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How to Nurture Positive Doubting

How to Nurture Positive Doubting
Develop critical-thinking skills in your kids.In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain Kirk meets “God.” When the “god” demands the Enterprise, Kirk stands up to him.”What kind of god are you if you need a ship?” he roared.

A voice thundered. “Do you doubt me?”

Immediately Kirk is hurled backward by the force of a lightning bolt. “THIS is how I respond to those who doubt!” the “god” continued.

Each time Kirk “doubts,” he is attacked by the figure. Finally, of course, he escapes and lives to make another movie.
* * *
Maybe none of your junior highers has seen Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Chances are, though, that if they’ve grown up in the church, they have a similar perspective on doubting. Many of us believe (or perhaps we fear) that if we question some of the fundamentals of the faith, we’re somehow “flawed” as Christians.

I suspect that most of us have sat through sermons or Bible studies where we really wanted to challenge what was being said but had visions of lightning bolts or thunderous voices. After all, church is a place for true believers. Church is a place for answers. There’s no room in church for those who’d question.

Really? I hope not. It seems to me that the people of God have always included the doubtful. In fact, a quick glance through my “who’s who” of the Bible shows that our faith is built on the foundation of thoughtful, prayerful doubters. Think for a moment about Sarah’s reaction to the news that she’d be a parent. She laughed! What about Moses and the burning bush? Peter slipping on the waves? Thomas demanding proof of the Resurrection? Gideon? Abraham? David? The list could go on and on, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

Defining Doubt

Webster defines doubt as “to be uncertain about, to question.” When we doubt something, we examine its truthfulness; we weigh it; we evaluate it; we consider how much of ourselves we wish to invest in it. Most of us embrace doubt on a daily basis.
When the used-car salesman tells us that “she runs good and she’s real clean,” very few of us take the claim at face value, fork over the money and drive off. Likewise, when the doctor recommends surgery, we’re encouraged to get a second opinion. And who among us has ever stepped fearlessly into a car with a new driver-with only the assurances of a 10th-grade driver’s ed. teacher who tells us that “little Shelley is perfectly trustworthy behind the wheel”?
Doubt is, at times, a lifesaver for us. Why then, do we sometimes behave as though it’s a contradiction of our faith?
One of the greatest gifts we can give to our kids is to teach them how to deal positively with the doubts that are, as theologian Paul Tillich taught, not so much the opposite of faith as they are an element of faith. Author Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
In Defense of Doubt
Youth worker Mary Lynn Gras’ childhood pastor actually strengthened her young faith by encouraging her to doubt. “Every week when we came into junior high fellowship,” Mary Lynn recalls, “he would ask us to prove to him that God existed.”
At first, she says, it seemed like an easy task. But week after week, her pastor adopted the role of the doubter and shot holes in their theories and assertions. The result of this man’s approach? “It made the [issue] a lively one for all of us,” Mary Lynn recounts. “And it certainly increased community and communication between group members apart from Sunday nights as we met to plan our next presentation.'”
The result of this man’s ministry is profound. Mary Lynn learned that while church is a place with a lot of answers and a lot of guidance, her questions and her questioning mattered to her pastor, her friends and her God. Now as a pastor, Mary Lynn seeks to help a new generation bring questions of faith to a loving, trusting community.

Mary Lynn discovered that we need to critically examine our beliefs if we’re ever going to truly own them. We inspect a new car or ask a doctor for a second opinion because we want to believe that we’re making the best possible decision-a decision that’ll last a long time. How much more, then, ought we to encourage our young people to investigate the quality of their beliefs?

Developing Positive Doubt

I’m not advocating that youth leaders work to produce a new generation of skeptics or nihilists (who philosophically deny any basis for knowledge or truth). In fact, raising the issue of doubt is a serious task that ought not to be taken lightly. If we merely train young minds to question everything for questioning’s sake and then refuse (or are unable) to provide positive guidance, we’re engaged in evil business.
However, when we’re able to lead young people into creative and positive doubting, they’re given the opportunity to make the timeless truths of God meaningful in their lives.
The parable of the prodigal son provides a good example. Perhaps the younger son had questions about who he was and where he fit in his family and society. Had the father simply refused the son’s request to have an early inheritance, perhaps the son wouldn’t have left-but my guess is he’d have left anyway, never to return.
Once he did leave, the father didn’t simply write him off; he anticipated his return (why else would he have been looking for his son?). In the end, the child who was allowed to question found out how deep his father’s love was. While the son who never asked any of the hard questions cut himself off from the family. It would appear that for many of us, we can never really find home until we’ve left it-however momentarily-and returned.
Psychologist Donald Sloat writes in The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home (Thomas Nelson): “Because each generation is different, we have to take what we have learned from our parents and the church, examine it, struggle with it, understand ourselves, and modify or build what we have learned into our own lives…Each of us is different and has to come to grips with his own faith and make it real through personal experience.”
For this to happen, Dr. Sloat says, young people need “supportive environments that provide freedom for struggle so that their faith suits their unique personalities.”
That sounds like an intimidating task.
It is.
Doubt is a tricky issue to raise. Isn’t it easier to simply not bring it up at all? Perhaps. Yet the rewards are so great that we dare not pass up a chance to provide our junior highers with a “doubt-friendly” environment.
But how do we nurture positive doubting? Use these ideas:
  • Community- Perhaps the most significant thing we can do is make our groups “safe.” By fostering attitudes that say it’s okay to question and doubt, junior highers will gradually feel free to honestly explore what’s really inside of them. I believe that such exploration always leads to the foot of the cross.
  • Media- Help kids explore their doubts by watching a brief video clip or listening to a song excerpt. For instance, you might use the Star Trek V segment that introduced this article. Or use the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy must take that terrifying step of faith onto the invisible bridge. For groups that can devote significant time to positive doubt, the video series Questions of Faith (Ecu Film) is a good springboard for discussion.
  • Bible Study- Yes, this works too! I’ve found that if I type a few verses from a modern translation or paraphrase onto a separate sheet of paper, young people are much freer to evaluate the truth. Kids who’d feel awkward questioning “the Word of God” often find it easier to take issue with, debate and ultimately embrace the truth when it looks like any other letter.
  • Experiential learning– Junior highers are much more apt to remember truth discovered experientially than that revealed in a lecture. Resources such as Do It: Active Learning in Youth Ministry (Group Books) or On-Site (Youth Specialties) provide ideas that’ll help young people evaluate and internalize biblical truths.
  • Role-Play– Assign your group members roles that might not necessarily “fit” their personalities as you discuss various topics. For example, have kids play the role of a skeptic or an unbeliever. When kids must think like someone else, they raise questions about their beliefs that will stimulate their growth. In addition, occasionally take the doubter’s role (much like Mary Lynn Gras’ pastor) to stimulate question asking in your group.
  • Questions- Don’t just ask factual questions or questions that are easily answered by yes or no. Ask questions that make kids dig a little deeper into their belief system to figure out what it is they believe and why they believe it. Ask why questions, such as “Why do you think God allows suffering?” or “Why is there a Holy Spirit?”
  • Personal Doubts- Don’t act as though you’ve “got it all together.” If your kids are going to grow through positive doubting, they need to see in you an example of someone who has also doubted his or her way into faith.

The summer before starting a new ministry, Colton Graves experienced troubling questions about his faith. How could he believe that there really was a God? And how was he ever going to convince non-Christians to believe such a simplistic story about Christ? Graves wrestled with his doubts and his faith grew stronger. The kids in his new group benefited from Graves’ honest, humble sharing of his own struggles when they themselves were wrestling with doubts.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of a soldier who’d been sentenced to hang for treason. His mother brought her tearful pleas for a presidential pardon to Abraham Lincoln, and he granted her request. Before dismissing the woman, however, Lincoln is reported to have said: “Still, I wish we could teach him a lesson. I wish we could give him just a little bit of hangin’.”
Providing your junior highers with a safe environment where they can honestly explore their spiritual journey might be comparable to “a little bit of hangin’.” Youth group needs to be a place where kids can step outside of their faith to evaluate it, examine it, polish it and refine it. If we make church a place where young people simply parrot correct answers or quote appropriate dogmas, we risk having them leave their faith as an unwanted relic from a previous generation.
Dave Carver is a youth minister in New York.

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How to Nurture Positive Doubting

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