by Andrew Zirschky
As a junior political science and philosophy major at a Christian college on the West Coast, Laura looked to be the paragon of devoted and vibrant faith: she prayed and read her Bible daily, spent her weekends volunteering at serving ministries and soup kitchens, attended chapel midweek and church on Sunday.[1]
But Laura had a secret.
“Only a few friends at college—maybe only four—have any idea about the extent of my doubt and that I don’t believe in the Christian God,” Laura told me candidly. “Ironically, the actions I do that look like actions of faith, are actually actions of doubt,” she remarked. By undertaking these religious practices, and failing to “feel God,” her doubts were being reinforced daily.
In a research interview on the doubting experiences of young Christians, Laura revealed in her own way what many others her age had already told me: Young people doubt their faith, and they doubt it in ways we might never have suspected.
Too often in youth ministry we assume doubt is foremost an intellectual enterprise, undertaken by sharp kids who ask tough questions and doubt their faith with their brains held at arm’s length. We consequently often respond to the doubts of teenagers with apologetic material and rational, reasoned answers designed to clear away nagging questions. However, Laura and others like her reveal that we should be talking about the varieties of doubting experiences, not unlike we learned a century ago from William James to talk about the Varieties of Religious Experience.
If there’s anyone whose doubt should have been built of tough intellectual questions, it was Laura. A precocious and deeply intellectual student, Laura graduated high school early and found herself excelling in a demanding dual major as a college junior by the age of 19. Her faith had blossomed during middle school when she was invited by a friend to attend youth group at a conservative evangelical church. She was baptized at the age of 15—the first and only person in her family to be a Christian. However, when I spoke with her at age 19 her faith was in shambles.
Yet, contrary to expectations, Laura’s doubts arose from the absence of feeling God in her life, not from intellectual questions about the existence of God. “I just realized I was doing the things I needed to be doing, and not experiencing the security or peace that was supposed to accompany the God who was there,” she said.
Far from starting with esoteric philosophical questions about God and doubting the rationality of Christian answers, Laura’s journey into doubt started much closer to her heart than her head. She didn’t feel the presence of God. She told me she doubted God’s grace for her and said, “I don’t know if I’m up to par all the time.” Only after wrestling with those deeply personal questions for an extended time did Laura begin to doubt the existence of God and to look for intellectual reasons to believe or doubt.
My interview with Laura was part of a small phenomenological research inquiry about the doubting experiences of youth and young adults. Phenomenology is a research tradition that attempts to get at the essence of any experience. Far from being interested in merely how many youth doubt, or even what they doubt, I wanted to know, “What happens to young people in the experience of doubt? And what does doubt feel like?” The purpose of asking such phenomenological questions is to better understand both the diversity and similarities of doubting experiences so that as youth workers we can better respond to the doubts of teenagers. Laura’s story illustrates three of the most compelling findings of the research.

First, young people are doubting alone.

Few people in the study had previously discussed their doubts with anyone prior to my research interviews. The young Christians with whom I spoke described feeling insecurity, anxiety, fear, and loneliness as they doubted. Even those who had tried to discuss their doubts with friends, church members, or religious leaders, still felt alone, dismissed, or uncared for. Laura was one who felt dismissed when she was told her doubts were just a passing phase. “It should be a bigger deal to people that currently, my entire belief system is walking on stilts and you’re telling me to wait it out,” she said. While it’s not uncommon for youth ministries to have an occasional “doubt night” in which youth can pose tough questions and hear (potentially) compelling answers, it’s not enough to simply dispense answers. Youth need people who will truly walk with them through the difficulties and trials of the journey of faith which includes journeying through doubt.

Second, no two journeys of doubt are exactly the same.

Even a small sampling of individuals reveals that doubt comes in many varieties. Yes, some begin with intellectual questions, but many others begin the journey of doubt as a result of life experiences or trauma. Some doubt the presence of God, their own worthiness, or their future. Others doubt God’s provision, God’s love, or God’s existence. Doubt is very much a journey that might lead individuals through all these types of questions (and many more) but the path of doubt is very personal and individual. This should disabuse youth workers of the notion that teenagers who doubt simply need a good apologetics text that will answer their questions. Handing a copy of The Case for Christ to every teenager who expresses doubt is like a doctor dispensing the same treatment for every wound. Rather, recognizing the varieties of doubting experiences should lead us to more fully talk with and understand the nature of the doubts and feelings of youth before prescribing anything.

Third, we need to put pastoral care before apologetics.

There is a place and time for reasoned answers about the Christian faith, but it’s not likely the first (or even second) action we should take. Youth workers need to be prepared to listen and care for the fears and anxieties that undergird or accompany the many religious doubts of teens. If at the age of 17 or 18 someone had sat with Laura and prodded her to express the insecurities and fears that accompanied her actions of doubt and faith, it’s quite likely that such pastoral care could have cured her mistaken understandings about “feeling” God and averted her further spiral into doubt. What Laura needed weren’t better articulated apologetic answers, but better pastoral care long before her doubts festered into unbelief.
As a college junior Laura’s doubt was a secret and a path she traveled alone. If we are going to respond adequately to the doubting experiences of youth, we need to ensure that young people like Laura have patient, understanding companions who can guide and care for them through the twists and turns of the journey of doubt.
Read Part 2 of this series: Preparing Youth for Doubt
[1] Identity has been obscured and name changed.