Every summer I have a unique opportunity to spend time with teenagers. I organize short-term volunteers, mission groups, and interns under 18 to come serve at our inner-city ministry. So I get to hang out with young people from all over America and from a variety of backgrounds, denominations, and family situations.
Each weekday morning, we all gather for a devotion. I’ve noticed a trend, especially this summer: Staring.
I ask questions about faith, about Jesus, about who teenagers want to be with Jesus. My questions aren’t difficult. They always start with, “What do you think?” I’m seeking opinions and assure kids there are no wrong answers or questions. I just want to know how they’re wrestling with their faith.
They stare—all of them. Occasionally one brave soul will share some thoughts (usually the same brave soul each time). I joke about it being morning, and kids laugh. Even when I changed the time to afternoon, there’s more staring.
I’ve repeatedly asked teenagers about their relationship with Jesus. I’ve pressed into hard topics, and most of the time they just look down at their toes. If I ask someone a question directly, they’ll dig deep and come up with amazing answers, but no one wants to go first.
Finally one day I received an animated response. I’d asked, “What would help you get to know Jesus better so you can trust him with your life? Don’t give me the ‘right answers’ you think I want to hear.”
One person lit the spark, saying, “I know all the stuff I should do, but I wish there were more people who didn’t judge me when I ask questions. I mean, we all have questions, but it feels like too many people—adults and friends—just judge me.”
Flames were fanned as kids woke up and started sharing similar ideas. They all admitted they have doubts about their faith but are afraid to ask questions. What if the question is wrong? What if someone thinks they should already know the answer? What if they admit they’re struggling to know Jesus and that disappoints the adults they love?
I responded that everyone has doubts—even adults. We all wonder about Jesus and have questions about how to follow him or even who he is. This prompted me to ask, “How can we set up a place that invites you to wrestle with your doubts? What can we do?”
After some initial stares and my assurance that I really wanted to know, young people suggested these answers:
Invite more questions. Teenagers want spaces that proactively allow them to ask questions. They love when small groups move away from the curriculum so they can engage with tough issues. One student requested a Question Box so small-group leaders can address anonymous questions that people are afraid to ask aloud. Instead of always waiting for teenagers to come to you with big issues, make it natural to ask questions all the time.
Train leaders to be ready. One teenager said, “I like my youth pastor but wish more adults were safe to talk to.” Are we training up leaders to provide safe spaces when teenagers doubt their faith? Can we prepare them to not merely gloss over uncomfortable issues but to help teenagers wrestle with doubt? Can we help leaders avoid stock answers or telling kids they should “just know” something?
Press into the tough stuff. Teenagers want to tackle difficult topics that tear down their faith. Doubting isn’t the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a struggle that has made a decision about God, choosing to not listen to him. Doubt is a question that often begins or ends with “why” or “how.” We must be willing to press in with the end goal in mind: How do we help teenagers get closer to Jesus?
Don’t fear the stares. We can get so focused on accomplishing things during our teaching and programming times that we move on quickly when a question we ask goes unanswered. Teenagers told me sometimes they need to process an answer and need a moment to stare. When we aren’t afraid of uncomfortable silence or ask direct questions kids have to answer, they will. Make space for conversations, not just answers to the curriculum questions.
Raise up more student leaders. The number-one place teenagers say they talk about their doubts is with friends or peers. One gal admitted, “You might disagree, but I think we listen to people our age because we’re all going through the same things.” The grown-up in me wanted to respond, “But what if they give you the wrong answers?” Instead, I asked, “What if we trained up more student leaders to not just lead in youth group but to talk with you about doubts? What if you sought out answers together, peer to peer, with an adult around to just answer the stuff that stumps the peer?” Every face lit up, and I know that while many of the young people were afraid to be those very leaders, with some direction they’re ready.
When teenagers express doubts about their faith, don’t fear that you’re doing something wrong as a youth worker. To the contrary, you’re simply allowing them to be confronted by the living God. Remember, it’s his job to “prove” himself to an individual. Your job is to remind teenagers that no question is too big for God to answer. Instead of letting kids stare at you, listen closely to their answers about how they can grow.
Recently I tried something new: I put a teenager in charge of devotions. I’m there for support, but they lead. Guess what? Now there’s less staring…and more vibrant conversation.