By Emily Bobrow
The popular Christian author and podcaster aims to ‘entertain people until they learn something.’
Annie F. Downs cringes when she describes her younger self. “I was not great at being a teenager,” she says. “Some of my friends knew how to dress, they knew how to be cool, they knew what to say to boys, I just didn’t know any of that.” The term “late bloomer” didn’t feel apt at the time because she worried she would never bloom at all.
By her 20s, however, Ms. Downs felt not just older but wiser, and suspected her stories could help ease the growing pains of others. She scribbled her thoughts on weekends and printed them out for the teenage girls who came to her Bible study group on Monday nights in Marietta, Ga. “By the end of that first semester, one of them said, ‘Hey, will you print one more of these and staple it like a book so I can give it to my friend?’ And I said, ‘Oh, did I just write a book?” she recalls.
As a bestselling author and podcaster, Ms. Downs, 42, has earned a large and loyal following for her candor about her own struggles, personal and spiritual. She is the co-founder of the That Sounds Fun Network, which has an average of 2.9 million monthly listeners across its 17 podcasts. Her newest, “Let’s Read the Gospels,” leads listeners through the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“I think we’re kinder toward ourselves and more open to relationships with other people and with God when we realize we’re not the only one experiencing this thing,” she explains over video from her home in Nashville, Tenn. “What I’ve tried to do is say, ‘Hey, have you been worried about this? Me too, last year! Here’s the breakup I couldn’t talk about at the time, here are the questions about God I didn’t have words for yet.” It can be comforting, she adds, “to know that other people feel what you feel.”
Ms. Downs observes that her relationship with God has grown more profound after a 2022 filled with too much grief: a baby nephew died, friends passed away, a romantic relationship imploded, and she seriously hurt her knee. “I wouldn’t god the way God gods, but I recognize that He loves in ways I don’t understand,” she says. “The older I get, I think life proves itself to be tragic and God proves himself to be faithful.”
Growing up Methodist in Marietta, Ms. Downs says going to church was “part of the weekly rhythms of my family.” She joined her church’s youth group and sang in its choir. She was five years old when she says she made “a decision to believe” that Jesus Christ died and rose again for her: “I jokingly say God didn’t want me as a teenager without Him.”
Ms. Downs used to ride around on her bike conducting imaginary interviews of herself and other people, sensing she would one day “have a public life.” Yet she didn’t envision a leadership role in her church. “In the South in the 1990s, I saw women lead at home and in corporate settings”—her mother worked as a corporate lawyer—“but I didn’t see it in spiritual spaces,” she says. “I didn’t understand how I was going to bring all of my strengths into the faith space that I loved.”
At the University of Georgia, Ms. Downs joined the campus ministry and studied to become an elementary school teacher, graduating in 2002. She also probed her faith: “I started to wonder, was this faith mine or my culture’s?” She is now grateful for this “dark season” of hard questions, as it ultimately reaffirmed her beliefs. “I have never felt there was a better answer than Jesus, it just doesn’t always look the way you think it’s going to,” she says.
Teaching fourth- and fifth-graders in public schools in Georgia was fulfilling for a time. “I kind of have one skill set: I can entertain people until they learn something,” Ms. Downs says. Five years in, however, she felt unsettled in her spirit. She was already writing in her spare time, for her Bible study teens, and she felt called to do more: “I feel alive when I’m doing it, from my feet to my head.” In 2008 she quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Nashville. “I knew I had stories to tell,” she says.
Within a year Ms. Downs turned her stories for teens into her first book, “From Head to Foot,” but she couldn’t interest a publisher: “My agent and I got 42 noes. I mean, there aren’t even that many publishing houses!” With help from her parents, she published it herself in 2010, and its Amazon sales were healthy enough to catch the attention of Zondervan, a Christian publisher that rereleased the book under the title “Perfectly Unique.” (Zondervan is a division of HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp.) “Had God opened up all the doors He’s opened since without that massive rejection up front, I would be an absolute monster of pride,” she says. “All that rejection helped me understand that my identity and my job weren’t the same thing.”
Ms. Downs is now the author of 11 books about life and faith for adults, teens and children, including the bestselling “That Sounds Fun.” She has hosted her popular podcast of the same name since 2014, and she spends much of her time speaking at conferences and churches, including a 13-city “Here For You” tour this June. She says she felt empowered to lead, in her own way, after seeing other women do it first as Christian ministers and authors, including Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, Kay Arthur and Priscilla Shirer: “They opened the door, and now I can run into this field and do what I’m called to do.”
Much of Ms. Downs’s appeal comes from her openness about the challenges of finding peace in an imperfect life. “You don’t end up 42 and unmarried without kids in the South as a Christian woman. That’s just abnormal,” she says. “When your life doesn’t produce the blessings that you thought everyone got, you really get to decide what is true about God.” Her 2018 book “Remember God” chronicles her search for spiritual answers during a difficult period in her life. The book’s lack of a Hallmark ending may be why it has proved so popular: “We still get letters almost every week from people who’ve read it and want to tell me their story.”
It troubles Ms. Downs that religion has become so politicized. “It’s tragic that a faith that is meant to make people feel welcome and loved has not done that,” she says. “What Jesus models for us is you can love anybody, you can be friends with anybody, you can serve anybody,” she adds. “Heaven’s going to be a confusing place for some people when they see people who didn’t agree with them.”
Life, says Ms. Downs, demands humility. She admits it is still too easy to judge herself as somehow lacking, but she is getting better at appreciating how everyone is worthy of love: “The longer I study scripture, the more I learn to love and grow.”
Read the full article here.