It’s the monthly teen activity night at church. The teens have emptied platters of sloppy joes and bowls of chips and fruit salad. They are warm, full, relaxed. They are ready to listen.

The youth leader senses the mood. At the end of his short prepared study about God’s will, he asks if anyone has questions. One teen raises his hand, then another raises hers. They ask good questions—easy questions.

And then another girl lifts her hand, shy and tentative. “How do we know that we’re right? All the other religions—they believe that they are right just as intensely as we do. How do we know that we’re the ones who have found the way to God?”

The youth leader takes a deep breath. He answers more quickly than he should, grazing the surface, leaving the core of the question untouched. As the teens go home, they think about the girl’s question. They repeat it to their parents, who begin to fear that such questions might shake their own child’s faith. The girl has disturbed the waters, and she is labeled a doubter, someone who might not be a Christian. She must be fixed, converted. And in the meantime, does she really belong in the youth group with the other Christian teens?

Far too many modern churches and families are caught off guard by young questioners in their midst. “Where did Evil come from?” they ask. “Why does God allow so much misery and injustice in the world? Why did He make us? And how could He send people to hell forever?” The questions are too hard for a quick answer tagged with a well-known verse. They bite at the very roots of Christianity.

The questioners are not malicious. They are at a stage of life where everything is changing. The old foundations, the ones their parents laid for them, are being broken up and scraped away to make room for the new foundations on which they will live their adult lives. This doubt is a natural process, part of the free will that God gave to his image-bearers. But it can be frightening for the parents and the youth leadership of the church.

Most families or churches respond to young doubters in one of three ways. They ignore the question, they separate the questioner, or they prayerfully give an answer.

Ignoring the Questions

Some parents and youth leaders try to smooth over their teens’ doubts as quickly as possible. They offer one-liners like “God created us for his glory” or “When you get to heaven, ask him” or “Sometimes you just have to believe without understanding.” Those words may be true, but without a fuller discussion and more information they can be very harmful. They simply shut down the conversation without resolving the issue.

Elissa M. is wife to the youth leader at a small church in Vermont. “One of the negative responses that I have seen is the over-sheltering of our teens,” she says. “Tip-toeing around the issues and the arguments that unsaved people bring up doesn’t help our teens. They need answers.”

Jill and Brad W., who work in a youth group in Oregon, have a similar perspective. “Perpetuating the idea that adults have no struggles often makes the teens with real struggles repress them,” says Jill. “This is why you see many young adults shocking their families with unbelief. We have to encourage them to question what they believe and come to an understanding based upon Scripture.”

Jon and Jennifer H. live and serve in upstate South Carolina. They have seen long-repressed doubt boil over once teens are out of their parents’ home. “Most of the doubts only came out after years of repression, after the young person had achieved some measure of independence,” Jon says. By that time, the doubts are often more powerful, virulent, and destructive to the individual’s faith.