Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development
Reviewed by Mark W. Cannister, Biblical Studies and Christian Ministries, Gordon College
Based in part on her 2007 research study “Testimony and Formation,” Amanda Drury set out to develop a greater understanding of testimony as a faith practice that contributes to the spiritual formation of adolescents. Her research included a collection of interviews with adolescents, guided by a grounded theory methodology, which explored the relationship between testifying and adolescent spiritual formation.
This concern for the ability of adolescents to testify or speak about God’s presence in their lives grew out of recent studies, most notably the National Study of Youth and Religion,1 which found that even the teenagers most highly committed to their faith were woefully inarticulate when posed questions regarding their beliefs and how their faith commitments impacted their daily lives. While these same students were very articulate about politics, current events, social concerns, and global happenings, the same could not be said for their religious understanding.
Drury’s emerging thesis throughout the book is that testifying is a practice that assists in the faith formation process. For her, testifying is more than simply the reporting of what one believes. Testifying is “articulating where we understand God to be present, along with how God interweaves his presence with our own spiritual narratives” which then “affects and strengthens the knowledge we have, thereby aiding participation with the divine nature” (24). In this sense testifying must also include some form of reflection on the meaning of the activity of God on one’s life or in the life of the faith community.
Following the introductory chapter, the second chapter of this brief five-chapter book focuses on the research of Phase One of the National Study of Youth and Religion to demonstrate the problems associated with adolescents’ inability to articulate their understanding of the faith to which they are committed. Here, Drury draws on sociological constructs of reality suggesting that the more one talks about something, the easier it is to believe that it is true and the more likely it is to become reality.
Following this social theory as well as narrative psychology, chapter 3 aims to make the link between narrative and identity formation. Drury argues, “…narrative not only describes one’s life but also plays a prescriptive role in actually shaping one’s life and identity” (28). In this chapter she also declares the significance of the faith community in processing and interpreting one’s own narrative in the context of the community narrative. Clearly grounded in her own Wesleyan tradition of community formation she goes on to suggest that when people are able to articulate their faith narrative, it makes a formative contribution not only to the individual but also to the community to which the person belongs.
In chapter 4 Drury sets forth a theological rational for testimony relying heavily on the writings of Phoebe Palmer, a nineteenth-century holiness evangelist and writer, whom she brings into conversation with Karl Barth for a rather fascinating discussion of testifying. These may at the outset seem an odd pair to bring into dialogue as Palmer viewed testimony as essential to sanctification, while Barth saw personal testimony as counterproductive to Christian formation since the focus was on the self, rather than on God. Yet, even in Barth’s desire to turn away from one’s self toward the glory of God, he was passionate about the witness of Christians to the community at large. Here Drury introduces the term “witness” as it is related to the concept of testimony, hence the intriguing interplay between Palmer and Barth.
Chapter 5 concludes the book with practical suggestions for approaching the practice of testimony with adolescents. The aim is to help adolescents find their voice in articulating their understanding of how God is working in their lives. To her credit, Drury also discusses a variety of objections and hindrances to the practice of testimony, which are certainly worthy of consideration.
In the end Drury concludes, and rightfully so, that regardless of the form of testimony – formal or informal, spontaneous or structured – our ability to articulate an understanding of God’s work in our lives is a very influential practice for faith formation. More than simply reporting on the past, testimony surely forms our present reality and future identity.
There is little doubt that speaking of one’s faith and the actions of God in one’s life and the life of one’s community of faith is valuable and a contributing factor in spiritual formation. The question that might present opportunities for further research is: What is testimony? While Drury reviews the literature and offers her own definition, there seems to be a gap between the definition(s) and working out the practice as a spiritual discipline.
It is rather striking that music is not associated with testimony in Drury’s analysis. Are they not testifying individually and communally when a congregation or gathering of adolescents is singing about the goodness of God in their lives? Drury does touch on her perceived difference between reciting creeds and testimony, suggesting that the reciting of a creed is like practicing the scales in music and testimony is like a sonata in which one can play with the music.2 More than simply reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Drury wants us to be able to articulate a time when God gave us bread, a time when we were forgiven by God and when we forgave others, a time when we resisted temptation or were delivered from evil. This is a wonderful challenge to reflect on the actions represented in the words of our creeds, prayers, responsive reading, and songs. However, one might consider further the innate value of singing, reciting, and responding in and of itself. In what manner do these actions reflect the testimony of our lives?
Surely it is possible to sing, recite, respond, or even share a faith story without any reflection on the meaning of the words or actions being communicated. Yet once reflection is added to the equation, do these actions become the testimony that impacts spiritual formation? It seems that among Drury’s greatest concerns is to offer students the language of theological reflection, which allows them to articulate their understanding of God’s activity in their lives and the life of their faith community. Perhaps a closer look at what we are already singing, reciting, and praying would give us a foundation from which to increase our reflection on God’s activity among us.
Without providing all the answers or providing a complete list of practices that will transform a church or student ministry (no silver bullets here), Drury certainly provides much food for thought. Her combination of theological, sociological, and psychological perspectives offers an excellent interdisciplinary understanding of the issues at hand and the importance of the practice of testimony as related to spiritual formation.
Not only is this a thought-provoking book for youth ministers, it will also challenge the thinking of Christian parents, and perhaps most importantly encourage senior pastors who are striving to integrate teenagers into the whole life of the church community.