From John’s Gospel:
John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 1:32-34 – August 8, 2012)
The word appears twice in these three verses: testify. According to the dictionary it means to make a public declaration of belief, a statement of faith, an affirmation of fact. I wonder how many church members ever “testify” during the normal course of their daily lives. Not many, would be my guess. In fact, my initial response to my own question is “Damn few!” Members of the Episcopal Church are admittedly reticent to talk about religion, theirs or anyone elses.
We do not have a time during our worship when personal testimony is encouraged or invited. Since the earliest days of its existence, the Christian church has ritualized testifying by incorporating a corporate statement of faith, the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed, into the its liturgy. While this has had the salutary effect of unifying the church around a single set of understandings of God, it has also gotten Christians out of the habit of talking about God and faith in their own words; in other words, it has encouraged us to not testify.
The great re-awakenings of faith seem always to have started when someone started doing just that – talking about God. Giving up on the ritual, they simply gave utterance to the important questions in their lives and how God had helped or was helping or ought to help answer them. Martin Luther nailed his questions to a chapel door; John Wesley preached about his questions and answers in country fields; Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield held emotional revivals encouraging others to talk about faith. Talking about God, that’s all they were doing.
There’s another word for that, by the way – theology – from two Greek words, theos and logos, god and word – words about God, theology, testifying; it’s all the same thing. People who testify, who talk about God in their lives, are simply doing theology.
I’ve a friend who thinks we need to change our worship to add a time for personal testimony, but I’m not convinced. If talking about God in church worked, it would already have worked because we talk about God a lot in church. Adding or taking away from what we do in church isn’t the answer. There are already plenty of churches doing that; it’s not our tradition and not our style and if we tried to do it, it wouldn’t be authentic. We should do what we do, but do it with greater integrity and better quality.
In The Church Creative: How To Be a Creative Gathering in the 21st Century, John C. O’Keefe makes the point that the answer to the question of increasing religious activity is not adding glitz to worship, the answer is reimagining God’s role in our lives – the answer is talking about God outside of church in everyday life.
When we think in terms of creativity and productive solutions we need to go beyond just hanging cool pictures, listening to different music, showing movie clips, developing a catchy sermon series, or using flood lights and fog machines in worship. It means we see things in a different way; we view life and issues we face from multiple directions and learn to re-imagine, rethink. (The Church Creative, page 186.)
We need to hear more people in more situations saying, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” We need more God-talk by whatever name we call it.
Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio. (Fr. Funston has no commercial interest in or connection to Zazzle or the I-Heart-Theology T-shirt; the link is provided simply to acknowledge the origin of the graphic.)