"MMM note: This story will eventually tie-in to a broader discussion on Young Women and mission preparation, but right now, I just want to get the story written down.
A few years ago, I heard someone say something that stuck with me. Here it is years later, and I can't find where I heard it, who said it, or exactly what was said, or even if I just thought it - so I won't attribute it to anyone, or claim it to be doctrine or policy. But it stuck in my head. (If any of you can source this, please let me know.)
The gist of the quote is this:
"I am concerned that we are raising a generation of youth who can only bear their testimony in the mountains, or around a campfire."
It probably stuck in my head because I agree with it. Having had the privilege of serving a large chunk of my adult life with the youth of the Church, I know that testimony meetings around a campfire are often the only place a young man or woman will ever bear their testimony. I get it. Testimony meetings are scary. Campfire's are safe, semi-occluded, and peer-pressure responsive. I have been witness to some wonderful testimony meetings around campfires - important, life-changing testimony meetings. I am not trying to denigrate this experience, rather I hope to add to it.
A few years back, when I was privileged to serve as bishop of a large and vibrant youth program (90+ kids), one of my favorite things was to go to Girl's Camp. I don't know how other stakes do it, but it ours, the bishops were all invited to come up one day to participate in activities with the girls, and end the night with a bishop's fireside and testimony meeting. I loved this experience, and it is one of the things I miss most about being a bishop.
For many of the young women, and we adult leaders, this testimony meeting was often the high point of the week at Girl's Camp. It was as close to a guaranteed spiritual experience as you could find.
We cleared out an area in a grove of trees and hauled in enough stumps, logs and chairs for everyone to be seated. We decided against having a fire because it can be so distracting. Lanterns and flashlights were placed strategically. We had an opening prayer and sang a hymn, after which I had a few moments to talk to the girls and deliver my message to them. Such good girls. Strong, pure, and happy.
Before I opened the meeting to testimonies, I had a idea come to mind that made me instantly uncomfortable. I tried to dismiss it, but it persisted - so I went with it. After I shared my thought and testimony, I closed with the following request -as best that I can remember:
"As you bear your testimonies, I would like you to do something a little different this year. Let's do away with some of our traditions and try something new.This year I would like to hear what you know. I would like to hear your testimonies about the Gospel and the Savior.
For example: We all know that you love coming to Girl's Camp. So, nobody needs to stand up and tell us that they love Girl's Camp. We also know that you love your friends, and your leaders. Your friends already know, and so do your leaders, so you don't need to share that with us either.
We also know that you are thankful for a lot of things - parents, brothers and sisters, friends, etc. We don't need to hear that, either. What I am hoping, is that we can hear from each of you and understand what you believe, and what you know in your hearts to be true. That is a testimony. I know it's different, but I feel that it will be worth it.
Finally, I would also ask our wonderful Young Women leaders to abstain from bearing their testimonies tonight, and leave the time for our young women."
Then I sat down. Terrified. I caught a few of glances from Young Women leaders. One of concern, one of confusion, and one of irritation. So I just looked at the ground in front of me and waited.
Crickets. That's all I heard. Literally, crickets.
Nobody stood up.
Five minutes passed.
Silence, except for the crickets.
I did it. I actually destroyed a testimony meeting. I ruined a grand tradition - the high point of Girl's Camp.
As I sat there in the dark, trying to figure out how to dig myself out of this disaster, I heard a sound. One of our sweet, shy young women stood up, and cleared her throat. She testified that she knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that through him, Jesus restored the true Church to the earth. I don't remember what else she said, but I remember what I felt. I felt the Holy Ghost surge into my heart and confirm what this courageous young lady had said.
The dam burst. One by one, every one of the young women stood and testified to the things they knew to be true. The prophet, the Book of Mormon, the Priesthood, the Plan of Salvation, the temple, and mostly, the Savior. It was powerful. No fluff, no filler.
These sweet, strong young women were rewarded for their courage with an outpouring of the Spirit that I had never felt around at a camp before. The girls had risen to a challenge from a priesthood leader, and all were blessed because of it.
Two stuck out in my mind: The first was a young woman who stood and explained how she was not to a point in her testimony where she could declare knowledge, but that she believed many things to be true. It was humble, and honest. The other, which happened to be the last girl, was not a member of the Church. But she stood and bore testimony that she knew the Church was true. (She was later baptized.)
As I sat and listened I prayed inwardly that the young women and their leaders would feel what I was feeling, and poured out my heart in gratitude for permitting me to witness this wonderful event.
We closed with a gentle hymn, had a prayer, and quietly made our way back to camp - to the sound of crickets.
e Testimony," given by Elder Ballard in October of 2004. I highly recommend it.