Finding Our Voices Again

Lillian Daniel

– What do you believe about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit?
– I don’t know … what do you believe?
– Tell me about your faith. How have you experienced the living God in your life?

– Well, I wouldn’t want to offend you.
– No, I really want to know.
– Well, I can tell you what I don’t believe. I’m not like those Christians who try to force their religion down your throat, so …
– So what do you believe?
– Well, I believe everyone should be free to believe what they want to believe …
– And for you that is …
– Well, I just said it.
– Said what?!

For too long, the mainline’s noble and honorable impulses toward tolerance and inclusivity have turned our church members into spiritual illiterates who, being out of practice, have forgotten how to speak the simple words of testimony.

That was not a practice that came naturally to us, particularly as New Englanders, but it turned out to be a risk work taking, as talking about Jesus always is.

We who love to talk – we who have found our feminist voices, our justice voices, our intellectual voices, our public voices for Christian traditions that value teaching, prophetic speech, and intellect – we have a fear of public speaking on the one topic we should be most excited about, which is our experience of the living God.

In 2007 my denomination celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. At our General Synod two years before that, they tried to pass a resolution that would make voting on resolutions at the next General Synod a no-no. It was a resolution to prohibit resolutions. Its purpose was to allow our anniversary celebration to focus on worship, our church, our ecclesiology, our salvation history, our faith, and our future. But there would be no voting on resolutions.

Needless to say, it was voted down. Which is why we in the United Church of Christ have the nick- name, “resolutionaries.”

But we are not alone. We all have our resolution- ary tendencies, do we not? – a willingness to speak out boldly on how our faith ought to be lived out, but reticence about our faith itself. Put simply, we are more willing to tell our neighbor how to vote than we are to invite our neighbor to church.

“No Godless Testimonies!”

I say this as one who loves my church’s prophetic witness so much that I actually want our churches to grow.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony. It told the story about how our congregation, the Church of the Redeemer, UCC, just north of YDS on Whitney Avenue in New Haven, came to adopt the practice of testimony, of telling our faith stories to one an- other, in worship. That was not a practice that came naturally to us, particularly as New Englanders, but it turned out to be a risk worth taking, as talking about Jesus always is. We defined testimony as standing up in church and talking about personal experience of God, but other than that there were no parameters. As long as it was ultimately about God, it could cover any other topic as well. We instructed people who were eager to speak about matters they cared about that they could do all that, but that their testimony could not be Godless. “No Godless testimonies!” became our shorthand mantra.

It has long struck me as strange that the same mainline church members who pass resolutions on gay marriage and propose solutions to conflict in the Middle East and take on health care reform suddenly shrink in silence on the subject of sharing their faith – and here’s the irony – lest they offend someone.

So some people talked about meeting Jesus through community organizing, and others spoke about grandparents who had nurtured them in the faith. One woman even talked about Barbie dolls. I forget how Malibu Barbie and her camper connected to Jesus, but I know they did because we insisted on it. In order to help people who were comfortable speaking about everything except God, we asked them, “What could you say here in church that we would not hear on NPR?” That made sense in an intimate liberal college town where NPR was more normative than the gospels.

I finished writing that book at the church I currently serve in Glen Ellyn, IL„ in a very different part of the country. I am minister of a large sub- urban church in a Republican county, where many people are likely to get their news from Fox News, and where 1,200 members and two services do not make for much intimacy. I wondered how testimony would work in such a setting, but I was determined to try it, and the congregation was open to it, much more so than my New England friends had been.

Our church is full of sales people and business people who are very comfortable speaking in public. Surrounded by heartland Christianity, they realize faith-sharing is virtually the norm in Glen Ellyn and the next-door college town of Wheaton, considered by many to be the heart of evangelical thought. Our folks were ready to give it a try. In fact, they were ready to do it off-the-cuff and without notes.

Tears and Fears

One man stood up one Sunday and practically swaggered up to the lectern and just started talking. “I’m really pleased Lillian suggested I do this. I’m very comfortable speaking in public and I love to communicate, and what better subject than the church I love …” But as he went on to speak about the ways in which being a lay leader had not only brought him closer to God but had brought him closer to his aging father, he began to cry. His voice stopped working for a moment and you could tell he was surprised at his own physical reaction. He turned around to speak directly to me and said, “Wow, this is really different from other kinds of speaking, isn’t it?” The confident and successful man was humbled at the power of the practice, and when he continued, the tears accompanied him as he told a beautiful story that trumped any sermon I could give.

Since the book came out, I have spent the last few years offering occasional testimony workshops for church folk who want to start talking about their faith. I hear from Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Quakers. Many of them are already doing some form of testimony, they just wouldn’t ever call it that, since it sounds like something “those other Christians do.” “Testimony” is a word that conservative churches use, and I myself began the practice using the milquetoast phrase “Lenten reflections,” because at the beginning I was too much of a chicken to take back the church’s word. But I now love the word “testimony,” as well as the bridge it builds between churches that might otherwise be separated by the culture wars.

For too long we in the mainline have spoken out on matters of justice, but turned faith speech into something secondary that we reach for in order to back up our positions.

In one workshop I was surprised to find an Assemblies of God pastor, and I asked him why he was there, adding, “I thought you guys could teach us about this stuff.”

“We’re losing the tradition,” he said. “Our people don’t feel comfortable sharing their faith either. We’re all in this together.”

Since then, I have heard Pentecostal ministers say the same thing. Slick megachurches use edited videotaped “testimony” so polished it may not even deserve to be called testimony anymore. It’s not just the mainliners who struggle with a fear of public speaking, but, for us, the cure may need to be tailored to our own unique culture. (Perhaps we should offer our testifiers a tote bag, just like NPR.)

In the workshops I lead, I notice many diverse examples of mainline church vitality, but the one common thread I see most clearly is: in vital congregations, the church members and their pastors have learned to tell the story of how they have experienced God’s grace. Even if their belief is in a universal salvation for all people of all religions, they have learned to testify to their faith in their Christian community and to share that story with enthusiasm. They have broken through the mainline fear of offending people and decided to talk about their church life and God.

Notice that I include the pastors in this. Occasionally I teach preaching, and I am struck by how many of our future pastors are afraid to speak of their own personal relationship with God, even when they are preaching.

I developed an advanced preaching seminar and taught it for the first time this spring at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was called “The Use of Testimony and Personal Narrative in Preaching.” The divinity students signed up with trepidation, I believe, since they had wise and appropriate reservations about how much of the pastor’s story should be a part of the sermon. But they also acknowledged that, in their university environment, people are more at ease discussing God intellectually than personally. I recognized this phenomenon from my own days as a student at YDS. When you train for the ministry in the midst of a secular university, your own fear of public speaking about faith is easily hidden as long as you are good at expressing yourself in intellectual matters. But that won’t fly in the local church. If testimony is going to catch on as a practice again, the sermon can be the place where people learn that it’s safe to go in these waters. And sometimes, it is the lay people’s testimony that gives the pastor the courage to do the same. Pastor and laity can reinforce one another.

In one workshop I was surprised to find an Assemblies of God pastor, and I asked him why he was there, adding, “I thought you guys could teach us about this stuff.”

To use Paul’s image, it’s time for the veil to be pulled off the gospel, because, and here’s the rebuke we receive from Scripture, the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.

Defying the Mega-Voices

And who are those unchurched people? In the main- line, we don’t dismiss them as infidels. They are people who are distant from God, hurting and in pain, people who, God forbid, were injured some- where by a church. And not realizing that there are other options, they languish, perish even, lonely for God and separated from the Christian family.

So if the gospel seems to be veiled, covered up, hidden to people, whose fault is it? It’s ours. For too long, we have let other wings of the Christian family dominate the discussion. We have allowed mega- churches to have an uncontested mega-voice, and allowed the judgmentalism of one form of Christianity to imprint upon the inexperienced a distorted picture of our gospel.

Paul’s letter names this habit, as if he were writing today: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.” (2 Cor 4:4) And God help us, sometimes the church is implicated, either by speaking wrongly or by keeping silence when we could have spoken rightly.

We need to sit up and take responsibility. Because if we can proclaim that God is still speaking, as we do in my own denomination, we better remember that we need to be speaking as well.

It’s time for the great unveiling of a gospel that is justice-seeking and welcoming of all people. And it’s time to acknowledge that those characteristics are not the gospel itself, but merely fruits of it, natural extensions of it. For too long we in the mainline have spoken out on matters of justice, but turned faith speech into something secondary that we reach for in order to back up our positions. We began with an impulse to change the world, and ended up letting the tail wag the dog.

For those of us within the Christian tradition who are so gifted in speaking the language of justice, or of intellect, we must learn again to speak the language of faith and recapture the vocabulary of people who have experienced the divine. Because we have and we do. We just need to remember how to talk about it. And like many of our best movements, this one may be lead by lay people, if the pastors can make room in Sunday morning worship for recovering an ancient practice we heedlessly let lapse: the practice of testimony.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel ’93 M.Div. is senior minister of First Congregational Church, UCC, in Glen Ellyn, IL. She also co- hosts the TV program 30 Good Minutes, which airs on Sundays at 5 p.m. on Chicago’s public TV station WTTW. (See She is the author of Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony (Alban Institute, 2005) and This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers (Eerdmans, 2009), co-written with Martin Copenhaver.