This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that we must hold onto and live out more fully so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
Young people are doubting alone. According to a recent study by Fuller Seminary, 70% of Christian young people doubt their faith, but only a small number of them will ever talk to anyone about those doubts.
As we face the future, what we must embrace is that the Christian community is uniquely equipped to engage doubt. What must die is doubting alone.
My thoughts on the matter of doubt largely derive from empirical and theological research conducted during my doctoral work at Princeton Seminary. During that project I listened intently to young adults’ experiences of doubt and faith amidst the landscape of American Christianity. Among the findings of that project are two that I believe are particularly helpful for the matter at hand: (1) Doubt is traumatic; (2) Most churches force people to doubt alone.
Nearly all the participants in my study confirmed that congregations do a lousy job walking with young people who doubt. When I asked young adults about their experiences doubting in childhood and adolescence, two common and yet (apparently) polar opposite ecclesial responses emerged—pushing away and embrace.
On the one hand, some young adults reported they had been pushed away from their congregations on account of their doubts. The congregation held them at arm’s length, and some had been treated as if their doubt was a disease that might infect the rest of the congregation or youth group. Several were told, “We’ll be praying for you,” but they had largely been uninvited from participation in the life of the church until they got their “issues” worked out.
On the other hand, some young adults reported that they had been embraced by their congregations on account of their doubts. Many were told that doubt is a “stage” that people go through that can be beneficial for faith, and they were assured that “everyone doubts.” Then they were invited to have coffee and a donut in the fellowship hall and to not worry about doubt.
Though they appear to be polar opposites, both of these responses have the same problem. Neither response treats doubt as an issue to be addressed robustly by the congregation, but rather an issue to be confronted by the individual in the depths of her psyche, intellect, or soul. The church of embrace affords a warm place for the individual who doubts. The church that pushes away provides a place for the individual to return when doubting is finished. Neither church seems to have the perspective that the congregation is responsible for the faith development of the person who doubts.
While both the pushing away response and the embrace response leave people doubting alone, I believe there is a possibility for a third response (engaging doubt) that is grounded in Scripture, Christian tradition, and theological reflection.
To begin to get a grasp on what I mean by engaging doubt, three distinct but related definitions of “engage” are probably helpful at this point. First, in any activity, to engage means to find an active role and place of participation. We can play differing roles, but engaging requires some sort of activity. Second, to get my 1996 Toyota Camry moving I take the transmission out of neutral and engage the gears by joining, uniting and intermeshing them together. Engaging requires moving together. Third, to engage also means to promise, commit oneself, and to enter a covenant. It’s why we speak of couples that are planning and promising to be married as “engaged.”
If we put these various definitions together, a rough picture begins to emerge of what I mean by engaging the doubts of young people. It means to join together and walk alongside someone through his doubts and questions. It means joining together and seeking understanding one with another. It means to enter into a relationship that is not in danger of being severed by the questions, doubts, unbelief, or doctrinal heresies of either partner.
Engagement, then, is distinct from the common ecclesial response of mere embrace. It’s fashionable to be a church that embraces doubt from the pulpit once or twice a year, or sponsors a Sunday “doubt” series in which you make bland statements such as, “It’s okay, everybody doubts” or “Doubt is an aspect of faith.” These statements aren’t false, but neither do they alone actually help the person grow through faith and doubt.
I know of a youth ministry that has a “doubt box” into which teenagers anonymously drop their doubts and questions on 3×5 cards. Every few weeks the youth pastor opens the doubt box, pulls out a card, and then spends 20 minutes giving what she calls “serious answers to serious questions” about Darwinian evolution, the resurrection, the existence of heaven or hell, and so forth. That’s not what I mean by engagement, because the serious questions of young people require far more than just serious answers. When we understand doubt as merely intellectual, we fundamentally misunderstand doubt.
Doubt is Traumatic
I promised you a second pertinent finding from the research I conducted, and here it is: Doubt is traumatic. Every participant in my study described doubt as an experience that produced fear, anxiety, or insecurity. For many of them the onset of religious doubt was a personal crisis in which they did not just doubt God, but in fact doubted their very story and identity. Why? When a person who has been immersed in faith doubts, she doubts the very narrative and worldview through which she has come to understand the meaning of her world — and herself. The trauma of doubt is that it has the potential of not just calling God into question, but one’s whole world and one’s self. In reality, the proper response to doubt might be pastoral care rather than mere apologetics.
This is why we need a community that will engage us in our doubts. Most young people in the throes of religious doubt do not merely need an intellectual answer from page 132 of Case for Christ; rather, they need people who will come alongside them and listen to their doubts, ask questions, share their own doubts in faith, and walk with them through wrestling with doubts that threaten to undo their whole world.
While some have advocated for the necessity of reason and logic and others for mystical experience in ministering to people who doubt, I would argue that both are helpful — but only within the community of engagement.
The Community of Engagement
When we read John chapter 20 we usually focus our attention on “doubting Thomas” when in actuality we might do well to focus on the actions of the community of Jesus. What’s striking about this passage is that Thomas doubts, but a week later he’s still hanging out with the disciples in the upper room. Think about that. Thomas doesn’t just doubt the resurrection of Jesus, the distilled doctrine of the church, or what has been passed along by people he doesn’t know. Rather, he doubts the eyewitness testimony of his friends and compatriots. In light of that, it should tell us something significant about the community by the fact that Thomas is still present with them a week later. Thomas was not consigned to doubting alone, but he voiced his doubts and had them answered in the midst of the worshipping community. The role of the disciples was to provide a place for Thomas to both express doubt and to encounter Jesus. Should it not be the same today?
I find it unfortunate that when we gather today in our sanctuaries and upper rooms we create what theologian Douglas John Hall has called the “most dishonest hour in America” by suppressing the doubts and questions that we all bring under a veneer of smiley worship. As one of the young men in my research stated, “We ignore doubt in the services because it doesn’t fit with the motif.”
Whether it’s the motif, or our fears of messiness and complexity, we’ve all but banished uncertainty, lament and the hiddenness of God from our corporate gatherings. Despite the fact that a sizeable number of the Psalms involve lament and questioning, we tend to ignore them. Even more, we completely ignore the tradition of lament as an appropriate form of corporate worship.
Likewise, we affirm the doctrine of revelation, and yet forget that this doctrine concerned with the knowledge of God is equally concerned with the hiddenness of God. As Christians, we affirm that all we know about God is what God has revealed. We do not know everything. This means, says Hall, that Christianity is by nature a faith that requires us to doubt on at least some points. The Christian faith does not consist of absolute certainty but proper confidence. We must hold our theology loosely, because, as I tell my students, if you believe your theology is 100% correct you’re no longer a theologian but an idolater.
Despite biblical precedent, the tradition of lament, and our theological understandings, rarely do our churches operate as communities in which doubts are engaged and discussed openly. I believe we must change this and determine ways in which to engage doubt corporately and in one-on-one relationships. Instead of ignoring doubts, giving them lip service, or shoving apologetic books in people’s faces, I think it’s high time that we begin seeking understanding as we read, think, discuss and listen— together. Only then will we move beyond allowing young people to doubt alone.
Practically, my research has led me to think about engaging the doubts of young people in 8 distinct ways. While there is not space to explore each of them in detail (as I’m hoping to do in a future book), I will explain each of them briefly:
- Preparing people for doubt: My research revealed that it’s not uncommon for young people to think they can’t worship if they doubt. They need to be readied for the fact that doubts will come, and that faith is not contrary to doubt.
- Surfacing doubts: Sometimes young people are doubting without realizing it. We can help them articulate these doubts through questions such as, “What do you not know about God?” or, “How have your conceptions of God been disappointed?”
- Expressing doubts: Use music, art, poetry or other creative expression to help young people express the anxiety and fear that often accompanies doubt.
- Discussing reasons for doubts: Asking young people to give reasons for what they believe and what they doubt allows them to gain clarity and think through the state of their faith.
- Incorporation of doubt in worship: Using corporate prayers of lament or “creeds” that express what we do not know about God allow young people to experience that worship and doubt are not opposed.
- Creating disorienting dilemmas: Bringing youth to struggle with faith in an environment of challenge and support that will help them work through their faith by putting forth substantive issues, not “straw man” arguments.
- Testifying to faith in doubt: Encouraging young people to state both what they believe but also to discuss how they currently are doubting and questioning.
- Seeking understanding together: This functions similarly to Brian McLaren’s concept of spiritual friendship based upon open discussion and searching for truth (See, More Ready Than You Realize, by Brian McLaren.)
Far from blithely embracing those who doubt, or pushing them away, the proper form of the church is a community that engages young people who doubt — and which refuses to let them doubt alone.
Andrew Zirschky: Andrew Zirschky is academic director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Nashville and teaches youth ministry and practical theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. He is completing a Ph.D. in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s known Adam Cleaveland longer than any other (Re)Imagining Christianity author (since 2001) and will share incriminating stories about him for a small fee.