Colleen Holt

contributing writer

The people of Jacksonville First United Methodist Church are busy working on creating a culture of testimony in their church family and their local community, thanks to a grant from Testimony HQ through Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Rev. Nathan Kilbourne, senior pastor, said the purpose of the grant is to help churches raise the practice of testimony in their church, to share stories of God’s work in their lives to the community as a whole, and to help the church and the community tell their stories together.

According to the Testimony HQ website, over the five-year course of the grant, the program “will help 30 congregations master how to utilize testimony as community engagement; lead each cohort congregation in four concentric circles of learning communities; develop a prescribed course of study for a Perkins Certificate of Practical Ministry in Evangelism; and establish the grant website (www.testimonyhq.com) as the vehicle for sharing resources, such as podcasts, webinars, downloadable resources and written materials.”

Jacksonville is the only United Methodist Church in Arkansas chosen for the first cohort. Rev. Kilbourne said there are a variety of denominations participating with them in the South Central area, including Lutheran, CME, Assembly of God, and non-denominational. Churches in the second cohort will be announced later this year.

There are two parts to the program: Building a culture of testimony and organizing a community engagement component. The church received $5,000, with the money being split between the two components. Jacksonville received a mentor assigned by SMU. The church is partnered with Doug Ruffle of the General Board of Global Missions, who has been a great resource for their work.

At Jacksonville, a program leadership team was started in January, and the program was launched with a sermon series about testimonies.

“This was used to break down walls towards sharing testimonies. Some of the stories start with people first knowing God and sharing what God has done for them. Testimonies can be short or long. This is all about sharing your story. People come to hear about Jesus,” said Rev. Kilbourne.

The Jacksonville church family also has events planned each month to build the sharing of testimonies “into our church’s DNA,” said Rev. Kilbourne. “We also encourage small groups to share their stories on a regular basis.”

He added that the planning team is just starting the process of what the community engagement piece will look like in Jacksonville. “This could include creating storytelling events, dinners at the church, etc. The program itself is kind of wide open in terms of your creativity, and testimonies will definitely look different in different communities.”

Rev. Kilbourne said he learned about the program through Amy Ezell of the Conference Office. “She thought our church would be a great place for this, so we applied.”

The first year, churches receive the money to begin their work, and the second year they are asked to be a teaching congregation to the next cohort. One stipulation is that you have to create a team of laity, clergy and staff, with at least one young adult and one youth member. “We looked for people who have had a heart for testimony. We want everyone to be comfortable with their story.”

Testimony has historically been a part of the worldwide church. Rev. Kilbourne said the African-American church has had testimony as a big part of their church. On New Year’s Eve, their members traditionally tell what the Lord has done for them in the past year.

“It’s built into their culture, and the people hunger and thirst for the stories. These stories are worth sharing. It’s vital to build a culture of testimony in your community so people can hear what God has done in your life.”