Helping Kids Navigate Deep Theological Waters by Youth Specialites
As a little boy, my friend Bill was eager to learn to swim, but he was afraid to try. One day he nervously circled the pool, knowing in his heart that he could eventually be a champion swimmer, if only he were taught how to move his arms, kick his feet, and breathe in the right pattern. At the very least, he wished someone would teach him to stay afloat.
Soon his father approached, startled the boy by picking him up, and threw him into the deep end of the pool. The boy, panicking and gasping for breath, struggled to stay above water, trying to find his way to solid ground.
I doubt any of us would subscribe to this teaching method. And yet, by sending our students out of the youth group and into college, the workforce, or wherever without helping them learn to think theologically, we’re doing the same thing.
By theological thinking I mean the ability to think critically about one’s own beliefs and reflect on how the various aspects of those beliefs affect each other. It may seem like a given, but churches have a nasty habit of sending their students out unprepared, because we prefer to stick to the easy clichés of the faith (like God is good, all the time), shying away from the more difficult ones (like What do we do when it doesn’t seem like God is good?).
But the difficult aspects of faith inevitably emerge. The questions are there in everyone—this is true no matter how rock solid one’s faith life may seem on the outside. Is God real? Could a loving God allow this? Does a strictly scientific worldview preclude the existence of an omniscient God? If we send students out into the world believing that God makes everything pretty and that our faith can be summed up by a few Precious Moments cards and a list of “God incidences,” what will they do when they encounter the hard questions?
WE CAN PROVIDE TOOLS
If we want them to be able to weather these storms, we need to prepare teenagers for the challenges that will face them when they leave the youth group room. The best way is to give them the tools to think theologically. The following tools are a starting point:
According to A Handbook of Theological Terms, the word theology comes from root words that mean “God” and “discourse.” This seems to be a pretty simple concept at first: “My kids talk about God all the time!” But simply talking about God often falls short of the mark and misses the chance to really delve into the difficult questions of faith. The students need more, and we can provide it. In the word discourse is the idea that there will be a give and take, an exchange of thoughts without a preset idea of results. In a free discourse of theological ideas, we can acknowledge and discuss the questions already present and those that inevitably will be. This means asking our students the hard questions before their friends and professors do, including the role of religion in politics, the difficulty of visible sins of publicly Christian figures, and the presence—or apparent lack—of God in suffering throughout the world. We can then help our students develop answers that are more sophisticated than “just because I believe,” or “for the Bible tells me so,” or “my youth pastor was wicked funny.”
Beyond arguing with others is arguing with one’s self and even—through humble prayer—arguing with God. Consider the tradition of back and forth with God that we see in Job and Jonah and even Jacob, who went so far as to wrestle physically with God’s emissary. We can teach teens how to theologically wrestle with God.
This is essential, because our students won’t always have us to help them through these difficult times. While we can’t overstate the importance of community (it’s through community that our kids learn the stories of faith and see God’s love expressed in tangible ways), there are times when the only option is to stand alone. This being the case, we want young people to be equipped with a strong theological framework that will help them think through these problems faithfully and intelligently.
While “intelligently” can mean many things to many people, a good starting point is to help teens seek out within their faith lives concepts that don’t mesh well. Do you believe that God is infinitely merciful? Then what do you do with the descriptions of God’s wrath? Do you believe the Bible is infallible? Then what do you do with the apparent contradictions? Do you believe that a decision to accept Christ is what brings salvation? Then what about the call in James to works of faith? There are, of course, myriad sticking points such as these, and we could spend a lifetime talking our students through each. Instead, we need to give teenagers the tools to do this on their own.
Prayerful self-criticism, for example, can be taught to our students so they have the ability to consider in the presence of God what they’ve been taught and what they currently believe, and then they can evaluate whether it needs to be reassessed in light of their growth and learning. This can foster a willingness in your students to move beyond childhood faith and into a more thought-out belief.
Another tool is the creative reimagining of biblical truths. When faced with a college course on geology, students might waver in their faith as they see what appears to be scientific evidence against creationism. However, if these students are able to imagine the first chapters of Genesis not as a textbook explaining a process of planet formation but instead as a story showing God’s power, sovereignty, and love, then they will be able to accept scientific evidence without losing their faith. In this way, we encourage them to develop their own faith rather than adopting a prepackaged faith dependent on our guidance.
Not that our guidance is bad. But we hope we’re helping to raise these teenagers to need it less and less. This is dependent upon the youth’s ability and drive to inquire. As theologian and seminary professor Daniel Migliore puts it in Faith Seeking Understanding, ”The spirit of theology is interrogative rather than doctrinaire.” To help them grow in their theological understanding, we need to inspire in them the desire to continue this inquiry—this hungry pursuit of understanding—so that, someday, they can kick our sorry old butts in a theological crossfire session. This is as important for us as it is for them. Let us lead by example and let young people see us at study as well as at play. Let them see us learn as often as they see us teach. Let them see us struggle as much as we encourage.
To some, this may sound a little bit like we’re sending teenagers out to skate on thin ice. Well, it is. But youth group can be the best place for that, a place where if they fall through the cracks, they have a community to pull them back up. In the controlled environment of a youth group, we can test these tools and give teens a chance to explore the darker corners of faith in the full knowledge that if they need us, we’re there.
We need to push them to the same limits that challenge us. We better not back away from such questions as “Why does evil exist if God is all-loving and all-powerful?” because people outside of the church surely won’t. If you’re challenged by this question, don’t allow yourself to shy away from it in youth group. While it may seem like a dangerous topic to broach with young people, we’d do well to remember that these questions are most likely already present in their lives. What questions did your youth group ask after the Boston bombing? After the death of Michael Brown? After the loss of a loved one? These questions weren’t created by the event—they were exposed by it, and though the event may fade into the past, the questions don’t. Though they may lose prominence, they’ll be back. And if these kinds of questions leave you confused about your faith, think of what these questions will do to students when they get out of the controlled environment of youth group.
SO LET’S PUSH THEM HARD IN YOUTH GROUP.
Let’s prepare them. Let’s put them in conversations about other religions, because if we don’t, someone less trustworthy will. Let’s present them with the strongest arguments held by atheists—if we don’t, someone else will. Let’s ask them not only what they believe but also why they believe it, how that affects their other beliefs, and what are the shortcomings and inconsistencies in their system of beliefs. If we don’t, someone will, and it may be someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
As youth pastors, we’re given stewardship over the faith development of young people. This is a position of great power. And as we’re told by the great prophet Stan Lee in The Amazing Spiderman issue 3, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This responsibility is to push our students to develop a well-thought-out, systematic, and secure theology, so that they aren’t left unprepared when they face challenges outside of the youth room. Let’s not throw them into the deep end—let’s teach them to swim.