Talking the walk
Written by J. Bennett Guess
Mar-Apr 2005


Darren Hopes | Digital Vision illustration
 
Why is it so difficult for UCC members to speak convincingly about their faith?

Let's not mince words - especially on this topic. Most UCC members would rather vacuum the sanctuary carpet than talk with someone else about their faith.

If the old UCC adage is true about "believing" leading to "caring" which, in turn, leads to "doing," then where does talking - or sharing - fit in?

United Church News set out to uncover the mystery behind our seeming silence, and to find those who could offer good suggestions for overcoming it.

The Rev. Stanley Dole, a retired minister and a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., says he understands the difficulty some UCC members have when it comes to discussing their spiritual beliefs with others.

"It is a challenge because we are ecumenical, and we don't want to give the impression that we think we're the only ones with the truth," he says.

But at the same time, Dole believes the UCC has some core values - inclusion, extravagant welcome, peace with justice - that the community- at-large would benefit from hearing.

"I do like to believe that we have the best answer," he says, "and if we believe in something, we have to be able to tell others about it - even if others may not agree with it."

Dole was one of nearly 100 global mission enthusiasts who gathered in Cleveland for two days in late February to talk about talking. As volunteer "mission interpreters" for Global Ministries (UCC/Disciples of Christ), they discussed strategies for how best to tell the story of God's work in the world.

So, to them and others, United Church News posed some questions: In a seemingly monolithic U.S. Christian culture - one that consistently defines Christianity in the most simple and narrow terms - how do we speak in an authentic, alternative voice? What are the pitfalls? How can we overcome them?

"Many of our members feel biblically or theologically illiterate," says the Rev. Rick Cowles, an Associate Conference Minister in New York and a member of Bayberry UCC in Liverpool, N.Y. "We have emphasized Christian education for our young persons, but we need to change the concept of Christian education to be about nurturing disciples."

Our feelings of biblical inadequacy have hampered our abilities to speak about our personal experiences, something we know quite well, Cowles says.

"It's not just what the story is, but what the story means to you," he says.

Dole agrees, saying he finds it most helpful to begin by simply talking about what Jesus means to him - personally. It's hard for others to find fault with that, he says.

The Rev. Don Stoebner, retired UCC clergy and a member of South Park UCC in Rapid City, S.D., says, "I say, 'This is where I am' and this is why I am where I am, but I don't say, 'You have to be where I am.'"

Stoebner's wife, Rosie, adds, "It's not about clubbing people over the head with the Bible." That's why, she says, she's so thrilled about the UCC's Stillspeaking Initiative, because "it helps us to explain our inclusiveness in simple ways."

Penny Farris, a representative of the Disciples' Capital Area Region, says, "Many of our general members don't know how to express their beliefs. How can we tell what we believe when we can't find the words to express it?"

"They feel biblically illiterate," Farris says. "They don't have confidence in their own understanding."

The Rev. Susan Goodwin, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Farmington, N.H., adds, "People often feel that they will be 'wrong.'" But what unchurched people really want to know is personal - 'What is it that your church offers you?' and they want to know how that relationship influences what you believe."

Therefore, she says, "Embrace your life experience. Be secure in that."

Still, Goodwin recognizes it can be a struggle for some, especially for those who come into the UCC from "top-down models of church" to trust their own stories as having validity and authenticity.

"They bring with them all that top-down stuff," Goodwin says, "and they don't even realize that those are the very barriers that keep them from expressing their faith."

Who am I to discuss God?

The Rev. David Greenhaw, president of UCC-related Eden Seminary in St. Louis, says theologian Ed Farley was correct in an assessment he once made of what's gone wrong with modern-day Christian education.

According to Farley - and Greenhaw - American theological education was built upon the German model of university, where theology was "the queen of the sciences."

As time passed, however, theology nearly was displaced in higher education by more-modern sciences. "It was nearly thrown out," says Greenhaw, a church historian.

"Theology, which had been a reflection on God and how we name our faith, shifted in the modern university to become the theory of the practice of ministry. That is, it became theory for clergy," he says. "Theology became something that specialists did, not something that all of us do. Clergy, therefore, are the only ones expected to do it."

Among UCC-type folks who generally have a strong commitment to the idea of theological education, Greenhaw says, "We figure that the most educated ones among us should do it, and the rest of us should be quiet."

To the contrary, however, Greenhaw believes, "Until you can share your personal faith story, it's still an abstraction."

He compares religious "witness" to that of a "witness" in a court of law.

A witness not only gives testimony to what he or she has seen, Greenhaw says, but a witness also enables others to see it as well. The "saying" gives rise to "seeing," he says.

"There's a combination between seeing something and saying something," Greenhaw says. "Once you say it, you also see it again. And, if you can say it in a context that is supportively critical, not harshly critical, you can see it better yourself."

The author of Luke-Acts, says Greenhaw, uses the word "witness" to refer not only to eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life, but also as a term that "applies to all who know and experience Christ and testify to his truth."

To give Christian witness, therefore, is to reveal more than just what we have seen, but to share what we have known and experienced, he says. In contemporary church life, "witnessing" has become a term associated with "less-educationally rigorous churches," and that's unfortunate, he says.

"We tend to forget that what we're doing in the church can make a difference to people, and to invite people to church can be a very important thing." In the best-selling book, Traveling Mercies, acclaimed author Anne Lamott tells of the time she hit rock bottom and stopped by a church to talk to a new pastor in town. He visited with her, and the experience changed her life.

"What if the church wasn't there, what would have happened to her?" Greenhaw asks.

Our new-found mission field

Ron Buford, coordinator of the Stillspeaking Initiative, says the UCC is actively reshaping its understanding of mission from "out there" to "right here."

If there's a person in your neighborhood who believes that there's not a church that would welcome someone like them, and you tell them otherwise, Buford says, "That's mission."

"Congregations are seeing people before their very eyes, coming from a growing and palpable form of spiritual homelessness," Buford says.

"These people are often young, high-income and well-educated, but come from all races and socioeconomic groups."

Buford says, according to the UCC's evangelism ministry, 80 percent of all 20-year-olds have never been to church.

"Where will they go when they face life's most challenging threats?" asks Buford. "As millions reject right-wing religious institutions, will the UCC lift up a visible alternative? Will we provide a safe place for people to come for an encounter with the living Christ in our time? Since they have no church history, how will they know we are there?"

That's why it's imperative, he says, that UCC people learn how to tell their stories.

"David Schoen [of the UCC's evangelism ministry] and I frequently say to each other, jokingly, 'Well, the Stillspeaking Initiative has tricked the UCC into evangelism!' and that's a real good thing," Buford says. "The Stillspeaking Initiative has generated moments of opportunity for members to say, 'That's my church' and to quite naturally invite others to come and see."

Buford says UCC members are accustomed to focusing on social issues. "But, in recent months," he says, "our churches have intensified their focus on another position - our position on people's search for a relationship with God."

"To those who ask if this is mission," he says, "I recall the seeming urgency in the words from an old evangelical hymn I learned as a child, 'Rescue the perishing!'"

Giving testimony

While pastor of Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven, Conn., the Rev. Lillian F. Daniel asked her congregation to adopt a new policy: "No Godless announcements."

"Our rule was you had to talk about God," Daniel says. "You couldn't just get up there and talk about the homeless shelter, you had to talk about how you had experienced God through your work in the homeless shelter."

The congregation's new-found guideline was actually a return to an ages-old Christian practice, known as "giving testimony," and it became the basis of Daniel's Doctor of Ministry project at UCC-related Hartford Seminary. She's now writing a book about "testimony" scheduled to be published by the Alban Institute later this year.

"Testimony is really different than getting up and talking about something of interest in the church," says Daniel, who is now senior pastor at Glen Ellyn Congregational UCC in Illinois. "It's talking about your experience of God."

And like any Christian practice, it influences and enriches not only those who experience it, but those who practice it.

"Practices are part of a tradition set in history that reinforce the faith and, in turn, the practice itself," she teaches. "Worship, itself, is a practice. If you don't go [to worship], you stop wanting to go, but if you do go, you want to go more. It works the same way with testimony."

Daniel says there are a lot of misnomers about testimony. Many think it means standing on the street corner and screaming to strangers about your faith.

"I think you have to be true to who you are," she says. "The UCC has a particular culture. Giving testimony, for us, is not the same as it is in the Assemblies of God congregation down the street."

But the difference in method or style does not make the practice any less valid, she says.

"We're not like the people who ring your door bells and annoy you," Daniel says, "so we have to redefine how we tell our faith."

As part of her research, Daniel has interviewed many pastors from traditions that readily use testimony as part of worship. Interestingly, she says, "What we may think is spontaneous is not actually."

From the perspective of the pastors she interviewed, there was often the smell of "falsehood" in some members' testimonies. Sometimes, even in more conservative traditions, testimonies aren't always as genuinely heartfelt or heartwarming as more-liberal Christians might want to believe.

That's why, for Daniel, giving testimony is something that's not for everybody, no matter where you are on the religious spectrum, and it should be a practice that is approached with utmost care.

"You want to help people to do it well. As pastors, we're asking people to go deeper" she says. "If someone got up and went on a narcissistic rant, that wouldn't be helpful."

The point, really, is to strengthen others' faith by hearing how God has touched people's lives, and it's quite okay, she says, if a person's words are thought about and prepared in advance.

"Testimony gives people a pattern for talking about the faith and it strengthens community," she says, "and a lot of time it becomes an opportunity for people to say they love the church, which is always a good thing."

Overcoming faith-sharing shyness
Seven tips for would-be witnesses

1. It's okay to 'choose your battles.'

As president of UCC-related Eden Seminary, the Rev. David Greenhaw travels extensively and is often faced with what he calls "the airport problem."

When Greenhaw tells people of his vocation, many automatically make not-so-accurate assumptions about his religious and political beliefs.

"I think, overall, yes, we should risk a little more witness in our external life," he says, "but that doesn't mean that every opportunity is the right opportunity. Perhaps what we really need to stress is opportunities for more witness within the church."

2. Establish faith-sharing opportunities in worship.

"There are more people who have stories, the desire and gifts to give testimonies than we are allowing them the opportunity," says the Rev. Lillian F. Daniel, pastor of Glen Ellyn (Ill.) Congregational UCC. Unfortunately, she says, we're primarily led to feel guilty about not sharing our faith with strangers, while we neglect the need for opportunities to share our faith with each other - as a tool for strengthening our faith.

"Testimony is an historic practice of the faith," Daniel says. "Like any Christian practice, it is in the doing of the faith, that the faith is strengthened. Hearing testimony gives you confidence to give testimony."

3. Get prepared. Rehearse your own story.

It was the Apostle Peter who reportedly said, "Always be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is within you." Perhaps he knew, at some time or another, we'd be called upon.

Therefore, take some time for spiritual inventory. Make some order out of the evidence that God has presented you. It's likely your story could use a little practice.

"Ask yourself," Greenhaw says, "'Why is it you're here?' 'Why do you come to church?' 'Why is this important to you?'"

And don't diminish the validity or importance of your own story.

Even though it's been years ago, Greenhaw says, he still can remember hearing a woman tell about how she had lived next door to a UCC church for 13 years, but never attended.

"But, for the past five months, she had been attending, and she shared the reasons why," he said, "and her story was very powerful, very convincing."

4. Appreciate your own style and culture.

"If you have to write it down or need time to think about it beforehand, that's no less genuine," says Daniel. "In some ways, we have to do it the way we feel comfortable."

5. Focus on liturgical - not biblical - competence.

"I'm a skeptic about biblical literacy," Greenhaw says. "We set our sights way to high to expect that all people can be biblically literate. The bible doesn't have a single voice, it's multi-vocal, and it can be terribly complex. Besides, most people tend to use the Bible to confirm their own worldviews."

Instead, Greenhaw suggests, study the liturgy of the church, and its major themes, such as - for example - why we confess our sins and offer an assurance of pardon. Know the affirmations in our statements of faith. Learn the cyclical emphases of the church year, and come to appreciate more deeply the major themes in our Christian stories - promise, hope, doubt, betrayal, suffering, forgiveness, grace, redemption, love, etc.

"Liturgical competence is a better goal," Greenhaw teaches. "If people can study and become more comfortable with the liturgy, it can lead to a deepening understanding of faith."

6. Emphasize God's multiple promises.

"We've had a tendency to flatten out the promise in terms of heaven only," Greenhaw says, but heaven is not God's only assurance.

Practice talking about God's multiple promises: the wiping away of every tear, the strengthening of the faint-hearted, the place at the table for everyone, the beating of swords into ploughshares, the turning of mourning into dancing, etc.

"What people need to learn to talk about is what's promised to us, because mission really is the sending - and the work - in wake of what God has promised."

7. Leave the results to God.

Too many place emphasis on the outcome of faith sharing, Daniel says, rather than the practice in and of itself. For example, she says, too many churches employ faith sharing only during stewardship season with a financial end result in mind.

"What I say is 'Get up and talk about God, and the money piece will take care of itself,'" she says. "That's much more compelling than thinking that you're going to talk about God and, therefore, help people make a larger donation."

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org