Lately, I have been thinking a lot about “Testimony Services” in the church where I grew up. Our church was one of the, “sanctified churches.” As explained in Cheryl J. Sander’s Saints in Exile
, basically the “sanctified churches” were the predominantly African American Classical Pentecostal Churches. But, we did not call them “Pentecostal” churches. We understood ourselves to be “holiness churches” or “sanctified churches.” I did not realize I was “Pentecostal” until I was a teenager. I just knew that I was supposed to get “saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost,”– as the pastors would often explain, “like the Bible says.” In other words, our self-understanding was that we were living out the experience of the New Testament Church. This experience was not only my upbringing but also one that was both spiritually and intellectually formational. I appreciate the emphasis on salvation, sanctification and the baptism of the Spirit. But also, I have come to realize that my reading of scripture as a scholar was formed (or my hermeneutic was shaped) by my early experience of African American Pentecostal Christianity — with emphasis on “African American” because in some ways it may have been different than the “European American” experience of Pentecostal Christianity.
Testimonies played a large role in both the church services and in faith formation. Recently, I lectured for the 2nd Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ of Virginia’s Worker’s Retreat. It took me back to those good ole days in Manchester, GA — both “across the mountain” at A House of the Living God, Church of Jesus Christ and at “Bridge Street” at the Bridge Street Church of God in Christ. As my dad was the pastor of the former but was saved in the latter, the worship experience was very similar. In most African American “sanctified churches,” testimony service was either before the sermon or after the sermon. I remember vividly that during testimony service, my mom or another mother would spontaneously start singing that ole song, “Believe I’ll testify, while I have a chance. I may not have this chance anymore.” The song spoke to a conviction that the Christian faith requires us to testify. But also, it presupposed that those testimonies were not only to be shared with unbelievers outside of the walls of the church, but also to be shared among the sisters and brothers of faith – ” the saints.”
In form, they had only a few ways to start-off: “I do honor the Lord, to the Spirit of Christ and to everybody here to make up this waiting congregation….”; or “I give honor to God, the head of my life, to the saints and friends. I just want to thank the Lord for….”; or some of them were as short as “Thank the Lord for my life.” Whether the testimony was long or short in length, testimonies were deemed essential to faith formation. So, they were not just another thing to do in the service. In fact, they were so important that as young boys and girls, the children were taught to get up and give their testimonies as well. It was part of how the “sanctified church” understood Proverbs 22:6, as recorded in the KJV, which states, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Read the rest of this entry »