by Nathan A. Finn
One of the goals of the Center for Baptist Renewal is the revitalization of Baptist worship by engaging with liturgical resources from the wider Christian tradition. Most of us who identify with CBR are open to worship practices such as more regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the recitation of creedal statements, and adopting more of the Christian Calendar than simply Christmas and Easter. However, we are also convictional Baptists who celebrate those practices that are either unique to, or specially emphasized within our own ecclesial tradition. One such practice is public testimony.
Baptists have always been a people who appreciate the importance of public testimony. Historically, in our baptismal practice a recent convert would recount his or her testimony prior to being immersed in the name of the Triune God. In more recent days, while a full testimony has become less common in most churches, baptismal candidates often still answer a few questions about the gospel and testify to the Lordship of Christ over their lives before being baptized. Some churches, including my current congregation, utilize technology by playing short video testimonies prior to baptisms. When my own daughter was baptized last fall, her video testimony was played just prior to my immersing her as a public follower of Jesus Christ.
In addition to baptismal testimonies, Baptist churches often have incorporated public testimonies into their corporate worship services. In some of the churches I’ve been a member of, we would periodically hear longtime church members recount their conversion stories. After all, their original baptism testimonies were decades old by now. In another past church, members would occasionally share testimonies about fruitful evangelistic encounters as a way to help cultivate an evangelistic culture among all members. In several churches I’ve been a part of, visiting missionaries and parachurch leaders would sometimes offer testimonies about the work they were doing for the kingdom. In some cases, these sorts of testimonies served as the focal point of an entire service.
One of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever heard—now almost twenty years ago—was on the Sunday in January dedicated to the sanctity of human life. A woman shared her story of becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She wasn’t a believer at the time, and almost everyone around her urged her to have an abortion. She chose to keep her baby, even though that decision scared her to death because she was unmarried and had few financial resources. She later became a Christian and now saw her one-time “burden” as a gift from the Lord. She closed this five-minute testimony by calling her now elementary-aged daughter up to stand with her on the platform. Mother publicly praised God for providentially leading a scared, then-unbelieving woman to keep her precious daughter when it seemed at the time like the hardest decision in the world. As you can imagine, the whole congregation was mightily moved that day by this powerful testimony of God’s grace.
While I’m in favor of Baptist churches becoming more intentionally liturgical, I’m also eager to see us maintain an emphasis on public testimony in our liturgies. If the purpose of liturgical worship is to intentionally recount salvation history through the forms and structures of the service, then one way to regularly complement that approach is having individuals share their own salvation histories. We are each, after all, individual embodiments of the wider story of what God is doing to save sinners and ultimately redeem the created order through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And our unique stories only fully make sense when we understand them to be a part of that Story of Stories.
In terms of practical advice, I’d encourage churches to include conversion testimonies prior to baptism. As noted above, this can be done extemporaneously, by reading a written testimony, or with a pre-recorded video. I’ve seen all three approaches done very well. I’d also encourage churches to at least occasionally set apart the offertory as a time for a short testimony rather than a choir anthem or similar musical presentation. Different sorts of testimonies could be shared depending upon the theme of the service. In the place of a sermon illustration, pastors can occasionally ask a member to come up during the sermon and share a short testimony that illustrates the truth of the passage.
There are likely many other ways to more intentionally and regularly incorporate public testimonies into public worship. Whatever you decide to do, find ways to let folks tell their stories of Jesus and his love as one way to encourage the whole body in their public worship of the Risen King.