Storytelling and Testimony in Christian Worship
Celebrating its 150th anniversary led First Baptist Church of McMinnville, Oregon, into a practice of storytelling and testimony in worship. They learned how stories cross boundaries and time and connect people with God’s big story.
First Baptist Church of McMinnville, Oregon, was already thinking about stories while preparing for its 150th church anniversary. But the congregation didn’t have a practice of regularly including storytelling and testimony in worship.
“Churches are so full of experience and wisdom. It’s kind of too bad if only preachers get to talk and give testimonies,” says Erika Marksbury, senior pastor. That’s why she helped her congregation apply for a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Vital Worship Grants Program.
“Getting the grant was really energizing. It made our sesquicentennial more celebrative. Seeing more people give a testimony in worship inspired others to think they can do it. The practice has continued beyond our grant year,” Marksbury says.
The grant helped them weave stories from the congregation’s history into worship and to see their current lives as part of God’s story. They did so by treating worship as a story and learning to share, prompt, and balance stories in many ways.
“Worship: a story we tell as a congregation”
“We worked hard to argue that the whole of our faith is a story. God is a storyteller. We are part of the story that God is telling,” Marksbury says.
It was easy for the congregation to see its history as a story God had been telling in McMinnville for 150 years. The town was established in the 1840s near where two forks of Yamhill River meet in the Willamette Valley. McMinnville now has 32,000 residents, including students at Linfield College, which has Baptist roots. The town is about an hour’s drive southwest of Portland, Oregon.
“It was more of a stretch to think of our present as part of an ongoing story that God is still telling. Our own lives, faith journeys, weekly worship, committee work, volunteer service, and dinner group conversation are all, also, the story of this church, right now. They are stories of formation and growth, forgiveness and reconciliation, intimacy and community, challenge and call. They are stories of good news, and we are learning to tell them.
“The worship experience itself is a story we tell as a congregation. We come together and tell the story of who we believe God to be, how we have encountered God, and who we are called to be in light of that encounter. We tell those stories when we sing ancient hymns and newer choruses, when we read scripture and interpret it together, when we share testimonies, or when we pray for our own needs and the needs of the world. In all these worship moments, we are shaping a communal story about being God's people,” she says.
First Baptist members gather, learn, serve, and share in many ways outside Sunday morning worship. They do this in church education, small groups, youth groups, intergenerational mission trips, free health clinics hosted at the church, and groups focused on knitting, quilting, hiking, and LGBTQ fellowship. The rich experiences they share used to be limited to those present.
Framing all these ministry moments as part of the communal story God is telling made people more eager to share testimonies in worship. “In worship we tell stories of our weekday ministry projects and celebrate our connections with ministries far away. Inviting more people into those moments lets the storytellers know we value their work and helps the gathered congregants be and feel part of that work,” Marksbury says.
First Baptist learned that worship offers the best extended opportunity to share with the most people. They weave the storytelling theme into sermons, songs, and other worship activities throughout the whole year—because many people who consider themselves regular attenders only come once a month.
Learning to share stories
Step by step, First Baptist members immersed themselves in stories and became more comfortable with sharing testimonies. Small groups discussed books by Oregon author Brian Doyle, a committed Catholic. His accounts of discovering God in unlikely places moved people to share similar insights.
Portland Story Theater Workshop explained how to structure stories. Other workshops let people experiment with writing songs, faith stories, and life stories.
For years, First Baptist members have reminded each other, “You can’t walk on water if you don’t get out of the boat.” Church member Bill Millar, who teaches religious studies at Linfield College, invited all ages to contribute to a book about the years since the church’s 125th anniversary book. The book theme is the Matthew 14 story of Peter coming toward Jesus on the waves, only to begin sinking. Millar recruited people to write chapters about times the church “got out of the boat.” Sean P. Williams, the children’s and youth minister, asked kids to create book illustrations of what it means to step out in faith as an ordinary person during extraordinary things.
“Bill framed the chapters with biblical stories and theological principles, just as we try to do in worship. We wanted the anniversary book to feel like more than a history. It is a worshipful document in and of itself. This story from scripture inspires us, and we tell about our own stepping out using the story’s language,” Marksbury says.
Meanwhile, she based many sermons on stories Jesus told. She asked worshipers to imagine themselves as various characters in Jesus’ stories. She noted that Jesus ended the Good Samaritan parable with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” At times, she had worshipers break into small groups during the service to share answers to sermon prompts, such as telling who had been neighborly to them.
Story prompts and intentional balance
First Baptist used prompts and balance to address two common barriers to storytelling in worship.
First, grant project director Susan Chambers explains that, as much as people love stories, not everyone believes they have a story worth telling. That became clear when few people used the story recording booth available before and after Sunday worship and on Tuesday mornings.
The solution was to provide prompts. “The story booth didn’t work well when it was too open ended. We began posting monthly questions for response and reflection, although people could choose to record whatever recollections or stories they wanted to. Our technician worked to spread the word on Sundays about this awesome opportunity to be part of an audio archive. He also phoned people to invite them and asked people who had already recorded stories to invite others to do so,” Chambers says. The technician provided listeners for people who felt uncomfortable simply speaking “into thin air.”
Second, as valuable as storytelling in worship can be, not everything about what it means to be Christian fits a storytelling theme. The grant project team learned it’s important for worship planners to intentionally shape themes. Marksbury says they work to balance “all the stories that call for attention.” These include congregational history, the good news of Jesus, individual faith lives, stories from scripture, stories valuable to First Baptist ancestors, and stories about where God is calling the current congregation.
Digging through church archives prompted people to ask which values had endured or changed. They found much to honor. Yet church board minutes from the late 1800s were mostly about who was getting kicked out of church that month. There was testimony of a mother against a son; against someone seen drunk in public; and against a woman who went to a dance, even though she didn’t actually dance.
Now, however, when a gay person moves to town, First Baptist members visit to welcome and invite them to church. The church describes itself online as a “creative, thoughtful, inclusive American Baptist congregation.”
“For Advent 2016, we went with the theme ‘The Story Embodied,’ thinking of Jesus’ birth as the story of God’s love, made flesh—but then, through scripture, made story again. Each of our lives embodies the story of God’s love. More people here are trusting that God is alive in the world through their lives, so we continue to use testimony during certain seasons of worship,” Marksbury says.
Many ways to tell stories
First Baptist has found ways to tell stories in worship through song, anniversary services, quilting, testimonies, and sermon journals.
Densley Harley Palmer now lives in Washington but remains connected to the church. He wrote a hymn called “Fruit of Generations.” It talks about early settlers who gave birth to this community in what is now Yamhill County. He set it to the tune “Promise,” which Natalie Sleeth composed for “Hymn of Promise/In the Bulb.” The congregation sang “Fruit of Generations” at its 150th anniversary hymn sing and 150th Sunday service. They’ll continue to sing it on All Saints Day and the annual church anniversary Sunday.
The congregation invited former members to the 150th anniversary celebration. “Many had a role in the service. So, before leading a prayer or a reflection, they’d introduce themselves and tell a bit of their part in the story God’s been telling in McMinnville,” Marksbury says.
Since the early 2000s, the quilting ministry has made hundreds of quilts for local veterans, nursing home residents, traumatized children, and more. Chambers also organized a team to make a quilt unveiled at the 150th anniversary hymn sing.
“Susan Chambers makes everything happen here. She is our church moderator and volunteer extraordinaire. The quilt includes fabrics from Mexico, Nicaragua, and Democratic Republic of Congo, where we partner with missionaries. Congregants gave other fabrics that reflect our values of peace and justice, education, diversity and inclusion, music, and the Pacific Northwest region,” Marksbury says.
The story recording booth and other grant events created a bank of stories, which Marksbury continues to draw on. She invites people to give a storytelling testimony of five to seven minutes, based on the sermon or series theme. She preaches a shorter sermon when there’s a testimony.
“During the summer, kids remain with us for the whole service. They really respond to stories, especially ones that involve siblings. After the grant year ended, we spent Sundays during Summer 2017 dealing with the Prodigal Son story. We went through a twelve-step exegesis process. We looked at the text in its social-historical, political, and literary contexts and explored how it connects to other scriptures.
“One step is listening to other traditions, so we looked at the Prodigal Son story from feminist, black, and liberation theology perspectives. Before the series started, we handed out journals and had people write their questions about the text, and we did that again when the series ended. It opened up lots of opportunities for sharing faith stories with each other,” Marksbury says.
- Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom
- Faith Storytelling Toolkit
- Audio: The Beauty and Value of the Oral Tradition
See the grant poster that summarizes the storytelling project at First Baptist Church of McMinnville, Oregon. All grant events were free, open to the public, and yielded great local participation. Now the church invites neighbors to monthly social and service events. It is also considering offering opportunities for congregants to write liturgy, prayers, or doxologies.
These books by Brian Doyle helped book groups share faith stories connected to the story God is telling in Yamhill County: A Shimmer of Something, Grace Notes, Mink River, and Children and Other Wild Animals.
For learning how to structure testimonies, First Baptist recommends Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom by Daniel Taylor. Check out this Reformed Worship blog post about being blessed by the blessings others receive in worship—even if it’s not your cup of tea. Use faith formation ideas in this faith storytelling toolkit.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, education, or worship meeting. These questions will help people start talking about how to use more storytelling and testimony in worship:
- Which authors and books tell the stories of your city, region, or church tradition? How might you use these in book groups to spark memories and stories about faith?
- Share a story from your life using the language, images, or events of a Bible story or psalm.
- Where in your church worship service would be the best place to include testimonies? These stories might be about God’s faithfulness in someone’s life or why a scripture passage means so much to them or in response to a faith question.