“There wasn’t space to ask questions or express doubts in my high school youth group, so I pulled away from the church,” said the young mom now married to an evangelical pastor. “I wasn’t content being spoon fed verses from the Bible and expected to blindly accept them as sufficient answers to my questions. I was dubious of a twenty-something youth pastor spouting pat responses I wasn’t sure he understood or believed.”
Her faith pilgrimage wasn’t the first one to describe the “No Questions Allowed” roadblock. It’s common in Christian circles whether a church has a tradition of confirmation classes or catechism or a walk to the front of the church as an acknowledgment of faith. Questions about the Bible, how God acts in the world, who God is, who Jesus is, how you can believe in something you can’t see are fair to ask, particularly for young people in the midst of identity formation.
Why do we tend to back away or become defensive in response to genuine, searching questions? Maybe we want to avoid conflict or reveal we don’t know. Maybe it’s an issue we struggle with, and we’d rather portray a solid faith than a squishy one. Maybe we think we haven’t done a good job teaching and explaining if someone still has questions. But for someone to hold tightly to a set of beliefs over the long haul, they need to own them rather than be indoctrinated. They need to think them through, test their seaworthiness, and declare they’re a boat they will take out to sea.
Parents have high expectations for a high school youth pastor’s ability to get their kid on track. As an empty-nester, I volunteered for several years with high school youth groups, and heard more than one parent lament the spiritual life of their junior or senior. They were convinced that all would be lost if their son or daughter’s faith wasn’t rock-solid before they started college or work. Once launched and outside the protective bubble of home, they feared their kids would be part of the 70% who turn their backs on the Christian faith. Rightly so as multiple studies report.
The preventative measures often taken are to inject teens with knowledge and as many Bible verses as possible. Stay upbeat; don’t let people express doubts. They could be contagious and sink the group. Allow a few questions, and supply a definitive answer even when there isn’t one. Use black and white language to discuss beliefs; keep away from gray terminology. Unfortunately this “safe” approach doesn’t satisfy; it drives away. It doesn’t work for adults either.
In a rush to appear authoritative and certain, we miss the opportunity to equip others to tolerate the ambiguity inherent in faith and spirituality. Christianity is a blend of essential, foundational truths—orthodoxy, and a slew of variations as to how that is lived out—orthopraxy. Christians firmly accept the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and yet vary widely in the observance of baptism and communion, for example. Mystery and subtlety are woven throughout Christianity and the Bible; nothing is fully explainable, and God himself is incomprehensible. To live comfortably in the space between the contradictions of firm belief and unknowing requires maturity and a developed taste for ambiguity.
A high tolerance for ambiguity is defined as the ability to make a decision or take action before having all the answers and is regarded as a sign of spiritual maturity. If there’s anything that faith requires more often than an old-timer believer would like to admit, it’s the ability to follow God, to be a disciple of Jesus, with only the first five feet of the path illuminated. Faith involves a decision to keep going when the “why’s” go unanswered, when the “how’s” aren’t in a manual, when the “when’s” are nothing but blank calendar pages.
Whatever role we play–parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, teacher, volunteer, coach—we have an opportunity to create a safe place for honest questions. In our small group discussions, the young ladies were initially uncomfortable when I encouraged them to think work through their doubts. Their questions and struggles were a sign that they were thinking, wrestling and taking Christianity’s claims seriously enough to expend mental energy, something I applauded. Whether the freedom to question helped them form their beliefs, I may never know; at least we didn’t erect roadblocks.
The young mom found someone comfortable with questions to mentor her during college and her thirst for Jesus and the church was reignited. For others it takes decades of testing different faiths, trying on no faith, and collecting life experiences before they turn back to Christianity. Some never do. Making room for doubts won’t keep everyone in the faith, but when they’re encouraged and respected, wanderers might return sooner and others never leave. Growth and maturity are essential to cope well with the inevitable gray squares of life; helping each other through the question patches rather than avoiding them strengthens us all.