“You will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth.”
I started something new this semester and it really made a big impact on my students. I started using a new approach to opening my classes that includes a personal testimony and witness talk. It is all about a commitment to becoming not just a teacher, but a witness to my students and their parents.
Becoming a witness is the final exercise and challenge in 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator. In many ways every exercise and meditation in that book is meant to prepare teachers and catechists to become witnesses.
As Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi,
“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41)
It is no coincidence that sharing our stories about our relationship with Christ is called a “testimony.” The word has the same root as “testament,” as in, Old and New Testament. We testify to our relationship with Christ. We know him, we love him, and we share him with others. We are his witnesses to the Gospel. We do more than just teach about him, we share our relationship with him and extend his invitation to enter into that relationship with others as well.
How to Prepare a Personal Witness Talk for Every Class
Here is how I prepare the mini-witness talk:
1. I outline my lesson plan. (I still use the lesson planning system I describe in The Religion Teacher’s Guide to Lesson Planning)
2. I select a Scripture reading that exemplifies the main theme of the day’s lesson.
3. I read and meditate on the verses waiting for memories and personal connections to surface related to the reading. I write these personal connections as notes in my lesson plan.
4. Finally, I choose one specific story to tell the class. I write a short outline as talking points for my personal testimony as well as the proclamation of Good news contained in the reading itself.
My New Religion Class Schedule
Now that I’ve added the personal testimony and witness talk to the beginning of the class, my sessions are usually structured like this:
1. Bell Work: Students complete an assignment as soon as they arrive. This gets them focused immediately and saves time quieting them down and starting class.
2. Scripture Reading: Students gather around the prayer table sitting on the floor while I stand next to the table to read the Bible. This is also a great opportunity to give a student the responsibility of being the reader for day or week.
3. Witness Talk: I give a short 2-5 minute personal testimony about my experience related to the day’s reading as well as an explanation of the lessons we might take from the reading itself.
4. Q & A: Since many students have not heard the reading before, we spend some time answering questions about what they’ve heard.
5. Opening Prayer: We still begin the class with prayer. I often say a spontaneous prayer based on the reading and discussion, but I’ve shared a number of other suggestions here.
6. Review Bell Work: We spend a few minutes reviewing the Bell Work and I get a sense of the prior knowledge students have coming into the day’s lesson.
7. Lesson Activities: Next I guide students through the various activities for the day, focusing on their path through the Learning PROCESS and Conversion PROCESS. The majority of class time is spent on these activities.
8. Closing Prayer: Parents arrive five minutes before the class is over and we pray together as a group.
The Real Reason I Now Share a Personal Testimony
Why did I make this small, but important adjustment? As I mentioned, the last day of my book 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator is titled “Day 31: Become a Witness.”
I figured it was important to really practice what I preached!
During my first semester this year I didn’t have a systematic process for living out this identity in class. I knew I should give personal testimony in class and I did share my story occasionally, but not deliberately every day.
Strange, but I was actually surprised by how interested the students were in my story when I shared it with them for the first time. Sadly, I realized that I couldn’t remember a time when I shared this story at all with my students the prior year.
I’m embarrassed to admit that.
The other reason I’ve made this adjustment in class is inspired by the Year of Faith.
I’ve been blessed during this Year of Faith to have read some great books about evangelization that have really shifted the focus in catechetical work. First, I read Rebuilt by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran as a manuscript last Fall at Ave Maria Press. The finished book released this year is incredible. (I’m also pleased with the way the Rebuilt Parish website came out! Wink, wink.)
Over Christmas break, I read Matthew Kelly’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, which made me realize the dire need we have to focus our efforts as individuals on Catholic evangelization.
Finally, after many people recommended it to me, I read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, which helped me get a sense for the kinds of conversations and process that students and parents need to go through in order to truly become disciples. Also, that word is absolutely crucial and at the focus of all of this books: disciples.
What have I done since reading these books?
Recently, I’ve been studying preachers. I agree with Sherry Weddell that we need to restore a focus on proclaiming the Kerygma. My friends at the Church of the Nativity (authors of Rebuilt) don’t know this, but I’ve been studying their weekly message podcasts as models of this kind of witness-testimony approach to evangelization to improve the way I deliver not only my personal testimony.
Chris Wesley is the director of Student Ministry at Nativity and gives powerful examples of how to start of a high school youth session with a focus on preaching. A lot of what he does definitely applies even to my 3rd grade class!
Check out their kid’s podcast as well.
So . . . Are You a Witness?
So, my question for you is, are you a witness or a teacher? Would you respond to Pope Paul VI’s challenge and consider yourself a witness more than a teacher?
That is our responsibility as religious educators. In this era of the new evangelization, we have no other choice. If we want our students and parents to listen to us, we must be witnesses more than teachers.
Get comfortable with sharing yourself, your love for Christ, and be ready not just to teach the faith but to testify to Christ.
The rubber meets the road. If catechists remember nothing else, this would make a huge difference in every encounter the catechist would have with his/her class and it doesn’t use but 5 precious and rewarding minutes. What a great witness and a simple way to express an idea that I have used but not in such a consistent manner and I even preach that the best way to guarantee success is to do one thing consistently and superbly well. You have hit the nail on the head with this one. Congrats!
Thank you Lee! Your comments mean a lot. I totally agree about the five minutes–it seems small, but it really makes a difference.
Sr. Paz Bandalan, FMA
Thank you for sharing your new way of teaching our Catholic faith. I will be sharing this to the catechists I am working with now. May we all grow to be true witnesses of Christ. God bless.
Well done, Jared, I’m all for it. Of course, it has to be done. If we’re not aware of the graces we’re receiving and the miracles around us daily we can’t give witness to God’s goodness and His love for us. And when we are aware of these we do have to tell about it, “always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship. ” (Evangelii Gaudium 128)