The seeds of my faith were sown in a little red brick church building found on a sharp bend of an oil-topped road in East Texas. To the eye that cares more about impressive appearances than anything else, that place is just another little church building, on another country road, in another small town, in the middle of nowhere. If you are looking for a place that depends on impressive, multi-syllabic theological terms, proper light temperatures, and musical builds into thunderous bridges attempting to express deep, abiding faith, then you took a wrong turn somewhere. By these superficial characteristics, it would seem like that red brick church building couldn’t possibly be the soil for spiritual growth.
But it was there–in that little church building—that I heard the gospel of Jesus proclaimed every week. It was there that I was taught to love the Word of God, under the instruction of my favorite Sunday School teacher—my mother. It was there that I heard my dad and other deacons pray and sing “with their chest” as they led us in our devotional period to open our services, showing me that men could lead with deep resolve and display deep emotion in worship. It was there that I learned the value of having older saints around who could testify to the goodness of God. It was there that doctrines of the sovereignty and providence of God—words that I later learned and had to define in seminary—were living, experienced realities. It was there that I learned that God is not a concept to be examined but a person to be worshipped, adored, delighted in, and trusted.
It was in that little red brick church that I learned the power of songs of sojourning and shared testimony. These were a means of reminding of the goodness of God, inviting others to share in our joy and resolute faith in that goodness, and strengthening the faith of those who were having a hard time holding on to faith because of the persistent and unrelenting presence of suffering. I later learned through studying the Scriptures that these rhythms and practices of song and testimony were part of the spiritual diet of God’s people throughout the generations. These rhythms and practices have been critical for my own growth and steadfastness in the faith.
Songs of Sojourning
I recently spent time with a friend who, like me, grew up in a historic black church in the south. As we reminisced about what it was like growing up in that environment and what got instilled in us there, I realized that while we grew up a little over 1,000 miles away from each other, we shared a spiritual hymn book, a heritage passed to us from the generation before us. We both had our seasons of drifting and hardship in young adulthood, and when things became unbearably difficult, our souls turned to the same collection of songs to stabilize and strengthen our faith.
Those songs were sojourning songs. By sojourning songs, I mean songs that tell the narrative of how God meets with, walks with, and sustains his people through the various hardships of life. These songs are part testimony and part prayer, training our hearts to look for and trust God in uncertainty, songs that instill an expectant longing for the fulfillment of all of his promises to us.
Most Sunday mornings, the deacons would come out to open the service with a devotional period where they would pray for the gathering, as we responded by singing lined hymns together in the call-and-response style that is rooted in the Black church. I loved (and still do) when those first lines rang out,
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land
That would be followed by the congregation’s response as we recounted the story of the exodus and asked God to be with us on our own sojourn through this “barren land” on our way to the promised land of the new Jerusalem. My favorite line in the hymn, the one that resonated with me most and brought tears to my eyes as I belt it out to this day, is:
Strong Deliverer, Strong Deliverer
Be thou still my strength and shield.
I think it was in those lines that I learned that part of God’s unchanging character was that of a strong deliverer. The request to “be thou still,” was a request for God to show up again to protect and deliver me when things got rough. It is a reminder to my doubting heart and an act of defiance against the surrounding circumstances to call on and expect God to be that for me again. It was another seed of faith sown into the soil of my soul.
On most of the Sundays of my childhood, that deacon-led devotional period was followed by the choir singing Albert A. Goodson’s “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.”
We’ve come this far by faith,
Leaning on the Lord.
Trusting in his holy word.
He’s never failed us yet.
Oh, oh-, oh- can’t turn around,
We’ve come this far by faith.
There is a point in everyone’s journey of faith where the road gets rough, and you can’t see how the Lord is going to get you through. There is an internal alarm that goes off in your soul, saying, “Abandon ship! The journey is too hard this way. Surely there has to be a better way. Surely you can find a self-salvation strategy to get you through.” But I was reminded yet again that the only way that we have even gotten this far is through faith—leaning on the Lord and trusting in his holy Word. He has never failed us, and because he is unchanging, always faithful, and always working all things together for our good, we can trust him with our next step and all the way home.
There were countless other songs that my friend and I talked about that night on my porch. Through “In the Garden,” our hearts were trained to trust that “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own.” Through “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” we learned to take our sins, griefs, temptations, trials, discouragement, and perceived abandonment to Jesus. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” has become a prayer in every season, especially when the path is dark and the next step uncertain.
It was songs like these that trained our hearts to trust God in the difficulty of the sojourn of life, a sojourn through this fallen world. It was through songs like these that life with God moved from the realm of the theoretical into the experiential. They cultivated an expectancy for God to show up, provide, and protect us as we walked with him.
The other gift that my home church gave me that helped cultivate that kind of expectancy was the power of testimony.
A Testifying People
Every now and then, during a particularly moving Sunday School lesson or at the invitation to come for prayer, someone in our church family would share a testimony of how God had answered prayer or was leading them through a particular situation. There wasn’t a plan or a rhythm to when it happened (unless there was a planned “testimony service”), but the effect was always to celebrate the grace, power, and faithfulness of God. The fact that it happened in a service moved the testimony from a personal encounter to shared, communal participation.
In other words, when someone gives testimony, that testimony becomes a part of the personalized public witness of that church family. Testimonies echo the psalmist who says in Psalm 66:16, “Come and listen, all who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” The psalmist closes the psalm telling us that our God listens and pays attention to the prayers of his people (v. 17). He is a God who does not turn away from our prayers or forget his steadfast love toward us (v. 18).
Testimonies teach us, first, that God is attentive to his people. Seasons of difficulty, suffering, and waiting are disorienting, causing us to wonder if God hears or cares. What we need to believe in the middle of difficult times is that he is a God who actually hears the prayers of his people.
“Songs of sojourning and shared testimonies taught me about God’s presence and power in personal ways.”—Brian Key
Secondly, testimonies teach us what it looks like to trust God amid difficulty, to act in faith as we offer up prayers, to wait with expectancy because we believe God will hear us, and to respond in worship when he answers. You can look back and ask, “How did Sis. Smith trust God in her grief? How did Deacon Lewis stay faithful to God in that season of praying and waiting on God? How did God meet them there?”
What begins to emerge is a shred of faith where you begin to say in your soul, “Maybe God can and will meet me in that same way.” The benefit of these shared stories is that you can begin to pick up themes, examples, and patterns of how God moves on behalf of his people. In that way, testimonies help to build plausibility structures in your soul where your doubt is telling you, “there is no way God can get you out of this jam.”
One of the great psalms of testimony, Psalm 107, tells the congregation, “Let the redeemed of the Lord proclaim that he has redeemed them from the power of the foe” (Ps. 107:2). Other translations say, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” In other words, bear witness to how he has redeemed you. Let the world know, and stir up the faith of one another as you bear witness together. Four stories of God’s intervention on behalf of his people follow that call and the final section unpacks how God can reverse the stark situations and the fortunes of his people. When you read that psalm, you begin to believe that when you cry to the Lord in your trouble, he will also rescue you from your distress (vv. 6, 13, 19, 28).
I didn’t know it at the time, but these testimonies were seeds of faith that were sown in the soil of my soul that God would use to remind me how to walk with him through difficulty because he had proven himself to be faithful in his Word and experientially through the testimonies of my church family.
I love the song “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” especially the chorus:
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!
“Proved him” means that I have tested him out, and he has made good on his promises. Testimonies give examples to fellow believers of how we have “proved Him o’er and o’er.” That we have lived with the kind of trust that says that if he doesn’t show up, we are sunk, but time and time again, he consistently comes through on our behalf.
Your Church Needs These Gifts
There were countless gifts that my home church gave to me, countless seeds of faith that were sown that I didn’t know until much later in my life, gifts that I am still uncovering, and seeds that are just now sprouting. But these two gifts, songs of sojourning and testimonies about the God of the sojourn, provided some color to the truths that I have come to treasure from God’s word and have proclaimed from the pulpit.
As a pastor, I now believe that those two seeds of faith sown into the soil of my soul are critical if we want to build resilient disciples who can endure difficulty with faith and encourage one another as we wait for the Day when all of the promises of God come to pass.
Our churches need to sing songs of the good news of our great redemption in Christ and the hope that we have because of that truth. However, we also need to sing songs of sojourning in our gatherings to train believers how to walk as pilgrims through this barren land with an enduring faith in God. These songs give our church families the language of faith to sustain us as we live as “strangers and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) who are called to run the race of faith with endurance (Heb. 12:1), and to endure the suffering of this fallen world with hope.
Our churches need to hear the Word exposited from qualified men, but we also need to hear the testimonies of fellow saints. Those testimonies put flesh on the truth preached. We need to give space for people to share those testimonies or to capture those stories in other ways that allow them to be shared with the body so that the faith of other members is strengthened as well.
Adding these elements may disrupt the flow of our services, which are often thoughtfully fine-tuned in their structure to build the faith of the saints. But any fitness coach or trainer will tell you that the disruption of a new type of movement or different pace can increase the results you are looking for, even when you have a well-organized fitness plan that you are committed to. I believe that songs of sojourning and shared testimonies can do just that in the life of the local church.
Songs of sojourning and shared testimonies taught me about God’s presence and power in personal ways. The songs trained my heart in the truth. They helped me locate God and myself in the middle of difficult times. They called me to endurance. The testimonies taught me what to pray for and that I should pray with the expectation that God will show up in the middle of the confusion and suffering to bring provision, protection, deliverance, and healing. They taught me that, yes, he is in the heavens doing all that he pleases, but that he is also working all things together for my good.
In other words, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”