The church seems to be obsessed with numbers. We account for professions of faith, baptisms, membership and worship attendance, and these statistics for church health point to a crisis in the present and increasingly dismal view of the future. We seem to count everything. Even the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, made sure that every Methodist could be counted. However, it is my conviction that we have lost a “metric” that the church has relied upon for centuries, not only to demonstrate the health of the community, but to paint a vision of what the Christian life should be. We have lost the metric of testimony.
In his book, A Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions, Jonathan Edwards observes, “There is no one thing that I know of that God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion…”1 On the cusp of the Great Awakening, Edwards observed how God was using the stories of people’s conversions to inspire and cast a vision for new life among those where were not yet awakened. As powerful as the Gospel is, the stories of those who have encountered the living God revealed in the Gospel story are also used by the Holy Spirit to encourage, enlighten and inspire people to a living faith in Jesus.
Not only do the stories of people’s conversions inspire, as Edwards suggests, but also the stories of overcoming struggle, of the ups and downs of life. When new believers or even non-believers can see how God is working through the lives of disciples, they catch a vision for what God might do in their own lives.
Why does testimony seem to be ignored as a valid metric in our day? Have we lost the metric because God is not at work? Have we lost the metric because we are not pursuing the least, last and lost in our communities?
Most denominations today rely on metrics such as professions of faith, baptisms, attendance, and membership to gauge the health of their congregations. It is likely that these metrics are favored because they are relatively easy to collect and they do provide some indication of how a congregation is doing. However, these numbers can be far from encouraging. Worship attendance across denominations, according to most sources, indicates that fewer people are gathering in our places of worship each week than in years past. Professions of faith are down in many denominations including those that would identify as evangelical. In my denomination, it has become standard practice for conferences to require churches to enter data on a regular basis in a “dashboard” that tracks these metrics and others. While these numbers can provide some insights into what is happening in the life of a local church, they can also have a negative impact. Focusing on “getting people in the pews” can be an unhealthy focus for pastors and congregations.
Several years ago I was engaged in leading a church re-start. In the first year of our efforts, I was approached by a former denominational leader and encouraged to “poach” from another, struggling congregation so that we could more quickly achieve the critical mass needed to sustain the church. I have been tempted in my ministry to play the numbers game and have many times succumbed to that temptation. However, the words of this leader shocked me into a realization about metrics. A focus on numbers may tempt us to simply rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship rather than seeking to reach people who have not heard or had the opportunity to respond to the Gospel.
Even though we say, “each of those numbers represents a person,” I believe it is difficult to keep our focus when the numbers are the metric. Metrics like professions of faith or conversions, baptisms, or membership tell us something about the state of the congregation. In fact, if the church is alive and healthy, those numbers should reflect that reality. But while these numbers tell us something and they do represent people, we don’t hear the stories through the numbers. The fact is that numbers cannot tell the story of transformation in the lives of human beings. Yes, baptisms and professions of faith are significant moments in that transformation, but those numbers are only a waypoint on the person’s journey.
So, why does testimony seem to be ignored as a valid metric in our day? It may be because of the ease of counting worship attendance and baptisms as compared to collecting the stories of transformation among a congregation. And while the value of such stories may be recognized, that is not the data that is being most sought by denominational leaders. This is an unfortunate break from those who have gone before us.
Metrics in Early Methodism
As the founders of the Methodist movement, John and Charles Wesley knew the power of people’s stories. In fact, they solicited the conversion stories of Methodists, many of which were published. Bruce Hindmarsh notes that these written narratives were expressed in a person’s own words soon after their experience of conversion and typically shared with others in a band meeting.2 The Wesleys saw the same value of testimony and narrative that Edwards observed on his side of the Atlantic. When people read the story of ordinary people encountering an extraordinary God, a hunger and thirst were stirred up and many of those hearers of the story came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. These were not cute, sentimental Facebook posts but were raw stories filled with the challenges and obstacles to faith as well as the triumphs.
Hannah Hancock wrote to Charles Wesley about hearing John preach on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death). She describes the conviction she experienced and shared that she, “had sweet communion with God for two months…” However, she also shared the challenges which soon cropped up when she wrote, “then the enemy came in as a flood upon me telling me I was in a delusion.” It could be comforting to know that the challenges they were experiencing were not unusual, nor were they insurmountable through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without such a testimony, a person could continue wallowing in self-doubt and perhaps even lose their faith.
Many of these conversion stories made their way into the Arminian Magazine, a publication started by John Wesley in 1778 to encourage and inform the Methodist movement. In addition, Wesley published the stories of lay preachers whom God had raised up as leaders in the movement. While these published stories are significant, it seems more significant that people were encouraged to share their stories in class meetings and bands. It was in the context of community that the “metric of testimony” impacted the movement. As persons shared their stories and listened to the stories of others, God also spoke into their lives by his Spirit and people were empowered to, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”3
While publishing was significant, as Hindmarsh notes, the primary space in which these stories were shared was the band meeting. Persons would gather in very small groups and share their lives with each other. Methodists would confess their sins with one another, share their triumphs with one another and then encourage and admonish one another to continue to pursue holiness of heart and life.
Shortly after Wesley’s death, the 1798 Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church in America indicated the value of such testimony that can take place within a band:
There is nothing we know of, which so much quickens the soul to a desire and expectation of the perfect love of God as this. For there little families of love, not only mutually weep and rejoice, and in everything sympathize with each other, as genuine friends, but each of them possesses a measure of ‘that unction of the Holy One,’ (1 John ii. 20.) which teaches all spiritual knowledge. And thus are they enabled to ‘build up themselves [and each other] on their most holy faith,’ Jude 20. and to ‘consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works,’ Heb. x. 24.4
In these groups, life was shared in its raw form – the ins, outs, ups, and downs of a person’s walk were shared and as the community heard the stories, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to offer a word of encouragement, admonishment, or exhortation. In addition to these groups, bands would come together periodically for a “love feast” in which testimony to the amazing work of God would be given and the community would celebrate and be encouraged by the stories.
Have we lost the metric because God is not at work? I certainly do not think so. God is still in the life changing business and people are being transformed by the Holy Spirit just as they were in the days of John and Charles Wesley. However, I am afraid that we seldom hear their stories and that we have not done a good job of making space for people to tell their stories – warts and all. So how do we recover the lost metric of testimony?
Recovering the Metric of Testimony
Perhaps it is obvious, but for someone’s story to be heard, they must have the opportunity to share what God is doing in their lives. In some traditions and at certain times congregations have practiced testimony services or other gatherings in which people could tell their stories, similar to the love feasts of the early Methodists. A modern twist on the testimony service is using video to share stories of faith in a worship service. However, I am not certain that either of these is an adequate way of addressing the loss of testimony as a metric, and more importantly, as a spiritual practice.
Fortunately, there are movements among Christians that are seeking to bring back, not the 18th century of John and Charles Wesley, but rather the spirit of the Methodist movement: a way of life marked by a commitment to grow in faith, a focus on spiritual disciplines, a passion to engage the mission of God in everyday life, and a covenant of life together in small groups of spiritual friends. One such initiative is the Inspire Movement which was begun in the United Kingdom in 2008.
The Inspire Movement is “an international network of Christians who are committed to developing mission-shaped discipleship in the leadership and life of the church.” Since its founding, Inspire has spread from England to Ireland, the United States and beyond. Inspire seeks to engage Christians in a way of life marked by longing for more of God, staying connected to God’s grace through spiritual disciplines, following God’s lead in mission and investing in spiritual friendships. Fellowship bands are the catalyst of this way of life and are groups where people share life deeply and help each other pursue this way of life. Inspire has developed missioner teams who work with churches and leaders to train and enable Christians to develop bands in their respective contexts. In the context of bands people share their stories of how God is working in their lives, and as they learn to tell their stories to each other, they are learning how to share this testimony with others in their church fellowship and beyond.
People need to tell their stories perhaps as much as people need to hear them. Focusing on numbers without the opportunity to share testimony of God’s work robs people of the opportunity to share what God is doing in their lives and prevents those who could hear the testimony from experiencing its impact. The recovery of the metric of testimony through community and bands could help individuals and congregations pursue a richer, deeper life of discipleship.