Have Mercy On Doubting Teenagers

A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it?  A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barnas answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.

According to the Barna study, a key reason students walk away from their faith is that “the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” This finding is sobering and sad, but not surprising. I have walked with students, leaders, and friends in seasons of doubt, and I have experienced spiritual doubt myself.

Doubt is especially prevalent in the hearts of teenagers because they are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Doubt can come from a philosophical question, a random piece of content, or a personal crisis. Doubt can range from the existence of God to the resurrection of Jesus, from science and miracles to questions regarding sexuality and everything in between. For some, doubt has strengthened their faith. For others, doubt has shattered their faith. But doubt itself is not the problem; the issue is how we respond.

When students come with big questions, what can we say or do to help? What is our posture towards the doubter? More importantly, how can a youth ministry be friendly and have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 22)?

Responding to doubt is no small matter when students are leaving the faith. We must do better. Here are three errors we as youth ministers might be making–and a better model for walking with students in their doubt.

Error #1: We Shame Doubters Into Silence

As questions are raised and doubts grow, people look for answers. Sadly, there are not many places where teenagers feel comfortable to share these things. Or should I say, there are not many safe people in whom teenagers can confide. If students are looking for answers and truth, what better place than the church!

Sadly, many youth ministries shame doubters from sharing their doubts and questions. They make teenagers feel bad for having such thoughts. Perhaps there is a fear of doubt and where it may lead them. Perhaps there is insecurity from the leader who might not have the answer or even the same question themselves. Perhaps doubt from a student challenges our identity as leaders because it brings up uncomfortable questions or emotion. Perhaps doubt is even seen as a nuisance because it takes time and energy away from other responsibilities.

Walking with doubting students is not an easy task; it can get messy. But the result of not listening to students as they share doubts and questions is far worse. When doubts are hidden, the ministry becomes plastic. But when there is space for doubt, that honesty and vulnerability points students to the grace of the gospel, reminding them of their need for Jesus to give them faith in himself.

If students havent shared their doubts for a while, perhaps we should reflect on why that is. Students with doubts wont stop asking, they will simply look elsewhere for answers.

Error #2: We Are Quick to Speak and Slow to Listen

Students ask questions and share doubts anywhere. From car rides, to weekly small group times and of course retreats and camps (remember those?!), you never know when a big question will bubble up. And when it happens, its a great opportunity to listen, ask questions and journey with teenagers. Sometimes, they are looking for an answer and reason. Other times, they may be looking for comfort or healing because they have been hurt. We must look beneath the surface to see whats under the doubt in order to address whats really going on.

The temptation to quickly fire back a Christian cliche is powerful. We may also be tempted to assume that teenagersdoubts are similar to our own, and that what helped us will also convince them. If were honest, it feels good to solve a problem and to look like we know what we are talking about. The temptation to look for a quick fix shows our impatience. But maybe it will take time for students to process, or maybe their doubts and questions are different than our own. If we dont take the time to listen, we wont be able to really understand and address their doubts.

I remember when a student was lingering around after service but I had a lot to do. I wanted to clean up and get started on next weeks tasks and a volunteer came up to me and said, “Hey I think you should go talk to that student.” Im so glad I did. At that moment, the student didnt share any questions, but years later he did. I wonder if just slowing down our pace for ministry can help slow down our speech too. Let us be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19), not the other way around.

Error #3: We See Doubt As Trouble

Ive had leaders come up to me worried and say, “Uh oh, that guy has a lot of questions, hes unsure about a lot of things. You should go talk to him.” I understand their concern because it seems like the only time people talk about doubt is when they deconstruct their faith or walk away from God. But perhaps theres another way to see doubt.

When teenagers are doubting, what if the response wasnt “Uh oh?” What if instead, we thanked them for their honesty, listened to them share, and saw it as an opportunity. I mean, how great is it that someone is deeply thinking about these things and searching for answers in the church! Isnt this what we pray for? Let us not forget that faith and doubt can co-exist. Doubt does not erase our faith. What if doubt is actually the path upon which a student will grow and believe, and a way for us to sharpen and strengthen our own faith.

Let us not feel overwhelmed because we can come to Jesus and pray in those moments. Let us not feel intimidated because if students are looking for truth, it may be the perfect opportunity for Jesus to reveal Himself.

How Jesus Helped A Student with Doubt

Jesus once had a student who was struggling with doubt even after the Resurrection. Jesus came back to life and appeared to some, but Thomas missed it. So Thomas privately said to his friends, “If I dont see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Like many of our students, Thomas wanted objective evidence.

A week later, Thomas was with this same group in a locked room (this is an important detail) when Jesus appeared! Jesus walked through the wall and told Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands. Reach out your hands and put it into my side. Dont be faithless but believe” (John 20:27). Thomas did as Jesus said, and he believed. Jesus used the doubt as an opportunity to reveal Himself to Thomas.

I am comforted by this story because Jesus has always been merciful to me in my own seasons of doubt. Jesus welcomes us to share honestly with him, just as the father in Mark 9:24 says, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Jesus doesnt shut the mouth of Thomas or others who doubt, but allows them to share their questions. And after Jesus listens, he responds with mercy. Jesus showed Thomas what he needed to see, and he will do the same for all those who look to Him.

So lets invite students to share their questions, concerns and doubts. Perhaps they need to hear honest stories from their parents, pastors and youth ministers about times when we have doubted. Maybe a formal time of question and answer, anonymous texts or Bible study will prompt your students to share. Maybe its an informal time of hiking, hanging out and just spending time together that will encourage them to open up. Whatever it takes, let us have mercy, journey with teenagers, and see doubt as a wonderful opportunity for Jesus to reveal himself again.

Chris has been doing youth ministry for the last 5 years and got his M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology. He and his wife Jessica live in Orange County where he serves as the High School Pastor at Mariners Church. Chris enjoys reading, sports, rap music, shows, movies and coffee.

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