The Webster’s Dictionary definition of doubt is “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 Brandon 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.”
A youth ministry must 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 treat their faith as a flimsy relic from a previous generation.
Many of us believe (or perhaps fear) that if we question some fundamentals of the faith, we’re somehow “flawed” as Christians. We’ve 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, right? There’s no room in church for those who’d question.
Yet the people of God have always included the doubtful. In fact, a quick glance through a “who’s who” of the Bible shows that the Christian faith is built on the foundation of thoughtful, prayerful doubters. Think 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.
Youth worker Mary Lynn Gras’ childhood pastor actually strengthened her young faith by encouraging her to doubt positively. “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?
Youth leaders don’t need to 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 harming more than we’re helping.
However, when we’re able to lead young people into creative and positive doubting, they’re given the opportunity to make Jesus’ timeless truths 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 most likely 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:
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. And 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 young people 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, kids will gradually feel free to honestly explore what’s really inside of them. 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 that challenges issues of faith or portrays a “truth” about the Christian life or God.
- Bible Study—Yes, this works too! Copy-and-paste a few verses from a contemporary translation or paraphrase onto a separate sheet of paper, instead of reading them out of an actual Bible—young people 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’s removed from its “religious” trappings.
- Experiential learning—Kids are much more apt to remember truth discovered experientially than a truth that’s asserted in a lecture. Check out Make It Stick! as an idea-resource for this approach to teaching.
- Role-Play—Assign 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.
- 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?” For more coaching on asking great questions that spur great conversations, check out “Fearless Conversation.”
- 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.
Asking Big Questions
Often we offer kids answers to questions we’re not sure they’re asking. And as we dispense information to them, we often deny them an opportunity to disagree or voice their opinions. So help them to surface their faith questions and deal with them now and in the future. Ask them to each write one question on a 3X5 card about something that’s confusing or causes doubts about their faith. Then collect the cards, mix them up, and hand them back out to students—make sure they don’t get the card they wrote. Give kids a pile Bibles and other reference books as a resource. Then set them loose, in pairs, to use these resources to answer both of the questions on their cards. Give them 15 minutes or so to come up with their best answers, then have the whole group rate the quality of each answer on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “incredible” and 1 being “not so incredible.” Quickly give an average rating to each answer, then ask the whole group why they rated the answer the way they did. For questions that get less than an 8 rating, plan a lesson to address each of them.
Teenagers have a pick-and-choose mentality about their faith that’s frustrating and frightening to adults. These days, many of them are “hybrid spiritualists.” They see no reason their Christian beliefs should exclude other “truths.” They feel comfortable straddling conflicting beliefs. What’s caused so many kids to dabble in hybrid spirituality?
- They live in a culture that has (a) demanded that students recognize and embrace the differences in others, and (b) uplifted personal, practical beliefs over corporate, traditional beliefs. Actually, would God disagree with our culture on these two issues? It’s clear in Acts 10 and 11 that God intended to offer grace to both Jews and Gentiles, so he uprooted Peter’s long-held Gentile prejudices, inviting him to see cultural outcasts as insiders. And Jesus constantly challenged his followers to leave behind the safety of corporate, traditional beliefs for something radical and new (Matthew 10:34-37). It’s not that opening kids’ minds and hearts to others’ differences is bad, but maybe youth ministers and parents have fumbled the ball in our response to kids’ hard questions about Christianity. “Doubting is part of the process of making your parents’ faith become your own,” says Illinois youth minister John Cutshall. “As teenagers develop their personality and their life ‘likes and dislikes,’ they think out loud a lot. Sometimes this comes in the form of doubts or challenges. Either way, it’s just part of the process. Our job as youth leaders is to help them explore their doubts and draw logical and biblical conclusions.”
- They’re taught that post-Christian beliefs are cool. More and more prominent role models are declaring themselves “undecided” on God. Scientology poster-boy John Travolta is a good example. The man Rolling Stone magazine once named “Mr. Cool” says things such as “It’s [Scientology] nondenominational. You can be Jewish or Catholic or Protestant and still be a Scientologist. It doesn’t interfere with that necessarily. But once you move into the spiritual realm, then it has to be designated as a religion.”
Confusion, it seems, is not only rampant, it’s hip. The broader your tastes, the stronger your soul. And if you refuse to embrace all viewpoints as equal, you’re on the fast track to write-off status in the culture. Ironically, this any-religion-in-a-storm worldview has prompted backlash movements led by back-to-basics Christian kids—See You at the Pole, the burgeoning growth of campus Bible studies, and the popularity of evangelism-oriented events for teenagers such as Dare2Share.
And isn’t that what biblical Christianity is about? If the culture dictates Christian norms (remember the “good old days”?), isn’t it easier to play the nominal Christian game all the way to a deadened faith? In today’s youth culture, the cards are on the table—committed Christian kids, like Jesus, will draw a few passionate followers and a host of vicious detractors when they risk themselves for truth. So be it. Salt seasons something bigger than—and different from—itself (Matthew 5:13-16). More and more students are recognizing it’s not their job to change the culture, but to be light within it.
But what about all the hybrid spiritualists lost in confusion? Aren’t we tempted to attack their misconceptions because, when it comes down to it, their hard questions scare us a little? It’s frustrating when we can’t argue kids into the kingdom. And when we try, we’ve lost sight of our top goal: helping kids know, love and serve Jesus. He’s the author of truth, and as kids know him more deeply, he’ll give them a hunger for truth and a hatred for lies.
If a teenager isn’t struggling at some level with cynicism, something might be terribly wrong with him. Adolescence is a wonderfully tragic, romantic, and supercharged time to be alive. For the first time, teenagers are experiencing a titanic clash between two heavyweights—passion and reality. And whenever passion and reality are in the same room, cynicism is knocking on the door.
Cynicism is the over-the-counter response to pain, disappointment, and rejection. Confronted with one of life’s painful blows, all of us have said something like “Whatever…I don’t care anyway.” It’s a familiar insulation against a world that’s unfeeling, unjust, and relentlessly inflexible.
Author Frederick Buechner says adolescence is when we become “scorekeepers of pain.” Someone’s using our deepest hopes for target practice. So we apply cynicism like morphine to ease the wounds. It’s great medicine for dulling the senses—it’s also addictive. If we get hooked, it’ll grow into the more dangerous and deeply embedded emotions of resentment and bitterness. And that will paralyze our ability to truly love others or God.
We must help students face their pain without the anesthetic that ultimately makes their condition worse. We typically don’t respond to kids’ cynicism well—likely, it’s because we haven’t dealt well with the clash of passion and reality in our own lives. One survival strategy we take is pragmatism, the strategy of adulthood. Our “help” often takes one of these forms:
- Shallow encouragement—“That sounds tough… I’ll remember to pray for you.”
- Teaching or mini-sermons—“Remember that the Scripture tells us to turn the other cheek.”
- Logic—“Well, if you’ve confessed that sin to God and asked for his forgiveness, you’ve been washed clean—you shouldn’t have those lingering feelings of guilt.”
- Niceness—“I know you’re angry about what happened to you, but can’t you just forgive and forget?”
- Rule-giving—“I think you need to respect and honor your parents no matter how you’ve felt abused by them.”
- Discipline—“If you were having a Bible study time every morning, followed by a half-hour of prayer, you wouldn’t be struggling with this.”
- Control—“I think you need to make that phone call, and if you don’t, I’ll do it for you.”
- Steps and formulas—“If you want to really get serious with Jesus, stop going to see secular movies and stop listening to secular music.”
The result of our efforts is that kids are even more cynical than before, and they’re more convinced we don’t understand them. If you’re going to sneak behind your kids’ cynical defenses and lob a few truth grenades into their bunker, you’ll need to move toward them using a few counterintuitive skills.
1. Help teenagers move past cynicism by letting them see and feel your scars. Remember the interaction between that famous cynic and that famous “sneaker,” Thomas and Jesus? Jesus’ response to Thomas’ doubt didn’t produce renewed cynicism, but knee-dropping worship. Doubting Tom had to see and feel the Savior’s scars. Sounds like a 21st century postmodern kid. But naïve “sneakers” can’t get past kids’ outer defenses—we must know something of their struggles and pain first. Then we can help them see the wounds we’ve suffered from our own clashes between passion and reality.
You can locate your wounds by finding the places in your life that tempt you to become a cynic. Tell teenagers past and present stories of how you’ve handled pain and disappointment. Young people are looking for someone older who is authentic (living in reality) and struggling well (remaining passionate). You’ll puzzle them out of cynicism when you reveal that you, battle-scarred, still live with a deep passion and in a hope-full reality.
2. Use ironic humor to undermine cynicism. The biggest problem with cynicism is that it isn’t passionate enough. Remember, cynicism dulls or numbs passion. So to deal with it, we have to actually increase its intensity—to heighten or expand it. And irony will do that. Irony that focuses on our common struggles or pokes fun at our own foibles can suck the air out of cynicism. It reminds us we’re together in the struggle, and that renews our hope—the ultimate cynicism-killer.
When we highlight our own inconsistencies—our self-produced ironies—we communicate a humility that’s very enticing to teenagers. But church people don’t typically engage in this form of humor. In fact, when we’re confronted with an inconsistency in our behavior, we often take the pragmatic way out and defend ourselves. If, instead, we lightheartedly own how poorly we sometimes live out our calling, we become more real, more human, more humane to teenagers. We disarm their cynicism and open them to listen, dialogue, and relate.
3. Expose kids to beauty that overwhelms their cynicism. We all have a passion for beauty. That’s why we decorate our homes with plants, photos, and paintings. That’s why we love watching sunrises and sunsets. That’s why we love movies where a hero rescues or defends a beauty. But beauty also has the unexpected side effect of knocking the foundation out from under cynicism.
Jesus woos us, calls us through beauty that reminds us that light and life will ultimately win. One of the best ways to undermine cynicism is by learning to see and reveal Jesus’ wooing in how we relate, through the people that come in and out of our lives, through nature, and through aspects of secular culture. We can teach ourselves, and our teenagers, to start noticing when God shows up in movies, music, and literature.
4. Embrace your teenagers’ fascination with justice. Once young people allow you into their heart, you can help them see God’s beauty and justice in places they’ve never experienced.
Maybe cynicism is really a disguised voice calling for someone to look behind the veil to see a truth-starved heart. Maybe students are trying to say: “Give me hope, get to my heart, don’t give up, I’m the one who feels pinned down.”
Do you want each student to leave your youth ministry believing and behaving a certain way? Would you like to be in control of every area of their lives? That’s an arrogant attitude, but wouldn’t it be easier—and safer—if all kids thought just like us?
Richard Rohr says,
There is Someone dancing with you, and you no longer need to prove to anyone that you are right, nor are you afraid of making mistakes. Another word for that is faith.”
Do you believe you don’t always have to be right? That it’s okay for young people to make mistakes? At the heart of it, do you believe the Holy Spirit is at work in kids’ lives even when they aren’t directly in your care?
If we trust in this “dance,” here’s how it will impact our ministries:
- Jesus’ love will be central. When we’re consumed with helping students make wise choices—both now and in the future—our love can become a bit conditional. But if we actually rest in the dance of faith, we can more freely demonstrate the perfect love that Jesus gives, with no strings attached.
- We’ll make more room for the beautiful gift of doubt. If we trust the dance, we’ll be more comfortable allowing students to express and experience doubt. I’ve allowed room for my own, so I shouldn’t deny kids the opportunity to have theirs. Realize that doubts don’t have to be dangerous. High schoolers are ready to ask tougher questions and wrestle with some unknowns, especially as they prepare for college. So provide a safe place where they can test their ability to discover how and why they think a certain way.