Recently, I shared the pattern of East African Revival testimonies. I hope some of you will have testimonies like that shared in your congregations. There is another important aspect of evangelism that goes with the testimonies. The opportunity for people to respond to what they hear.
We need to transform parts of the culture of our churches (and our common life) to pursue mission and do evangelism that actually helps people come into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. There are so many wonderful truths in the Kingdom of God, it is not hard to find things to preach on. It is much more challenging, however, to preach in such a way that people are actually specifically invited to take a first or new step in their spiritual life. The step they need to take may be in the precise area of the sermon, but it could also be in some other area. In Western Episcopal (and Anglican!) Churches, there have not been many concrete ways offered for people to respond. Many churches have a response card in the pew, but is hardly adequate. In many parishes, people are expected to take an additional step of contacting the clergy for issues in their lives. There needs to be a whole spectrum of opportunities for people to receive care, counsel, or spiritual direction. Many needs can be addressed in small groups or with healing, teaching, or discipleship teams. Those should be established with good solid training, encouragement, and oversight. Services should not be ignored as a place where people can make commitments and take new steps in their life.
In Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, I have lost count how many times the preacher or celebrant has simply said, "If you need to respond to the Lord, come now." People come to the altar rail and trained teams pray with them. You may well be surprised at how positively people respond to that invitation, but if you are looking for an even more gentle way to invite their response during a service, let me share a few. Obviously these would not be done at the same service, or even every service necessarily. These are some examples of ways that invitations can be offered. I can tell you that I have used these (and many others) over the years. They have all been received very well by the people.
AT THE OFFERING
In stead of (or in addition to) the usual offertory sentence, the celebrant can say, "As we present the bread and wine for the Eucharist and our financial gifts to God, it may be that you are aware that you need to give yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time or in a new way. If that is the case, feel free to come up when the elements and offerings are presented and stand here at the altar. I'll be glad to come and have a short and quiet prayer with you."
AT THE CREED
"Usually, it is our custom to stand for the Creed as we proclaim our common faith. Today, however, I'd like to invite everyone to stay seated unless you are aware that you need to give yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time or in a new way. If that is the case, I invite you to stand as we all proclaim the Creed together. Your pubic witness of standing is a testimony to your decision. We will not ask you to say publicly why you have stood or what specific commitment you choose to make but I'll be glad to pray with you privately after the service."
WHEN PEOPLE ARE INVITED FOR THE ADMINISTRATION OF COMMUNION
"It may be that you are aware that you need to give yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time or in a new way. If that is the case, bring your service bulletin with you when you come up to receive Communion or a prayer of blessing and I'll know to come and have a short and quiet prayer with you."
There are a thousand other ways that invitations can be given. They do not have to be emotional or manipulative. Because there have been inappropriate invitations at other times and in other places is no excuse for squelching gracious opportunities now. The failure to allow people the chance to mark points of decision in their live sets the stage for changes that the may start to make to wither before they can bear fruit. Then when people experience transformation from Jesus Christ, it is important to invite them to share about it. As the practice is beginning, you will want to speak privately with them and help them prepare what to say. As the practice of testimonies becomes more familiar in your parish, it may be possible to have some spontaneous ones. That is a little more unpredictable, but steering through surprises is why God gives leaders to the Church!
The reflections of the General Secretary:
Testimonies and the East African Revival"
One of the most amazing forces that has shaped the Christian faith in Africa has been the East African Revival. It started more than seventy years ago when a small group of Rwandan missionaries crossed the Southwestern border of Uganda to share their testimonies and the power of the Holy Spirit at Bishop Barham College. When they began to share, the Holy Spirit "fell" on the whole group and they spent three days in worship, overwhelmed by the manifest presence of God. The entire group was radically transformed by the encounter and went out all over East Africa sharing what had happened and inviting people to come into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They called people to change their lives and to commit to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Of course there were deeply converted and mature Christians in East Africa before this point, but this revival spread like wildfire across Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, and Tanzania. The entire Great Lakes Region was transformed. The message was one of repentance and public confession of sins. Can you imagine an environment where people were invited to stand up in huge gatherings and confess their sins as they accepted Christ? There are countless examples of "notorious sinners" manifesting dramatically changed lives.
I had the opportunity to speak at the decadal gathering in Kibale where more than 11,000 people gather outdoors to remember and celebrate what happened all those years ago. I even met some of the people who experienced the original outpouring. They are now old and frail, but still shine with the presence of God. One octogenarian man brought tears to my eyes as he shuffled with his cane in a dance of joy before the Lord as he shared a testimony of what God has done in his life.
There were many others who stood up in front of the huge crowd and confessed patterns of sin and announced that they were turning their lives over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. These were not superficial testimonies with a comfortable and suitably religious overtone. They were magnificent demonstrations of God's power to change lives.
The practice of giving testimonies is widespread all through East Africa. It is considered to be so normative that hardly any serious gathering can pass without people bearing witness to what God has done in their life. Although it is implicit, there is an underlying pattern to the testimonies of East Africa. When people share, they tend to do so in a common way. It's not that it is rote sharing, over the decades, people have heard so many testimonies of Jesus transforming power the ones that are shared now tend to fall into the same rhythm.
The pattern looks like this:
1. Before I encountered Jesus my life was characterized by ________________ (fill in the sin or problem in the blank).
2. When I met Jesus in ______________ (fill in the year and the circumstances), He changed my life.
3. Ever since then, He has proven His faithfulness to _________________ (fill in the way the Lord has addressed the things in item #1 above and how He is bringing about the Fruit of the Spirit in my life).
4. A word of current testimony of how Jesus has been active in provision or answered prayer in the last week.
In East Africa, when someone shares like that, they are received with "heart access." They may not even be consciously aware of the pattern, but when people hear it, they resonate with it and are much more open.
Most of us who have lived in the environment of the Episcopal Church have not grown up in a witnessing culture. In most Episcopal Churches evangelism is implicit. The liturgy assumes that people are believers. Liturgical challenges about relationship with Jesus Christ are often presented in a perfunctory way. Over the years, my experience is not that people are hostile to the Gospel, it is more that they are unaware of its content. Certainly, the current crop of leaders nationally give precious little evidence of having any idea of what the Gospel is.
In the 70's, a priest named Claxton Monroe wrote a book titled, "Witnessing Laymen Make Living Churches." It is out of print now, but that is OK. It is a case of a title that is so good, you can get the idea without even reading the book! Could I invite you to prepare a testimony of how Jesus Christ has worked in your life? Would you be willing to share it in the congregation where you serve? Are you willing to let others share about how God has worked in their lives as well? Of course it is worthwhile to prepare. You could do a sharing-preparing session or two to get people ready to share their story. Once testimonies are introduced into your congregation, it will never be the same. It should help if you give Biblical examples of testimonies. In some communities, there may be some tensions as people try to sort out their own understanding of what it means to be Anglican Christians. Encouragement from the clergy can make it clear that testimonies have a legitimate role in the life of the church.
I'd like to invite all the clergy receiving this to prepare your testimony and share it on Sunday morning over the next few weeks. It doesn't have to be flamboyant to have an impact on others. The only testimony that won't have an impact is the one that is not shared.
May God richly bless you, your sharing, and your ministry.