Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), and gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.
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I preached recently in a large Presbyterian congregation in London, Ontario. My friend is the pastor of the congregation and just before we began worship, he said, “Oh, by the way, after you preach, we have announcements and a young family from Malawi asked to say a few words.”
My friend went on to explain that the couple arrived recently in the city without any family support and joined the church. The congregation showered them with love and blessing in the form of prayer and material support – setting them up with much needed supplies for their apartment including baby clothes and toys.
I finished preaching and my friend took the pulpit, making the usual announcements about a youth group meeting and an update on the next Alpha course gathering. Then he invited the couple and their baby forward to speak.
The man began by thanking the congregation for their warm welcome and quoting from Proverbs. He noted how hard it was to be far from home and explained some painful reasons for their move to Canada. He shared how they had experienced God’s grace and mercy through the congregation and how they now found a home away from home, a new family to belong to.
His testimony continued and I began to think that I should have just had this man speak instead of my preaching since God was clearly present in his words. The Holy Spirit filled the assembly as he poured out his love of God and appreciation for the welcome of the Christian community.
And then he gestured for his wife to speak. She had already been front and centre throughout the worship service in the music ministry, a blend of traditional choral music and contemporary praise. She thanked the congregation and proceeded to offer a traditional song of praise in thanksgiving from her Malawian culture. As she lifted her voice in praise it was undeniable that God was in that place. It felt like church. And it was. And I was grateful.
Testimony is a powerful practice in our Christian tradition. In my Introduction to Practical Theology course at Vancouver School of Theology each autumn term I have my students engage in a weekly spiritual practice. Students engage such varied practices as hospitality, discernment, prayer, sabbath, fasting, forgiveness, stewardship and testimony.
Recently we were exploring testimony in class and recognizing how fraught human speech about God is in our post-Christendom context. How do we as Christians speak clearly, boldly and respectfully into a secular culture about our absolute truth claims that a crucified Jew rules the cosmos in the person and work of Jesus Christ?
I offered my students a heart verse from my years of ministry and love of evangelism – 1 Peter 3:15:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
This more holistic understanding of Christian witness notes that our activity and character in the wider world invites questions and conversation about why we ‘love what we love and do what we do’ in the name of Jesus.
Our Centre for Missional Leadership Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, now retired from Princeton Theological Seminary and editor of Missional Church, suggests that a wholistic testimony and witness requires a threefold commitment summarized in this way: Be, Do and Say. In other words, Christians in the world – that is all baptized Christians, not just clergy – offer testimony to the Lord Jesus through our character (be), action (do), and words (say).
My own research into Christian witness in Vancouver suggestions that witness separated from relationship is rarely effective. How then are we equipping Christians in our local churches to build deep relationships with their neighbours in order to earn the right to be heard and share the gospel through their character, action and speech?
To borrow Lesslie Newbigin’s language, our local churches can become the sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s coming kingdom.
The Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian Church in Canada college at the University of British Columbia.