by Andrew Zirschky
In the first article in this series you met Laura, a college student who was doubting her faith and yet rarely spoke of those doubts and questions to anyone. Laura, like so many others, was doubting alone. In researching the doubting experiences of young people I found that doubt is a traumatic experience, it’s a unique experience for each person, and too often youth are forced to doubt alone without the care and engagement of the Christian community.
What tactics might we employ to better engage the doubts of youth and prevent them from feeling isolated by their doubts? One surprising place to start in seeking such guidance is revisiting the Christian doctrine of revelation, which asserts that we worship a God who has been revealed in self-revelation, but we at the same time worship a God who remains hidden, unknown, and in many way absent. Our modes of worship and communal practice do not reflect this dual reality, however. We emphasize the revealed God, and celebrate the knowledge of God and the joys of belief without creating a place in worship, liturgy or other gatherings for the pronouncement of the hiddenness of God, and the unknowing that accompanies faith. Consequently, we’ve prepared youth to experience faith, but rarely do we prepare them to experience doubt.
“We who know so very much about God—how did it happen that we failed to discern the theme of unknowness and unknowability running through the Scriptures and the most gripping traditions of our faith?” asks theologian Douglas John Hall. The doctrine of revelation should remind us that we remain people from whom God is hidden even when we know much about God. There isn’t merely room for doubt and unknowing in Christian faith, but it’s part and parcel of faith. Frankly, teenagers (and all of us) actually need to doubt at times to dislodge some of the false beliefs that are easy to pick up along the way. As such, doubt needs to be engaged, and we need to prepare youth for the experience.
Doubt is often a traumatic and scary event in the lives of teenagers because they are unprepared to experience it. The importance of preparing youth for the shock of what’s ahead is something I learned while whitewater rafting with teenagers on Idaho’s Salmon River. With the boat taking on water and waves hitting students hard in the face, the boats that made it through the rapids were those filled with teenagers who’d been well prepared for the experience by their rafting guide. In the face of Class IV, I’ve seen boats full of macho high school athletes devolve into screaming and crying mayhem. Meanwhile, I’ve seen boats of featherweight middle school students row through the waves in unison simply because their guide had prepared them for what to expect. Not unlike preparing youth for the rapids ahead on the river, we need to prepare youth for the fact that they’re likely going to doubt; this will save them much heartache and concern that something is wrong with them when they find themselves buffeted by doubts and questions. Doubt happens—75% of youth in Fuller Seminary’s Sticky Faith study doubted their faith—and in a secular age there’s really no avoiding it. Our goal in youth ministry shouldn’t be to protect youth from the experience of doubt, but to assist them in navigating and growing through the doubts and questions that will certainly arise. Preparing them with the knowledge that doubt is likely on the way—and that it’s normal—allows everyone to breathe a little easier and for the experience to be less dramatic and traumatic when doubt does wash over them.
An Exercise in Doubting “God”
Preparing youth for doubt (and preparing their parents likewise) is a crucial task for youth leaders as students enter into the ministry. One of the practical ways I’ve taken to doing this is by asking incoming sixth grade students and their parents to each draw a picture of what they imagined God looked like when they were six years old. After we chuckle together at the hastily drawn figures of old man god, bearded god, superhero god, rainbow god, and lightning bolt god, I ask everyone to turn over their papers and draw or describe how they understand God today at their present age. This is a harder task for everyone and usually there are fewer pictures and more descriptions. Words such as Jesus, love, grace or forgiveness often come to the fore. “How did you get from your conception of God at age six to these different understandings of God today?” I ask. Usually someone mentions experience, reading scripture, or learning more in church. “That’s right! But in order for experience and scripture and learning to change how you understood God you had to at some point come to doubt your six-year-old understanding of God. The only way to get from where you were to where you are is to doubt and question. The fact is that only because you’ve doubted, questioned, and revised your understanding of God do you find yourself in a different faith place than at age six. And even still, your understanding of God and God’s activity in the world today is just a poor stick figure drawing compared to how God actually is. It will be necessary for you to continue to question in order to grow. You should expect that as you grow in faith during middle school and high school that you’ll doubt. And that can be a good thing if you’re not afraid to voice the questions and doubts you have and talk them out with others.”
This simple exercise normalizes the experience of doubt and names it as beneficial to faith. In doing so, it relieves the fears of parents and makes it possible for youth to fearlessly speak to adults (including their own parents) about questions and doubts when they arise. This is just one example of preparing youth for doubt and beginning the process of engaging doubt in community rather than leaving youth to doubt alone. In the next article we’ll consider a second step in engaging the doubt of young people as we look at the importance of creating an environment where doubts can be routinely surfaced and ultimately discussed.
Read Part 1 of this series: How Youth Doubt is Different Than We Expected.