By David Bunker
Death and life are in the power of the toungue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21 NKJ
The Shared Experience of Listening Together
I grew up a preacher’s kid in the holiness movement. Church was our life and by the age of ten, I had attended more worship services than most adults would in their lifetime. In fact, our home had an actual tunnel going from our house directly to the church basement. Needless to say, our family and especially my father were attached to the church both figuratively and literally. We were church saturated people.
As a youngster, adapting to the sheer volume of services and their format was challenging. While I was the typical fidgety child growing up, it was clearly evident I had a precocious and highly inquisitive nature. Early on I began to listen, really listen, to what was being said and enacted from week to week.
From the vibrant full-throated Gospel singing to the Sunday night testimony time often followed by altar calls and late night fervent prayer meetings, I soon discovered that our gatherings were simultaneously full of exuberant praise, and as John Wesley said, our hearts “strangely warmed.”
The Power of Testimony
Memories are often cryptic messages from the past that something full of meaning may be circling our present state. When I fondly look back at my early years in the body of Christ I distinctly am drawn to the power of personal testimonies. Over the years, I have attended countless meetings where it was appropriate and encouraged to stand before the congregation and “bear witness” to the hand of God in one’s life.
However, it was not until my men’s retreat experience did I grasp the powerfully formative nature of someone sharing their story in public. What was profoundly revealing about the retreats was the highly public nature of the storytelling or testimony and the impact it had on those listening. I was always amazed at how enraptured men became while attending to the story of another.
Because the weekend is focused on discovering and articulating one’s narrative with as much clarity and truthfulness as they can offer, there is a commensurate commitment from the other men to truly listen, to completely offer themselves over to the presence of another and regard their voice and story as a gift to the community. For many of the men, this honoring posture from other men is emotionally overwhelming. During the retreat, they discover, often for the first time, that the body of Christ and the Father care deeply about them. Indeed, they discover they are actually the “beloved” of the Father and He longs to hear their heart’s desires as well wipe away the tears that accompanying their life and its brokenness.
After experiencing countless weekends where men stood before others and offered up their testimony with power and vulnerability, I wondered why so little of that same honest and open disclosure was taking place in the larger congregation. As I continually longed for some degree of this experience to spill and manifest itself in the larger congregation I was drawn by memory to my early years with my a small holiness church and the ever unpredictable and meaningful “testimony time.”
As I intentionally pondered the past and that experience, many amazing memories flooded back. At nearly all of our Sunday night gatherings, testimony time would offer the body an opportunity to speak out and speak to their personal stories of faith. It was a time to publicly offer up a reckoning of sorts. Inevitably, like clockwork, Sister Beulah would stand and offer her declaration of God’s sovereignty in her life. An elderly single woman, Sister Beulah would weekly visit prisons and report back to the congregation the hand and heart of God as it related to these incarcerated men and women. Her testimony was always full of the broken and beautiful, the sad and sanctified. I was always captured by her storytelling and her utter zeal about incarcerated men and women who truly could not be more “unlike” Sister Beulah. But each week she told us of God’s care and presence in the lives of these prisoners. I was amazed and captured by the incongruity of it all.
Prodigal Professions of Faith
On other Sunday nights, a man or women who only came to church occasionally would stand and pour out their sense of reconciliation with the Father. They would openly put on the status of the returning prodigal and tell the body of their journey back to the Father. Tears would flow as they openly revealed the painful details of their rebellion and the miraculous restoration. As a small boy, I was listening and learning. I was hearing another sermon but not from my pastor father. This one came from someone, who years later, I would identify with more than I would have imagined.
Unbeknownst to me, I was collecting countless stories that would re-emerge years later as the voice of the saints bearing witness. I was being formed to believe and receive this same reconciliation and restoration. The Father knew that someday my prodigal heart would manifest itself but I would have stories in my soul’s archive that I could bring to remembrance. I was being formed for the future by these narratives called testimonies.
The Power of Story to Form Christlike Character
It was partially through this early childhood experiential lens that I began to observe and identify with the power of one’s personal narrative when shared publicly. It was in these early childhood years that the story and testimony of these saints became my story. I was being formed in the listening, transformed in the proclamation, made a part of something much bigger than my own personal story. It was the story of a people.
Where do we anchor our sense of meaning? What if our worship was attached to our ability to listen, really listen? What is the vocabulary of listening as worship? Is this honoring a primary posture for the radical presence of our Savior to reveal Himself, for the Spirit to lavishly pour Himself out to our hungry hearts? I had discovered through my men’s retreat weekends that this kind of listening was distinctly different from the kind of listening we do one-on-one. When a man who was not diligently attending to his own heart observed a group of men clearly submitted to the act of deep listening, his voice grows in its innate resonance. Intention and articulation now merge and what is said has a power to which the entire group bears witness.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21 NKJ
What if we listened to one another more diligently in our gatherings? What if testimony time was considered as sacred and formative as the sharing of the word or the taking of the body and the blood of Christ? Might this kind of “holy listening” involve a significantly different posture than is often encouraged in the church? Protocol on the men’s weekends helped in the development of a deeper corporate listening posture. We discovered early on that being attentive involved a silencing of the inquisitive and questioning mind. Knowing this was a sacred time of honoring this man’s story allowed us as co-sojourners to listen to another deeply possibly for the first time. By taking ourselves and our reactions completely out of the equation, a kind of freedom opened up. It turns out we are better listeners when we set aside our response or reaction.
On the weekend retreats, we were asked to withhold our judgments and questions when a man was entering this often unvisited location of the soul where his true voice resided. We knew that the entering in was usually accompanied by a degree of fear and even shame. Sharing one’s story unabashedly with deep emotion and tears can for many men be outside their comfort zone. It is territory they often ignored or pushed up into their head. They were unable to share their testimony out of their deepest presence because they had left their true story years ago.
When we yearn to listen, we lose the posture of knowing and fixing. We now listen, not to speak into another’s life but as an act of worship. We are joining in the very presence of the Holy Spirit that emerges when fellow believers lean into the heart of God and do so emptied of presumption and self-consciousness.
Listening is a spiritual muscle that is often neglected and weak in our fellowships. And when we listen communally as a living breathing entity beyond our personal selves we become present and radically progenerative to the body. We birth together with the voice of the Spirit as it is articulated in the family of God.
Re-Introducing Testimony Time
Speaking aloud to others regarding our sojourn with Christ is more than perfunctory and routine. It is sacred and life-changing. It is a public display of faith that is profoundly formative and necessary. And as I ponder and bring to remembrance the testimonies of the saints in my holiness church in Ohio, it is evident that these stories and their proclamation were truly empowered to change not only the ones telling the stories but the ones listening as well.
What we say often becomes who we are. We articulate our deepest identity through the stories we tell others and ourselves. There is something profound that happens when we offer our testimony in public. Our culture has possibly given way too much of the soul’s activity to the privacy of therapy (as good and efficacious as that can be). Have we lost the role the church gathering as a place of healing and restoration of its people? I discovered in my men’s retreat experience that mere proximity to the spoken word of testimony ushered in the providence of God. Often the embodied presence of the Spirit is visibly observed in the one offering up their testimony. You see it in their face and read it in their bodies. But these testimonies are for more than the individuals speaking aloud.
The public nature of these vocalizations has the ability to impact greatly the faith and character of the entire congregation.
Faithful Words Prompt Faithful Reality
I just recently witnessed in Nashville the power of story and song at our National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC). It is so evident that much of our telling and sharing is done through song. The last night of the conference, a group of songwriters gathered in the round and shared a song and then passed the mic to another. It was moving and transformative. What struck me, however, was the testimonial nature of the artist’s presentation. Rather than a performance with a concrete setlist, this musical experience was accompanied with a much more profound testimonial nature to its representation. Songs were set up with a level of honesty and vulnerability that I had not seen in a long time especially in CCM circles. It seems we may have taken the human out of the presentation. By that I mean we have neglected to actually share our truest testimony. The attendees were certainly caught up in rapt attention. I wonder if that powerful listening posture was made evident to the artist and that is what indeed allowed and precipitated the deeper vulnerability.
I am so thankful for Sister Beulah in my early years and equally, as grateful for the group of songwriters gathered that last night at NWLC–Audrey Assad, Sandra McCracken, Andrew Peterson, Alisa Turner, Phil Joel, and Stu G. They offered up their testimony in song and I was deeply moved and changed in the telling and the listening.