If you haven’t seen the recent article in the Wall Street Journal on teen spirituality (The Teenage Spiritual Crisis, WSJ, June 14, 2017), let me give you a little recap (or you can read it here). Writer Claire Ansberry chronicled the journey of Thomas Rainey, an 18-year old who grew up in the church. His was a typical church family: Mom taught Sunday school; they attended twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday; Thomas has been a part of the youth ministry’s worship band.
Ansberry writes that While Thomas had always been a doubter (and thus, curiously named, I might add), he was faithful and loyal to biblical teachings. He was confirmed in the Methodist church at 11 and served as a chaplain to his Boy Scout troop. By his midteens, however, his grip on faith began to loosen, driven by specific life events. He encountered hostility from church leadership toward some of his friends who were gay, and he endured the death of three people close to him and his family.
This left him feeling futile with regard to prayer and distant from God. This led him to crystallize a world view that he is taking into his college age years: he believes in God (the universe is too complex to not have some influencing power) but not the God who loves His creation and has provided an afterlife.
Ansberry uses Thomas’ story to illustrate an emerging observation in the research of teen spirituality: as teens’ brains rapidly develop, giving rise to critical and abstract thinking, their views of long-held tenets of the faith begin to change. Their life experiences, coupled with their new thinking skills, begin to shape a spirituality that may be far different than their upbringing.
Ansberry did her homework, citing relevant research and interviewing top observers in this field, including Dr. Andrew Zirschky, academic director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Brentwood, Tenn. (and a friend of mine). Zirschky noted, “At some point, you have to doubt your previous understanding of who God is and replace it with a better one.”
Key phrase: a better one.
This, then, is when youth ministry can earn its pay, when we can use questioning and doubting as leverage for a diligent pursuit of God.
God has a soft spot for doubters. Jesus did not chide Thomas for needing to see the piercings of the crucifixion. In Jude 1:22 we’re told to have mercy on those who doubt. As you journey along in youth ministry, you begin to collect a list of gateways that can lead to a journey of doubt. Here’s my list. Yours might be different (and I’d love to see it).
- The question of evil and why bad things happening to good (and bad) people.
- The Bible’s manuscript transmission (too many textual variants to be reliable).
- Absurdity of having to believe in a resurrection from death.
- If the Bible is to be believed, then one is believing in an ethnocentric, bigoted, intolerant God.
- Watching believers behave in non-believer, non-biblical ways.
- Biblical precepts don’t seem to line up with experiences (e.g., friends who are gay).
- Religious Christian conflicts over the centuries that have led to wars.
Can the Bible withstand the rigors of a doubting teen? Even when the doubts are aimed directly at the Bible itself? I say yes. Not only can it stand the rigors, doubts can serve as the fuel for the diligent search that God has promised to reward (e.g., Proverbs 2:1-12). With almost every item on the list above, a cliché pat answer can come to mind with intent to dispatch the question. But that’s not what our teens want, nor deserve. Each item is a precious question that we can lean into, an opportunity to mercifully and lovingly journey with a questioning teen.
This post is not intended to provide answers to my gateway list of questions, but to launch a dialogue. I’d love to hear your additions to my list. And together, may we help the teens in our lives enjoy the rewards and fruit of the earnest search.