The Rest of the Story
At my church we do a testimony and praise time during our Sunday morning services. For those unfamiliar with the environment at a smaller church with a more traditional feel, testimony time begins with an invitation from one of the pastors to share things God has been doing in our lives. Then the free-for-all begins.
To tell the truth, when we came to this church about a year and a half ago I didn’t like testimony time. Giving free time for people to share can quickly devolve into open mic night at the improv. Or, borrowing from Forrest Gump’s mother, “Testimony time is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get… and you might just find out one of them’s a nut!” So from time to time we get some trivial stuff, some people with questionable filters or a need for attention, some sincere yet theologically suspect comments, etc. In short, it can turn into a good show. Most of the nicknames and greetings people have for me have come from testimony time (e.g., “Hey there, Cutie!” and “Our Little Baby”). Good times.
But what I have come to love about testimony time is that it is a time for the whole people of God to tell the whole story of salvation. It is not just one person who has been called to preach the gospel. The whole community together enacts and proclaims salvation both in their gathering together and in their scattering into the world. So when the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote about the local congregation being the hermeneutic of the gospel, he meant that people will understand the gospel and experience some of its power not as they listen to the collected sermons online, but as they are met by the community of God living the story of God.
But that’s messy. People are filled with imperfections–some they like, some they tolerate, and some they’re trying to get rid of. And churches are filled with people–some you like, some you tolerate, and some you’re trying to get rid of. It would be so much cleaner and more efficient if the kernel of the pure gospel in all its radiance could be separated from the husk of the dull and trite and sentimental and downright sinful people who are clinging to it.
But see, then it wouldn’t be the gospel at all. Jesus wasn’t trying to keep himself from getting dirty when he touched the lepers. He wasn’t trying to preserve his spotless reputation when he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He wasn’t trying to maintain his innocence when he became sin for us. Being a deliverer implies that there are people who need deliverance, and he never minded getting his story mixed up with theirs. There is no gospel apart from the people the gospel is saving. So there can be no disembodied gospel preaching, no pure proclamation free from all the hopes and fears and loves and hates–no matter how great or how small–that are meant to be drawn into the gospel story. As we all tell our stories, as idiosyncratic or even idiotic as they may seem to us or to others, the whole story of the gospel somehow gets told.
Scripture talks about salvation in all three tenses: past (you were saved), present (you are being saved), and future (you will be saved). The whole story of salvation is proclaimed when we tell all three parts of that story. The first two are easy to tell during testimony time. Stories about good things that happened or are happening, and now we’re living in the glow of salvation. It’s harder to tell the third story, about a salvation that hasn’t yet come even though it’s desperately needed. A story that reminds us that we haven’t arrived yet. A story about need and pain and poverty of one sort or another.
If the call to proclaim the whole story of salvation is shared by the community, then those among us who bear sorrow and suffering are not the unfortunate outliers of the gospel story. Rather, on our behalf their calling is to bear the hardest part so that the whole story of salvation is told in the lives of the community of God. We honor their calling and we honor the gospel when we don’t insist that they pretend to be living in another part of the story.
So to those who mourn, who wait, who hurt, and who ask why–your stories also belong in testimony time. Your stories are part of the gospel story, and without your voice our gospel preaching would be incomplete. Your stories keep us from being so well-adjusted to the present that we lose our hope. As you tell your stories they become our stories too, which also means that you don’t have to bear them alone. We rejoice together and we weep together because we are saved together.