Testifying Teens: a book review

Testimony has a significant impact on the faith development of adolescents. As young people learn to tell their story of faith, it cements their understanding of God, fosters identity formation and allows the wider community to feedback into their experience and when necessary offer a critique. Amanda Hontz Drury explores what happens for youth as they testify, and puts forward a theology of testimony and offers practical advice on how churches can incorporate intentional, public testimony into youth ministry.

Drury has fifteen years of youth ministry experience and is professor of practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University. In Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Development, Drury offers a similar case for testimony as Thomas Long’s Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, though she is much more sophisticated in her use of sociological research and theology than Long (cementing for me, yet again, that the most interesting work being done in the area of practical theology comes from the youth ministry world). Having read both Long’s and her book, I would say this is the better book. I also see a similarity between Drury’s project and Brandon McCoy’s Youth Ministry from the Outside In which builds off social construction theory and helps youth ‘thicken’ their connection to God’s story as they learn to share their own. There are differences between their approaches but I think enough of an overlap that these books are worth reading side by side.

Drury draws on her experience in youth ministry and her holiness heritage (where a mic in the aisle meant we’d hear from more than just the pastor). As you would expect, she has anecdotes about the telling our particular faith story, but at its core this is a book that is well-researched, sophisticated and theologically thoughtful. Drury doesn’t simply make claims of the necessity for testimony but engages serious research. Her chapter on a ‘Theology of Testimony’ synthesizes the perspectives on witness in Phoebe Palmer (the Nineteenth century, Holiness evangelist) and Karl Barth. This is a creative and thoughtful treatment on testimony.

The book’s five chapters lay out Drury’s case for testimony. Chapter one forms her introduction. Chapter two discusses the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion which illustrated that young people are inarticulate about their beliefs. Drury argues that teaching youth to speak about their faith strengthens their understanding of Christian truths and their grasp on where God has been active in their lives. Chapter three utilizes the insights of narrative psychology to illustrate the importance of telling one’s own story for identity formation. Chapter four outlines a theology of testimony. Here Drury creatively synthesizes Phoebe Palmer and Karl Barth in attempt to give a full account of the role and function of testimony for the Christian life. Palmer considered herself a ‘Bible Christian’ and had little use for ‘theological technicalities.’ Barth for his part, would be dismissive of Palmer’s subjectivity (95); however Drury points out that Barth corrects Palmer in offering a Christocentric spirituality focused on Jesus rather than the individual self (97) and Palmer corrects Barth in placing personal testimony within the domain of biblical witness (98-9). Drury places these thinkers in dialectic and illustrates that testimony is a Christian call, an expression of gratitude for what God has done, and is enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Her final chapter offers her pragmatic approach to implementing testimony with North American adolescents.

The theological core of this book is applicable far beyond the realm of youth ministry. All ages and stages would benefit from intentional space for testimony; however the way that learning to tell our story impacts our grasp on reality and our self-understanding is of peculiar importance for adolescents. Drury offers practical insight in how to incorporate testimony into youth ministry. As a pastor who is concerned that the youth of my church grow in their knowledge of Jesus and in relationship to Him, I appreciate Drury’s take.

This book is more ‘theological’ than your typical youth ministry book. Drury isn’t offering a “How to” so much as providing a conceptual framework and a re-orientation around the theme of testimony. Obviously this is a good ‘student’ book for those who are learning and thinking about youth ministry but I hope it finds itself in practitioner hands. I also think her theology chapter is widely applicable beyond youth.  I give this book four stars!

Notice of material connection, I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

2 thoughts on “Testifying Teens: a book review

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