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Creating a Culture of Belief Through Personal Stories

A practical look at how one church uses the power of testimonies

Editor's Note: As the new year begins, perhaps you are looking for fresh ideas to enhance your preaching. Bill White has some advice: start collecting stories from the people in your congregation—stories of life change, outreach, and perceptions of God's providence—and work them into your messages and the worship service as a whole. In his article White explains why he encourages this practice and how you can easily pull it off as a preacher.

Why we must work hard to collect stories

For decades people have said that the Thanksgiving service we hold at Emmanuel Reformed Church is the best worship service of the year. I always found that a little hard to swallow. It is, after all, the one service of the year that doesn't feature a sermon! But then it dawned on me: our Thanksgiving services are my favorite services, too. That's because they are testimony services, and I love a good story. Apparently, so does the rest of our church.

A number of years ago, we realized that we needed to inject our Sunday services with powerful testimonies like the ones people experienced on Thanksgiving. We needed that kind of "umph" on a weekly basis. Right around the time we came to that conclusion, I was dreading a series on evangelism. I just couldn't bear to stand up and give the same old "Jesus saves, so get out there and do evangelism" kind of message. In my time of preparation, I was drawn to that great story of Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well (John 4). It got me thinking about the great stories of some friends who had been doing evangelism.

We use personal testimonies virtually every Sunday. Over the years this weekly injection of stories has created a culture of belief that God is actually using ordinary people like us to bring his kingdom to earth.

As we slowly studied John 4 over an entire month, I told real life stories of real life people from our church: Christy inviting the Wal-Mart clerk to church; Brenda leading a coworker to faith in the hospital cafeteria; Bill having an e-mail dialogue with his atheist brother. Each week I would challenge the congregation to take the simple step of praying daily for an ordinary conversation to unfold about Jesus. I then asked them to tell me how it was going, and I would share their reports the following week. That month we learned more about evangelism than ever before, and it wasn't because of my great exegesis. Our congregation was already quite familiar with the scriptural principles behind evangelism. They were just looking for real life examples to show them how to reach out.

We use personal testimonies virtually every Sunday now. Sometimes they are live, sometimes they are captured on video, and sometimes they are shared in writing. The stories vary in length and in power, but what they have in common is that each one is a real person at our church. Over the years this weekly injection of stories has created a culture of belief that God is actually using ordinary people like us to bring his kingdom to earth.

How we collect stories

Let me share the many different ways our preaching team collects stories so that you, too, can benefit richly from collecting and sharing stories as a preacher: 

Carry a notebook in your pocket. This isn't a very high tech approach, but it works. Many of us on staff keep small notebooks in our pockets, and we write down stories when we hear them. On Sunday mornings you'll often find us pulling out our notebooks while we interact with someone new. We jot down a name, a number, and a phrase that captures the key point of the story. We will often follow up with the individual to get more details. The simple notebook method is how we got the story of Hero, a Buddhist, who was drawn to our church to hear his wife, a Hindu, sing in our gospel choir. A quick name, number, and follow-up call made for a great story. As a result of that story collecting, Hero now heads our internet outreach efforts—and he's still a Buddhist!

Maintain a blog. We have a pastor's blog, and we encourage people to post their stories in the comments section. The blog isn't fancy, but it's a great way to collect stories. Check it out. The preaching team regularly plunders the site for illustrations to use in our sermons. For example, on January 28, 2008, one our members, Cory, shared how he had started hosting a neighborhood BBQ for purposes of outreach. Because of the blog, we were able to share his story on a Sunday morning, complete with pictures.

Host a sermon research team on-line. We do not yet have a well-developed sermon research team. In fact, it's a bit of an oddball group of people: a teacher, an artist, a stay-at-home mom, a librarian, a waiter, a milk salesman, and an engineer at Boeing. Nonetheless, they often come through in clutch situations. I will occasionally send them an e-mail about a certain topic or passage that we want to tackle in a sermon, and there is usually at least one person who will get back to me with a good story. For example, the engineer once shared with me a powerful story about facing sexual temptation while out on the road for business. It worked perfectly for a sermon on marriage. I've also received a number of non-story illustrations from this team. I actually managed to get my hands on a first-century denarius for a message. I didn't know the waiter's brother is a coin collector!

Meet regularly with the worship planning team. Each Tuesday the preacher of the week meets with the various worship leaders and coordinators to lay out the Sunday service. The meetings usually run an hour. The preacher regularly asks if anyone knows of a story that would help illustrate the message. More often than not, a good story surfaces. In fact, all three of our 2008 Mother's Day stories came from this team.

Create a "story team." We've just started to take this approach at Emmanuel, but it's quite promising. Each Friday, someone on the administrative staff sends an e-mail to all the ministry leaders asking for one good story from their ministry that week. On Tuesdays, a group who cares for the spiritual well-being of the congregation reads these stories to keep abreast of what God is doing through our church's ministries. As a byproduct of this process, the best stories are distributed to the preachers.

Use the bulletin when you hit a dead end. When we hit a dead end while searching for stories, we'll put the word out in the bulletin. For example, when preaching a series on angels and demons, the preaching team couldn't find any stories about angels from our congregation. Convinced that Scripture is still true today, we issued another invitation in our bulletin for people to share their stories. The response was stunning—and each story lined up perfectly with the texts we were going to cover!

Poll your audience. Sometimes we want to hear the "big story" of our congregation. For example, as we prepared for a series on marriage, we wanted to know where exactly our congregation as a whole landed on related issues. To achieve the "big story," we polled our members and their friends after church. We actually borrowed polling booths from a local school so that hundreds of people could answer multiple choice and essay questions. The stories and statistics that came out of those surveys riveted the congregation. In fact, the resulting series broke all of our attendance records because people were so interested in hearing what they themselves had to say.

Collecting stories is hard work at times, but I'll say it once more: the weekly injection of stories has created a culture of belief that God is actually using ordinary people like us to bring his kingdom to earth.

Bill White is a church planter in urban Long Beach, California.

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