I grew up in churches where, from time to time during worship, or at other church gatherings, we would have the opportunity to give testimonies. Testimonies were personal experiences that gave evidence that God was alive and working in people’s lives. There were the common ones: I was sick and God made me well; I was in a car accident and didn’t get hurt; God made me run late and that kept me from getting in a deadly accident that I would have gotten into if I had been on-time; God helped me share my faith with an unbeliever; et cetera. And then there were the superstar testimonies: people who were addicted to drugs/alcohol/cigarettes/women got saved and set free by God; people were worshiping in a false religion and then they found the Truth of our church; and people who were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and led many people to the Lord.
At times those stories strengthened my faith by reminding me that God was real. At other times, those stories discouraged me because I wasn’t experiencing God like those other people. And then there were times when those testimonies bothered me because it seemed that while the person telling the story got a blessing, others in the story appeared to have gotten a curse. And then there were the testimonies that were just toooooooooo personal, like a Geraldo Rivera-tweeted photo.
Butler Bass talks about how the emerging mainline, where you would least expect to ever hear someone talk about their personal experience with God, is embracing the idea of testimony with zeal. But instead of giving “victorious” stories that prove God is real, the stories being shared are ones of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage stories are told more from the perspective of “this is what I’ve figured out so far;” or,”I’m grateful this happened to me. I’m not sure what it means, but I’ve found joy or peace because of it.” Stories that tell the perspective of our experience with life and God without dogmatizing our experience as universal truth.
A few of us at Glendale City Church started a new gathering on Saturday mornings a few months ago where our stories of pilgrimage (though we didn’t call them that) were the central focus of our time together. What most people, who make this group part of their weekly rhythm, say is that they are being given a sacred gift when another person shares their story. When a person takes a personal risk of vulnerability to share their joys and sorrows, struggles and successes, the rest of us are honored by that act. It is a sacrament.
- Does the idea of sharing your personal “testimony” or “pilgrimage story” frighten you or excite you? Why?
- Do you think there should be time in a church’s worship to have people share their pilgrimages?
- How do you and your group avoid falling into the pitfall of always having “happy ending” stories?