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Can I Get a Witness? Telling the Story of God’s Work in Our Midst

In the rural church I grew up in, it was a longstanding tradition to offer the congregation an opportunity to share personal prayer requests and praises during Sunday morning worship. At the assigned time, usually after the first few hymns or praise choruses and before special music and the offering, an usher would make his way around the sanctuary, passing a wireless mic to congregants with an upraised hand.

If you haven’t grown up in a congregation with rhythms like this, I can imagine the thought of letting folks say whatever is on their mind might be a bit anxiety inducing. You are right. Sometimes it is. While most of what I heard in my first twenty-five years of life were simple prayer requests and praises from frequent contributors like Earl, Curly, or Preach, there were times when the whole sanctuary sat on the edge of their pews wondering what so-and-so was going to say next. There was the occasional rant or extended story when I would watch the clock, glad that I wasn’t the preacher who now had to shorten the sermon by ten minutes. Once in a while, when it was especially bad, the pastor had to step in and cut the person off. Yet for all the unpredictability and risk this passing of the mic occasioned, there was a goodness about bearing witness—both to one’s need and God’s ongoing work in people’s lives—that stayed with me long after I became a pastor myself.

Bearing witness to what God has done and to what God is currently doing is powerful. These stories become an invitation into relationship with God and with our neighbors. This is not to say that all churches need to incorporate a time of extended congregational sharing. In the church my wife and I planted, we chose very early on not to incorporate a time of sharing into our Sunday morning liturgy. We had a variety of reasons for this decision, but it meant that we had to create avenues for bearing witness in other ways. We’ve tried to do this through pre-church prayer gatherings, communal meals, our presence on social media, and ministry time at the end of Sunday worship. Every congregation needs to think about what makes sense in its local context. Regardless of whether a congregation opts to include congregational sharing in their weekly rhythms or not, every congregation should find ways to allow folks to bear witness to the ongoing activity of the triune God in their lives.  

The Testimony of the Church

It makes sense that individuals in local congregations have a deep desire to declare God’s goodness. This witness-bearing vocation has been the calling of the Church from its very beginning. When the women arrived at the Tomb on the morning of the resurrection, they left the tomb “and told these things to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9, ESV). The Gospel of John singles out Mary Magdalene’s role in this process of bearing witness. Based on the power of her testimony she is known in some of the oldest streams of the Church as the Apostle to the Apostles, the one sent with a story for the sent ones.[1]

This penchant for testifying, this witness-bearing vocation, does not end at the resurrection or the ascension. It continues past Pentecost into the life of the early church. Peter bears witness at the Jerusalem council. Paul repeatedly offers his personal testimony, eventually bearing witness in front of Caesar and likely at the empire’s edge in Spain.

Bearing Witness in Overlooked Places

Each of these examples points to the enduring power of our bearing witness to God’s continuing work in our midst. Stories are powerful. They change our lives and expand our imagining for what is possible. They also give glory to God. Each time we faithfully bear witness to God’s goodness in our lives and the world around us, we shine a spotlight not on ourselves or our perceived worthiness, but on the God who is worthy of glory and honor.

I think this is one of the enduring vocations that the church—especially the church in rural areas and small places—needs to hold fast to in our current cultural moment. Today it is easy to feel like we can leave the story telling to the professionals, be it pastors, celebrity authors, or Christians with a large social media platform. But God does not extend the opportunity to bear witness to his goodness only to big name pastors with a media department or celebrities with a large following. If you are a follower of Christ, you are invited to bear witness to his ongoing goodness in the places you experience everyday. Chances are the big names will never see those stories. It is up to you, up to me, to tell them.  

Helping Students Learn to Bear Witness at the Center for Rural Ministry

The opportunity to observe God’s work in small places and then bear witness is one of the things I love about working with Grove City College’s Center for Rural Ministry (CRM). In my role as director of the CRM, I’ve had the opportunity to hear college students encounter God and share story after story describing God’s goodness as they have witnessed it at work in rural congregations and communities. Whether it is an account of a spring break service trip that helped a student like Grace Anne Shaw (’24) see “a hidden mysterious glory” that is Christ’s love for people and places that seem hidden or unglamorous, or a summer internship in Fairmont, West Virginia, that helped Shayne Zigich (’23) “get that other view that I would just never have had,” these experiences and stories showcase God’s presence in places few stop to notice. In Shayne’s case, he recounts that he had heard about the ravages of drug addiction and overdose deaths, but when he met a family on the first day of his summer internship that had lost two individuals to addiction-related deaths, the reality of on-the-ground ministry came home to him in a new way. In the midst of the struggles congregants faced, Shayne saw the goodness of God at work in the culture of the small church, which he says created community for people “so they don’t just come once and feel like ‘that’s it,’ but it feels like a community they can come back to.”

Grace Anne Shaw (left) and Victoria Kim exchange stories during the 2024 CRM spring-break service trip.

I could relate more stories from students, faculty, and pastors who have spent time serving within local congregations and have seen the goodness of God at work in a wide variety of ways. (You can find more here and here if you are interested.) We have found that when we connect students with churches in rural areas and small towns and ask them to pay attention—to look for what God is doing—they seldom come back empty handed.

This is not surprising. God is at work everywhere, and he is still calling us to enter into his work wherever we are. There is no minimum (or maximum) population threshold for God’s work or for what areas deserve to showcase stories of his goodness. As many of our students have discovered through their interactions with small congregations in out-of-the-way places, God is at work, and there are stories waiting to be told in small churches and rural communities across our region. Each story highlighting God’s faithfulness functions as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on God’s enduring goodness in places we are tempted to write off. Each testimony stands as a stone of remembrance to build expectation and faith for the future.

Stories alone cannot save us (only God can do that), but they might help sustain us when hope seems lost or when home seems too small to matter. God is at work everywhere. No matter where we are, the invitation remains, “Can I get a witness?”

[1] Carolyn Pirtle, “Celebrating Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles (July 22, 2020) https://mcgrathblog.nd.edu/celebrating-mary-magdalene-apostle-to-the-apostles (accessed June 24, 2024).

Charles E. Cotherman is executive director of the Center for Rural Ministry and an assistant professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Evangelicals, Modern Reformation, Front Porch Republic, and Plough. He is the author of To Think Christianly (IVP Academic) and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches (IVP Academic). He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat and dog in Oil City, Pennsylvania.