FaithStories at Northwood Church

How can your church introduce congregational participation into Sunday mornings? This is the first blog in a series that will address that question.

Video interview with Brian Doten, who serves as pastor of Northwood Church, Maple Grove, MN.

Like all who follow Christ, Rachel Bichler’s journey in the Way is unique. Much of what she has experienced in her walk of faith has a high EQ (encouragement quotient). That is, her story might well serve as a powerful tool the Holy Spirit could use to energize and spur on other believers. But if Rachel were part of a church where the meeting format had no room for her story, the congregation would never hear or benefit from it.

Thankfully, Rachel’s church not only allows but eagerly cultivates the telling of “FaithStories.” Her church? Northwood Church in Maple Grove, MN, where Brian Doten is pastor. Previously, he had served with Leith Anderson, then pastor of Wooddale Church, in Eden Prairie, MN, and now president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Back then, Anderson had stressed the importance of FaithStories. Doten ‘s role: helping people prepare them. Wooddale Church is the “mother church” of Northwood, where Doten has served as pastor since 2006.

I first came to know Doten a few years ago when I interviewed him for my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. For an update on FaithStories in Northwood Church, I interviewed him again last week. (Click here to watch a YouTube video of our conversation.)

What is a FaithStory?

Those in Northwood Church were moved when Emmanuela, a 13-year-old born in this Kenyan refugee camp, told her FaithStory.

Those in Northwood Church were moved when Emmanuela, a 13-year-old born in this Kenyan refugee camp, told her FaithStory.

“A FaithStory,” says Doten, “is a five-minute telling of how someone has become a believer in Jesus and the difference he’s made in their lives. Sometimes the story will also describe how they are witnessing for the Lord.”

Doten emphasizes, “These are not spontaneous presentations. They are planned in advance and timed out. People come well prepared, so it’s not some kind of off-the-cuff narrative. As much as possible, we try to connect the story with the sermon topic or worship theme for the day.” In this way, by telling their FaithStories, the congregation participates in the ministry of preaching/teaching.

In 2018, Northwood people heard 27 FaithStories from members of their own congregation. “We try to schedule them for three out of the four Sundays in a month,” Doten says. “On the first Sundays of the month, Communion Sundays, we don’t do FaithStories.” Other special elements within a given Sunday meeting may also bump such stories.

The FaithStory Coaching Process

What sets FaithStories apart from what used to be called a “testimony”? A well-thought-out and carefully conducted coaching procedure. Doten says, “Probably the best coaching process is that the people sit in the congregation week after week and listen to other people do this. So they already have a clear idea of what a FaithStory is as they start to work on their own story.”

But that’s not all. “We have a written set of guidelines. These are basic and simple, with some do’s and don’ts. For example, Don’t turn this into a life story. Don’t criticize any church or denomination. Do share how Christ has come into your life, how he’s changing your life, and ways you can talk about the Lord in a transformational, positive way.” (For a copy of Northwood’s FaithStory guidelines, click here.)

Doten sends these written guidelines to people who have agreed to do their FaithStories. “Then I ask them to write it out in advance and send me a copy a couple weeks before they are to present it. I read it over and get back to them with a face-to-face meeting, a phone conversation, or an email response.”

How Much Prep Time?

“I’m finding,” Doten says, “that in the last year or two, emails or phone conversations are working so well I no longer have to sit down with someone and go over it. When I first came to Northwood, there was a lot of that, because we were introducing something new and trying to create this culture of people doing FaithStories. Now that it’s embedded in the culture, I don’t have to give as much time to the coaching side as I once did.”

The biggest challenge right now involves scheduling. That does take time. Tracking people down, talking to them, finding a date that works for both their calendar and that of the church. “Sometimes when I first contact someone and they say, ‘Yes, I’d like to do that’, it may take a couple more contacts before we can settle on a date. I try to work about three months in advance. So this is not like next week or next month.”

Sometimes Doten interviews the one presenting the FaithStory, in which case he asks three or four questions. Tell us about yourself. Tell how you became a believer. Tell how Christ has changed your life. Doten explains: “Some people just get locked up in trying to organize their FaithStory. They want to talk about the Lord and about how he’s changed their life, but they freeze up in trying to organize it. So they say to me, ‘Will you ask me questions? Because I’ll be able to do that better.’”

The Fruit of FaithStories

Doten’s enthusiasm for FaithStories is contagious. Their power for building real community in the congregation remind him of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves: “Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .’”

“This happens so much as people share their stories,” Doten says. “People make connections that continue afterward, between Sundays, or even after a couple of weeks. Common experience connects people together.”

“FaithStories invite people to go deeper into the life of the church. Some describe how a Christian has grown in their faith because of small groups or Alpha. When people hear the stories of others being impacted by those ministries, they get involved, they step up. We will launch the next session of Alpha tomorrow night. We anticipate close to 60 people coming.”

Would Northwood Discontinue FaithStories?

I asked if Doten would ever consider giving up FaithStories. Answer: an emphatic no. “It’s the heart of our church, the heartbeat of the Sunday worship experience.” What if you discontinued FaithStories? “I think people would say, ‘You know, the preaching is okay, the music is really good, but those FaithStories—whatever happened to those Faith Stories? Bring ‘em back!’”

“People expect a preacher to get up and speak,” Doten says. “They expect it to be biblical, interesting, and challenging. But when a regular churchgoer gets up and talks in an intelligent manner, in a personal way, and they’re open and vulnerable to the congregation . . . oooh! The credibility they have and the connection that happens, those to me are sometimes the holiest moments that we have in our gatherings. So I don’t think you could convince us not to do this.”

Rachel Bichler’s touching story illustrates why the Northwood congregation would never willingly give up on FaithStories. To hear an audio-recording of her story, click here.

For more FaithStories from Northwood Church, click here.

Confessing to One Another in Shared Church

What’s worse than anticipating a root canal? Visualizing ourselves confessing sin in front of the gathered church. First, the image of dirty laundry flapping on a clothesline flashes past our minds. Second, there’s the dread of what others will think and say—and spread. And third, for many, the fear of public speaking intensifies the shudder.

Thankfully, when Scripture says, “confess your sins to each other” (Jas. 5:16), it does not say to do so in front of the whole congregation. Rather, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, “A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to fellowship with the whole congregation. I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins.”

Yet done properly, uncoerced, and under the right circumstances, one anothering in a Sunday meeting may include public confession. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include the following FaithStory by Rachel Bichler, who is part of Northwood Church, a congregation of about 500, in Maple Grove, MN. While containing far more than just “confession,” her story does include admission of taking a wrong turn and then returning. In a sense, she tells the story of a prodigal daughter:

Rachel’s FaithStory

Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that you just weren’t good enough? That no matter how hard you try, you just don’t have what it takes? I know I have. It’s something that has haunted me for my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with the idea that I’m somehow lacking. As a child I felt awkward, unable to connect with my peers. I was sure I could never be as relaxed and confident as the other kids appeared to be. At home, even though I was always quite sure that my parents loved me, I never felt quite sure that I deserved it.

Those very same misgivings also applied to my relationship with Christ. I became a Christian at a very young age. I’m not even sure just how old I was; only that it was a long time ago, in a Sunday school classroom, joined in prayer by a teacher whose name I no longer remember.

I was very lucky in that way, to be raised from infancy in a Christian home. My parents were also regular church attendees. Some of my earliest memories are of time spent in Sunday school. As I got older, I became active in youth group, went to Christian summer camps, and participated in missions work. I got to know other Christian kids my own age and made some good friends.

And yet, the older I got the more I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t escape from my continuing sense of inadequacy. I was certain that I was not as good a person as those around me. If they only knew my secret thoughts and secret sins I was sure they would recoil in horror. I often wondered how Jesus could love me when I couldn’t even love myself.

Then, in my teenage years, I began to surround myself with people that didn’t make me feel so inferior. I found people who had no place for morals or judgment. My new friends drank alcohol, did drugs, partied, lied, stole, and slept around. Eager for acceptance, I joined in their lifestyle with hardly a backward glance. And although I continued to think of myself as a Christian, I avoided attending church. I couldn’t help comparing myself to the others there and thinking they would all look down on me. After all, I wasn’t living a Christian lifestyle. My season of disobedience, self-loathing, and perpetual running from God lasted for more than 10 years. At the end I found myself divorced, and living back at home with my parents, and feeling utterly lost.

It was then, at a time when I was more broken than I had ever been, that I began to turn to God for healing. You see, even though I had spent many years running from him and his judgment, he was never far away. In fact, throughout my long rebellion, he never once gave up on me. He was just waiting for me to be broken enough to realize my need for him.

My return to faith wasn’t easy. It didn’t go perfectly. I struggled and backslid more than once. The biggest hurdle of all was my shame. I knew that God offered perfect love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but I had a very hard time accepting it. More than ever I knew that I could never be good enough. But, with a will surely strengthened by God, this time I didn’t give up. I read my Bible. I started attending church more regularly. I practiced confessing my sins and asking God’s forgiveness. Slowly but surely I began to feel the presence of Jesus in my life.

Then I met my future husband, Matt, a seeker like myself, and things began to snowball. I could feel the hand of God gently pushing us together. We began attending Northwood together and in it found a welcoming place where we could grow in our rediscovered faith. When we were married a year later, we committed ourselves to regular church attendance and raising our children to know and love Jesus.

Since that time, my faith has continued to grow. Every day I come to rely a little more on the power of God’s sustaining love. As for my feelings of inadequacy, the truth is I still struggle. The difference is that I no longer have to struggle alone. I know now that I can take my weakness to Jesus and that he will use it to make me strong. I know that even though I will never be good enough in this life, God will still love me and forgive me and continue his work in me as long as my heart remains open to him.

When we regularly include authentic stories from the scattered-church lives of God’s people, some of those accounts will include divulging wrongs. Hearing such forthright reports goes a long way toward restoring the connection with reality that can so easily get lost in our church gatherings.

True-to-life FaithStories, like this one from Rachel, can cut through the time-encrusted layers of religiosity.

(To listen to an audio recording of Rachel’s story, click here.)