How Youth Doubt is Different Than We Expected and Preparing Youth for Doubt by Andrew Zirschky
As a junior political science and philosophy major at a Christian college on the West Coast, Laura looked to be the paragon of devoted and vibrant faith: she prayed and read her Bible daily, spent her weekends volunteering at serving ministries and soup kitchens, attended chapel midweek and church on Sunday.
But Laura had a secret.
“Only a few friends at college—maybe only four—have any idea about the extent of my doubt and that I don’t believe in the Christian God,” Laura told me candidly. “Ironically, the actions I do that look like actions of faith, are actually actions of doubt,” she remarked. By undertaking these religious practices, and failing to “feel God,” her doubts were being reinforced daily.
In a research interview on the doubting experiences of young Christians, Laura revealed in her own way what many others her age had already told me:
Young people doubt their faith, and they doubt it in ways we might never have suspected.
Too often in youth ministry we assume doubt is foremost an intellectual enterprise, undertaken by sharp kids who ask tough questions and doubt their faith with their brains held at arm’s length. We consequently often respond to the doubts of teenagers with apologetic material and rational, reasoned answers designed to clear away nagging questions. However, Laura and others like her reveal that we should be talking about the varieties of doubting experiences, not unlike we learned a century ago from William James to talk about the Varieties of Religious Experience.
If there’s anyone whose doubt should have been built of tough intellectual questions, it was Laura. A precocious and deeply intellectual student, Laura graduated high school early and found herself excelling in a demanding dual major as a college junior by the age of 19. Her faith had blossomed during middle school when she was invited by a friend to attend youth group at a conservative evangelical church. She was baptized at the age of 15—the first and only person in her family to be a Christian. However, when I spoke with her at age 19 her faith was in shambles.
Yet, contrary to expectations, Laura’s doubts arose from the absence of feeling God in her life, not from intellectual questions about the existence of God. “I just realized I was doing the things I needed to be doing, and not experiencing the security or peace that was supposed to accompany the God who was there,” she said.
Far from starting with esoteric philosophical questions about God and doubting the rationality of Christian answers, Laura’s journey into doubt started much closer to her heart than her head. She didn’t feel the presence of God. She told me she doubted God’s grace for her and said, “I don’t know if I’m up to par all the time.” Only after wrestling with those deeply personal questions for an extended time did Laura begin to doubt the existence of God and to look for intellectual reasons to believe or doubt.
My interview with Laura was part of a small phenomenological research inquiry about the doubting experiences of youth and young adults. Phenomenology is a research tradition that attempts to get at the essence of any experience. Far from being interested in merely how many youth doubt, or even what they doubt, I wanted to know, “What happens to young people in the experience of doubt? And what does doubt feel like?” The purpose of asking such phenomenological questions is to better understand both the diversity and similarities of doubting experiences so that as youth workers we can better respond to the doubts of teenagers. Laura’s story illustrates three of the most compelling findings of the research.
First, young people are doubting alone.
Few people in the study had previously discussed their doubts with anyone prior to my research interviews. The young Christians with whom I spoke described feeling insecurity, anxiety, fear, and loneliness as they doubted. Even those who had tried to discuss their doubts with friends, church members, or religious leaders, still felt alone, dismissed, or uncared for. Laura was one who felt dismissed when she was told her doubts were just a passing phase. “It should be a bigger deal to people that currently, my entire belief system is walking on stilts and you’re telling me to wait it out,” she said. While it’s not uncommon for youth ministries to have an occasional “doubt night” in which youth can pose tough questions and hear (potentially) compelling answers, it’s not enough to simply dispense answers. Youth need people who will truly walk with them through the difficulties and trials of the journey of faith which includes journeying through doubt.
Second, no two journeys of doubt are exactly the same.
Even a small sampling of individuals reveals that doubt comes in many varieties. Yes, some begin with intellectual questions, but many others begin the journey of doubt as a result of life experiences or trauma. Some doubt the presence of God, their own worthiness, or their future. Others doubt God’s provision, God’s love, or God’s existence. Doubt is very much a journey that might lead individuals through all these types of questions (and many more) but the path of doubt is very personal and individual. This should disabuse youth workers of the notion that teenagers who doubt simply need a good apologetics text that will answer their questions. Handing a copy of The Case for Christ to every teenager who expresses doubt is like a doctor dispensing the same treatment for every wound. Rather, recognizing the varieties of doubting experiences should lead us to more fully talk with and understand the nature of the doubts and feelings of youth before prescribing anything.
Third, we need to put pastoral care before apologetics.
There is a place and time for reasoned answers about the Christian faith, but it’s not likely the first (or even second) action we should take. Youth workers need to be prepared to listen and care for the fears and anxieties that undergird or accompany the many religious doubts of teens. If at the age of 17 or 18 someone had sat with Laura and prodded her to express the insecurities and fears that accompanied her actions of doubt and faith, it’s quite likely that such pastoral care could have cured her mistaken understandings about “feeling” God and averted her further spiral into doubt. What Laura needed weren’t better articulated apologetic answers, but better pastoral care long before her doubts festered into unbelief.
As a college junior Laura’s doubt was a secret and a path she traveled alone. If we are going to respond adequately to the doubting experiences of youth, we need to ensure that young people like Laura have patient, understanding companions who can guide and care for them through the twists and turns of the journey of doubt.
Preparing Youth for Doubt
In the first article in this series you met Laura, a college student who was doubting her faith and yet rarely spoke of those doubts and questions to anyone. Laura, like so many others, was doubting alone. In researching the doubting experiences of young people I found that doubt is a traumatic experience, it’s a unique experience for each person, and too often youth are forced to doubt alone without the care and engagement of the Christian community.
What tactics might we employ to better engage the doubts of youth and prevent them from feeling isolated by their doubts? One surprising place to start in seeking such guidance is revisiting the Christian doctrine of revelation, which asserts that we worship a God who has been revealed in self-revelation, but we at the same time worship a God who remains hidden, unknown, and in many way absent. Our modes of worship and communal practice do not reflect this dual reality, however. We emphasize the revealed God, and celebrate the knowledge of God and the joys of belief without creating a place in worship, liturgy or other gatherings for the pronouncement of the hiddenness of God, and the unknowing that accompanies faith. Consequently, we’ve prepared youth to experience faith, but rarely do we prepare them to experience doubt.
“We who know so very much about God—how did it happen that we failed to discern the theme of unknowness and unknowability running through the Scriptures and the most gripping traditions of our faith?” asks theologian Douglas John Hall. The doctrine of revelation should remind us that we remain people from whom God is hidden even when we know much about God. There isn’t merely room for doubt and unknowing in Christian faith, but it’s part and parcel of faith. Frankly, teenagers (and all of us) actually need to doubt at times to dislodge some of the false beliefs that are easy to pick up along the way. As such, doubt needs to be engaged, and we need to prepare youth for the experience.
Doubt is often a traumatic and scary event in the lives of teenagers because they are unprepared to experience it. The importance of preparing youth for the shock of what’s ahead is something I learned while whitewater rafting with teenagers on Idaho’s Salmon River. With the boat taking on water and waves hitting students hard in the face, the boats that made it through the rapids were those filled with teenagers who’d been well prepared for the experience by their rafting guide. In the face of Class IV, I’ve seen boats full of macho high school athletes devolve into screaming and crying mayhem. Meanwhile, I’ve seen boats of featherweight middle school students row through the waves in unison simply because their guide had prepared them for what to expect. Not unlike preparing youth for the rapids ahead on the river, we need to prepare youth for the fact that they’re likely going to doubt; this will save them much heartache and concern that something is wrong with them when they find themselves buffeted by doubts and questions. Doubt happens—75% of youth in Fuller Seminary’s Sticky Faith study doubted their faith—and in a secular age there’s really no avoiding it. Our goal in youth ministry shouldn’t be to protect youth from the experience of doubt, but to assist them in navigating and growing through the doubts and questions that will certainly arise. Preparing them with the knowledge that doubt is likely on the way—and that it’s normal—allows everyone to breathe a little easier and for the experience to be less dramatic and traumatic when doubt does wash over them.
An Exercise in Doubting “God”
Preparing youth for doubt (and preparing their parents likewise) is a crucial task for youth leaders as students enter into the ministry. One of the practical ways I’ve taken to doing this is by asking incoming sixth grade students and their parents to each draw a picture of what they imagined God looked like when they were six years old. After we chuckle together at the hastily drawn figures of old man god, bearded god, superhero god, rainbow god, and lightning bolt god, I ask everyone to turn over their papers and draw or describe how they understand God today at their present age. This is a harder task for everyone and usually there are fewer pictures and more descriptions. Words such as Jesus, love, grace or forgiveness often come to the fore. “How did you get from your conception of God at age six to these different understandings of God today?” I ask. Usually someone mentions experience, reading scripture, or learning more in church. “That’s right! But in order for experience and scripture and learning to change how you understood God you had to at some point come to doubt your six-year-old understanding of God. The only way to get from where you were to where you are is to doubt and question. The fact is that only because you’ve doubted, questioned, and revised your understanding of God do you find yourself in a different faith place than at age six. And even still, your understanding of God and God’s activity in the world today is just a poor stick figure drawing compared to how God actually is. It will be necessary for you to continue to question in order to grow. You should expect that as you grow in faith during middle school and high school that you’ll doubt. And that can be a good thing if you’re not afraid to voice the questions and doubts you have and talk them out with others.”
This simple exercise normalizes the experience of doubt and names it as beneficial to faith. In doing so, it relieves the fears of parents and makes it possible for youth to fearlessly speak to adults (including their own parents) about questions and doubts when they arise. This is just one example of preparing youth for doubt and beginning the process of engaging doubt in community rather than leaving youth to doubt alone. In the next article we’ll consider a second step in engaging the doubt of young people as we look at the importance of creating an environment where doubts can be routinely surfaced and ultimately discussed.