of testimony-making? How could we invite them, without coercing them, or turning them into an intimidating spiritual exercise?

When it comes to testimonies about worship, try these conversation starters at a family dinner table or church small group or worship committee:

  • What person blessed you in a special way during this service?
  • What word or phrase in the Bible reading today was a source of comfort or challenge to you?
  • What was an aspect of today’s service that stretched you in an important way?
  • What aspect of God’s beauty and glory became clearer to you today?

If you had something to do with the service, be clear that you aren’t fishing for a compliment. The goal is to create a gear shift in our informal conversations, guiding a conversation about worship preferences into a conversation about worship’s deep meaning and purpose.

Beware: Testimonies Implicitly Reinforce Priorities

Framing these questions is a delicate exercise! The challenge is this:  what we testify to not only points to a given experience in general, but more specifically to a particular aspect of that experience. Someone may testify that a new recipe is tasty.  Another may testify that the same recipe is healthy. Each testimony conveys underlying values. Someone may testify that a given college course is good because it is easy. Someone may testify that a given college course is good because it is challenging. The underlying values are clear. Our testimonies convey, powerfully but implicitly, the values used to evaluate the experience.

The same is true about worship.

If our kids grow up only hearing us affirm sermons when they are short, they may well be formed to evaluate worship with an implicit stopwatch.

If our kids only hear us affirm upbeat music that says in our comfort zone, they aren’t being formed to learn to love music that is challenging or honest about life’s hardships.

If we say “we have the best music or preacher in town,” that testimony may lead people to join our church, but for a reason that sells worship short.

If we say “I love the groove of that opening song,” we may be helping our children attach more to the groove of the song than the God the song intends to worship.

It is all too tempting to testify about worship in ways that implicitly undermine what worship is all about. 

That’s why a question like “what did you like in worship today” could be counterproductive.

More Learning to Come

I suspect when some people read this post, they will immediately think of a mentor, a teacher, a friend, or relative who lives their life peppered with these little testimonies. They probably never needed to be prompted with an article like this.  

Most of us, however, need the prompting. We may well be deeply grateful for something we experience in worship, but we have never heard the invitation to express it, even in casual conversation. So we have some learning to do—learning about what makes testimonies ring true, learning about to invite them in fruitful ways.

I would love to learn from your insights about this aspect of talking about worship together.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.