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.
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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.
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.'”
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
- 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.