Amanda Drury on Testimony as Spiritual Formation in the Lives of Youth
In this episode, Amanda Drury talks about the integral role testimony plays in the worshiping community, especially as young people learn how to narrate their faith in a variety of spaces and ways and join the intergenerational faith community in long-term Christian living.
Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of contexts. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In season three, we focus on congregational ministry with and among youth by exploring five themes: youth agency, theological questions, the role of families and parents, intergenerational community, and multiple pathways for youth.
Kristen Verhulst 01:05
Well, Amanda, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. I'm excited to talk with Amanda Drury, author of a new book Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development. And Amanda, you serve as assistant professor of practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University. So welcome to the podcast today. Thanks for being here.
Amanda Drury 01:34
Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here.
Kristen Verhulst 01:36
Would you introduce yourself just a bit more, your connection into this world of youth and faith and theology? And then tell us the story behind your book. Why did you write it?
Amanda Drury 01:51
Sure. I'm teaching practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan, but I'm on a bit of a teaching hiatus right now. I'm on some grant leaves where I'm overseeing The Imaginarium, which is essentially a teenager, a youth group innovation hub. I know there are a few of those around the country, so I have the joy right now of working directly with youth pastors and with youth groups. So just last week, I spent the week with twenty youth pastors just imagining new ways of loving God and loving others. I love my job. I love getting to do this kind of thing. So how did I get started on this book? Well, I grew up in a Wesleyan Holiness church and we had Sunday evening services, and I would always get excited when I walked in the sanctuary and saw microphones in the middle of the aisle because I knew that meant people would testify, would share their stories. And I loved those nights because they were exciting and you never knew what you were going to hear. My father, who was the pastor, did not like those nights because you never knew what you were going to hear. I mean, the exact same reason. So on this side of things now, I can see just how nerve-wracking that is to relinquish the microphone. But that was an early seed for me in terms of just loving hearing people's faith stories from a very young age. So I go off, I go to seminary, get into my doctoral program. And this was around the time when Christian Smith and Melinda Denton's information was just going all over the place, the soul searching and all this concern about teenagers leaving the church and not retaining their faith. And obviously we're still there now. But I was really struck by how this seems to be this widespread phenomenon of teenagers walking away from their faith. And yet there seem to be these pockets where that is definitely not the case. And so I started paying attention to communities that I found that seemed to have a vibrant youth spirituality that even seemed to continue past typical youth-group years. And it was this testimony piece. It was churches that were regularly creating space for teenagers to tell stories. So testimony, I should say, is a story that you tell where God shows up. I'll just go with that basic definition . So these places where teenagers were given both the platform, but also some guidance in how to share their stories, those were very appealing to me. So I traveled around to a number of these churches, taking copious notes and doing some interviews. And that's ultimately what led to this book.
Kristen Verhulst 04:39
I love that idea of identity formation through testimony, and that's what adolescents are doing, trying to figure out who they are.
Amanda Drury 04:48
So much of it is talking ourselves into who we are. You think of how often you have a thought in your head and you blurt it out, and you go, Oh, that sounded so much better in my head. Sometimes we don't even realize what it is we believe until we hear ourselves saying it out loud. And so we might think our teenagers are taking in what we're giving them, but when we give them the chance to actually allow them to share what it is that's in there, you can have some really fruitful conversations.
Kristen Verhulst 05:18
Indeed, yes. The book has been out for a couple of years now. What are you hearing? How are people receiving the book? Do you have any stories to share about what insights the book has prompted in others?
Amanda Drury 05:33
I think the stories that are most meaningful to me would be young parents and young pastors who catch some of these practices and are talking about having 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds wanting to have this kind of language facility. You think about how you acquire a foreign language, and I think there's something similar here too with faith language. So that's exciting to just hear about preschoolers that are looking to see where God might be present. And of course, you hear all kinds of crazy, silly things that might make you roll your eyes. But these kids are practicing. And there's just something beautiful about that. I often hear from youth pastors different practices that they're doing to share testimony. Matt Duprez shared with me once that he was having his teenagers do future testimonies, so they would write what they wanted their spiritual life to look like five years from now and then reverse engineer—if this is where I want to be five years from now, what kind of path do I need to be on for this? So it's really fun to get that kind of feedback. I'm glad that I'm doing a fun practice. You know, this isn't a book on sin, so there's a lot of energy that can come with this that I feel very privileged to get to listen in on.
Kristen Verhulst 06:55
Yeah, that's right. I was struck, too, that this is a communal event, testimony. You're sharing yourself, but you're also hearing the testimony of others. And I wonder, too, with adolescents, the idea of of sharing your testimony could be very scary, but your I don't think you're saying here that you've got to have it all figured out when you share a testimony, that there's a developmental, a communal aspect to this that we're all learning together.
Amanda Drury 07:28
Yes, yes. And I think a lot of people have had my experience. If you grew up in that more Holiness church, where to testify means to stand up in a formal worship service and spontaneously share whatever is on your heart. So that can happen. But that is certainly not where testimony is limited. So if you can imagine on an X and Y axis, there's the formal worship service. But then there's also the informal places where you can testify. And then there's the spontaneous kind of testimonies you can give, but also the ordered, the planned kind that you've written out. And so I'll often encourage youth pastors to play around with those four quadrants and give teenagers multiple places. They might not want to stand up in front of people, but they can fill in a blank in a small group and share something. Now, with that said, I should say, I think teenagers are a whole lot more willing to speak out loud than we give them credit for, that for the most part all it takes is an adult to say, “Hey, I think you have something that's worth sharing. Would you be willing to share this with the group?” I think we often say their “no”s for them.
Kristen Verhulst 08:35
Well, that's beautiful. And actually, that leads me right into a question of how does testimony feed into this idea of youth agency as a way to nurture spiritual formation and really root the youth into the life of the church?
Amanda Drury 08:59
I mentioned earlier the importance of talking yourself into who you are. Charles Taylor talks about how we engage in our most authentic selves when we're able to articulate just who those selves are, that our strongest sense of identity comes when we are in conversation with other people. So there is a sense in which I can know myself more. But also when you are hearing other teenagers testify, it's like your world is opening up and you're going, “Boy, if this can happen to them, maybe it's possible for me to have this type of thing too.” Well, and one thing that's just kind of funny here: I think every youth pastor that I spoke to said the same thing, almost word for word. They said, “You know, when I get up there and preach, they'll be talking or whatever. But when a teenager gets up there, you can hear a pin drop.” And a number of them have said, “You know, they say the same things that I'm saying, but for whatever reason, they listen because it's a teenager.” And we've had teenagers even say that as well: “I don't know why, but I just listen better when it's someone my own age.”
Kristen Verhulst 10:01
It's a beautiful way to show them they're valuable, and their voice is very important to the church and our life together. When you think about this idea of testimony as a way to speak ourselves into who we are in Christ, surely that raises all kinds of questions and theological reflection. What advice do you give to those who mentor youth and they struggle with not understanding an aspect of their faith or why there's a real difficulty in their life at a particular moment. So how do you talk about that part of your faith when you've got lots of questions?
Amanda Drury 10:46
That's a great question. You know, interestingly enough, in conversations I have with people, when I ask them to recall a testimony they heard or to share something that they heard another person share that was meaningful, most of those testimonies actually revolve around pain, testifying to some kind of trauma or deep loss. And there is something that's both terrifying and beautiful about hearing someone going through this immensely painful experience, and yet they're still here in front of me, even if they haven't had this figured out. You don't have to have this figured out in order to testify. So I've been surprised by how often people have pointed to essentially laments as being meaningful and shaping of their faith.
Kristen Verhulst 11:33
And I wonder, too, when I think about the public worship service as a as a place for testimony, how does some of the set—I’m thinking of creeds, or set prayers, maybe the Lord's Prayer; those are deeply theological words, well expressed and tested over many, many years. So how does that weave into testimony, or what's the relationship?
Amanda Drury 12:07
I think that any time you have people talking in a worship service there is an opportunity for testimony. So, churches that are giving announcements, I realize that's not a big theological matter there, but someone giving an announcement about the Lenten soup supper. It's natural to be able to talk about “I did this last year and here's what happened,” or even the Lord's Prayer, to use that as a formula for the stories that you tell. So I mean, I've got three kids. I want my children to be able to recite the Lord's Prayer. But I also want them to say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but I also want them to be able to tell me about a time when it seemed like God did provide that daily bread. So even drawing on the language from more traditional elements of worship and allowing people to see where and how it goes alongside of their own life. The other piece there, too, is so often when I when I find churches that are doing testimonies, it tends to be churches that allow testimonies after a missions trip or on confirmation Sunday or things of that sort, which I love; I don't want to stop that, but my fear is that if those are the only times that churches are giving space for testimony we’re implying, we're subtly telling people that those are the only times when God shows up in our life. So yes, you might experience God in a new way on a mission trip. You might also experience God in a new way on a Tuesday in February. So creating that expectation, that hopeful expectation, that perpetual Advent, if you will, that God can and does appear in our lives.
Kristen Verhulst 13:48
That reminded me of a line I jotted down where you talked about the waxing and waning that comes with long-term Christian living. And I imagine that testimony, too, can be times where you emphasize one part of your story, and then maybe there's another time where you're in a darker place or there is a time of lament, but then a different aspect of the story comes. And so it's not always about the wonderful life as a Christian, and all is good, but it's this back and forth of seeing we go through different times and experiences, and yet that's all part of the big story.
Amanda Drury 14:36
Right, right. And you know, there's actually a lot of overlap between testimony and trauma therapy, but at the churches, we're not trained licensed therapists there. But there is something about someone being able to repeat a traumatic story over and over again in such a way that they are recognized by the people of their congregation. And the story doesn't even have to make sense. We know oftentimes memories can be jumbled, or you have a hard time coming up with a cohesive narrative after you've been through trauma. But the importance of being able to share your story even multiple times . . . I was talking with one woman whose husband died very suddenly in a tragic backyard accident. And she wanted to know, “Is there an expiration date on my grief? Or can I talk about Ross every single Sunday? Are people going to get sick of this? Because that's all I want to talk about.” And this is five years after her husband's death, and she's still wanting to talk about him in such a way that the church will hear and value and acknowledge.
Kristen Verhulst 15:45
When we think about this community of believers, the worshiping community, the congregation, how would this testimony play into the different, the different ages? We talked a little bit earlier about young children, but now let's think across the spectrum to even very old people who are nearing the end of life. How does testimony show up or be real to a fully intergenerational community?
Amanda Drury 16:20
Sure. That's a great question. I know we've played around with different testimony nights. I'll start off small here where we might have a parent and teenager night on a Sunday night, and we have them get in their own family small groups. And certainly there's problems with that; you've got to be sensitive with how this plays out. But to have a setting where you can prompt adults to share their faith stories, because it can be awkward for a mom to just, say, tell her 13-year-old son, “I want to tell you about a time when . . .”, but if you're in a setting where it's expected, where it's called forth, when we've done things like that, we've just heard teenagers saying things like, “I never knew my parents went through that,” or a dad saying “It never occurred to me that my son would even want to hear that story.” So there's some, I think, some neat opportunities there. I've heard from a few churches that have done congregation-wide testimony times and have gone out of their way to hear from each different age group on Sunday mornings and then at the end of the series pulled together their own book of testimonies. And they sent me a copy of it. And I mean, you've got you've got people who are 6-year-olds in there, you've got 96-year-olds, and it was just so fun to see all of their stories out there together. And I mean, this book was a place of pride for this church. These are our stories.
Kristen Verhulst 17:41
Yeah, that's great. Yeah, it's kind of like the family scrapbook, and to really see the full breadth of that life, that family life, you know?
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18:24 What do you say to two churches that really have not done much with testimony like this? It's not that they're against it; it's just never really been a strong part of their tradition. How do you gently introduce that for those that might just really feel uncomfortable with this aspect of sharing one's faith or sharing a story?
Amanda Drury 18:49
Yeah, because there's a lot of that out there. I think it's helpful first to acknowledge the impossibility of talking of God, that our words are inadequate, that even for me to say that God is good is still somehow wrong because the goodness of God is so much better than language could convey. Karl Barth says it's impossible to talk about God, but we have to talk about God. We're living in that tension and recognizing that, yes, this is an impossible task before us, but somehow our words are blessed nonetheless. So I think, first of all, acknowledging that this is hard. You're not going to do it right. There is no “right” here, essentially. And then and then helping people understand, maybe broaden their definition of testimony. I think that some people hear “testimony” and they think “miracle,” this direct divine intervention, and sure, that might be someone's testimony. But you can also ask about answers to prayer, something that's perhaps not quite as exciting or even just as simple as something that's good in your life minimally. If we take seriously James, who talks about every good and perfect gift coming from the Father, to latch on to promises like that and to acknowledge, OK, the stuff in my life that I might see as luck or coincidence, share that in reference to where and how you see God showing up. I often encourage people to just try it. I actually just did this with my students. Just last night we met together, and they had just spent two weeks doing a daily testimony log of just a few simple sentences of where God showed up, where they seemed to notice God—and I like that “seemed,” I like kind of the circumspect language there; I think that's important. But a number of them said the first week it felt like an assignment, like, Oh, yeah, I'm supposed to write this down. But then something shifted for them, and it just became the way that they started seeing their day. They started asking that question even when they weren't sitting down in front of their notebook. So, OK, I'm getting off topic here, but this understanding that it's impossible to talk about God: There are multiple ways to talk about God, and to pay attention to the fruit that comes when you practice along those lines. I think pastors will find that if they have a church that is practicing testimony, they will have a church that is growing in gratitude. Those two things seem to seem to go together.
Kristen Verhulst 21:25
Thinking back now to this big national study on the religious lives of youth, if a finding from that has been that many youth, unfortunately, are just unable to articulate their faith, then it's got to be testimony can be hopefully a beautiful practice that helps them learn the words that will help them be able to express their faith.
Amanda Drury 21:58
And here again, I would give youth pastors the same advice in terms of looking at all those places in your youth gatherings where people are talking and see whether or not that's a place you can lean into testimony. One of the simplest ones would be if you've got a small group that's doing highs/lows, roses/thorns, they'll have their own words for this, but to shift it just a little bit. Kids are going to talk about a great part of their week. What about if we shifted that just a little bit to, hey, where did it seem like God showed up? Or where did it seem like God was just completely absent? And just framing it just a little bit differently to help them see things from a different perspective.
Kristen Verhulst 22:38
We've touched on this already, but clearly families, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles all play significant roles in the lives of youth. Do you have any advice or examples of where family connections, whether that's at home time or family gathering times, where testimony can show up and be lifegiving in those relationships with youth?
Amanda Drury 23:11
And I should preface this by saying so often these are easier to start when kids are young. It can be awfully hard to start new practices when you've got a 16-year-old. Not impossible by any means. Again, looking to see where people are talking. Also any time you can have a third object, so it's not just two people talking, but there is another object that you're bringing in. So when my kids were little, we had a notebook that we would write down things that we noticed. When my daughter Clara was two, she didn't care about that, but she liked putting the stickers in the book. So just small things like that. We pray with our kids at night before we go to bed. And so that was a normal time where we could say, “Hey Sam, what do you want us to pray for tonight?” But then we could also circle back to, “OK, last week you asked me to pray about such and so. How is that now?” So those kinds of habits, those kinds of practices I think can be meaningful. Sometimes it's as simple as, “Hey, pull out your phone. Show me a picture that represents . . . something that reminds you of God. So it can be helpful to find that third thing that you're bringing into the conversation that you're not just having the vulnerable, deer-in-the-headlights look.
Kristen Verhulst 24:34
That's really helpful. Another kind of aspect of life with youth and Christian community is recognizing there's so many different ways, or there could be so many different ways, to connect with youth. And then sometimes communities, congregations get stuck on one path of engagement with youth, and they're going to catch some, but they're going to miss many others. Have you discovered this role of testimony that it opens up some possibilities for people to imagine different ways you can engage with youth, different pathways towards a deeper faith life, a richer way of expressing Christian community in the light of testimony?
Amanda Drury 25:30
I think when you hear people share a testimony, you realize we have a lot more in common than I realized. So if you've got a 15-year-old and an 80-year-old in the same room just hearing each other's stories, there tends to be a connection, even if I didn't experience the same thing that this 80-year-old man did. There's often some kind of emotion or reaction that I can at least identify with. And there's a connection that comes with that, a deepening of relationships.
Kristen Verhulst 26:03
As I mentioned, your book has been out for a couple of years. If you had the opportunity now to write a new postscript, maybe something you wish you had emphasized this more, or you'd like to expand more? Any thoughts now, as you've had a few years to reflect on the work and what you would really hope people take away from this important theme?
Amanda Drury 26:30
Well, two things that come to mind. First would just be more of an emphasis on the Ignatian examen to show some of the ancient roots. There's a strong connection there. And I'd probably highlight Mark Thibodeaux's work, who has this fantastic little book reimagining the Ignatian examen that really pulls in the imagination and testimony and the examen together. And there's just some really practical things in there that I love directing people to now and wish I had drawn on some of the more traditional elements of that just to give it a richer history. And then the other piece, on a very practical note I'd love to have a troubleshooting section. I've got some of that for when testimony goes off the rails and things like that, but to questions that I hear a lot. You know, what happens if a teenager does X? And so to include more real-life examples of a youth pastor shepherding a conversation back—I shouldn't just say youth pastor—someone shepherding a conversation in such a way that it's edifying both to the teenager as well as the rest of the listeners.
Kristen Verhulst 27:44
That's great. Well, Amanda, it's been terrific talking with you. Are there any other words of wisdom or insights that you’d just love to share with our listeners, encouragement to those who maybe are youth listening or those who work among and with youth?
Amanda Drury 28:04
I think I would say don't be afraid to ask people to share their stories. Sometimes people have in mind that it's the outgoing people that want to share this, it's that people that enjoy the stage, that type of thing. But one of the most meaningful conversations I had was with a 16-year-old girl named Maddie, and Maddie told me that she was in a church that was regularly creating space for young people to testify. And she said, “I always assumed that it would be the loud kids up there, the popular kids up there that were talking. But a lot of the people that go up there are kind of like me, like, they're quiet and they just kind of hang back. . . . And I figured to myself, OK, well, if they can share their story, then maybe I can share my story too.” She could see herself in it. But then I love her response when I asked her, “OK, Maddie, so you've got a date in February when you're going to share your story. What are you going to say?” And she said, “I don't know yet, but I have my eyes open to see where God shows up.” So just that expectation, and how much youth workers can do in creating the expectation and setting the conditions and the invitation to bring teenagers into this practice.
Kristen Verhulst 29:22
That's so beautiful. It is all about inviting in and making space for the young people, hearing their voices, and really celebrating with them all along the way in this journey together. Amanda, thank you so much. It's been great talking with you.
Amanda Drury 29:40
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
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