How to Engage Teens Who Question Their Faith
- 2013 10 Sep
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.
Separating the Questioner
Jon and Jennifer H. have witnessed another kind of negative response to doubts. “We have seen teens who are struggling with their faith separated from those who are not,” says Jennifer. “In some churches, the ones who struggle are told that they cannot be a part of the group, and that they have to see a special counselor. But alienating a struggling teen is not the answer.” Being separated from peers can cause pain, anger, and feelings of rejection in the young person. Eventually, the teen is forced to seek understanding and acceptance elsewhere.
Some parents assume that a teen suffering from doubt must be an unbeliever, and they react accordingly. Jill and Brad W. have seen this pattern over and over. “I’ve had church parents pull their kids from youth group because we had too many non-Christian teens and they’re worried these unbelieving teens will rub off on their kids. This frustrates me as a youth worker. We need believing teens who aren’t ashamed of their beliefs to be examples to non-believers. Segregation is not the answer.”
“Often our teens don’t have a safe environment in which to ask honest questions,” Elissa M. points out. “It simply isn’t there. We may understand when the unchurched teens have questions, but our churched teens probably have just as many.” Young believers must be allowed to face tough questions about God and about the Bible. Only then can they learn to speak God’s truth in their own words to their generation.
Giving an Answer
Instead of shutting down or singling out the teens who ask questions in your family or church, heed the words of 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV): “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you—yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
As a parent or youth leader, you will need to be informed about the questions your teens are posing. You may feel inadequate. You may want to pass the teen along to a pastor or elder who is “better qualified” than you. Those qualified people may indeed be of help as you do some research, but that teen is yours to disciple. Remember that God used some of the most unlearned and unqualified men in Israel to preserve and disseminate his Gospel all over the known world. Listen to your teens’ questions with an open mind. Do some reading, get some knowledge, pray, and then come back with an answer and with the confidence that the Holy Spirit will put words in your mouth if you let him.
Jill W. has some additional advice for parents and youth workers. “Just keep on loving and supporting your teens,” she says. “Pray for them. Share the occasional Bible verse. But mostly be there, and be consistent. It’s hard. We’re all busy. But teens want to know that someone cares.”
Elissa M. agrees. “Pray for your teens and teach applicable lessons with an emphasis on the basics. If your teens truly understand the basics of the Bible, and who God is, the standards they will set in life will also be based on those principles. Always present God as personal, and be sure your own life shows his love. God’s love is contagious.”
Rebecca Kenney is a freelance writer living in sunny South Carolina with her husband and 1-year-old son. They love computers, books, and God's amazing creation!
© 2013 by Home Educating Family Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published in 2012 Issue 4 of Home Educating Family Magazine, the publication with the most meaningful discussions taking place in the homeschooling community today. Visit hedua.com to read back issues and for more articles, product reviews, and media.
Publication date: September 10, 2013