Creating Space for Students to Doubt
Does God get mad at me when I doubt he exists?
How do I know my parents were right about God?
How do I know if Jesus really is the Messiah?
If God loves me, then why does he let all this bad stuff happen to me?
Teens have many questions swimming around their minds, and you’ll miss out by not creating space for your students to voice them and express their doubts.
Why is it important for teens to be able to voice their doubts?
Developmentally, teens’ brains are evolving, which leads to an overwhelming amount of changes on multiple levels (physical, emotional, cognitive, and social). As teens cope with these changes, it’s perfectly normal for them to begin to question what they previously adopted as truth. You must be ready to embrace your teens as they grapple with their faith, and you must create opportunities for them to ask questions.
If you welcome your students’ questions and doubts, it will give you the chance for meaningful conversations about the tough subjects already on their minds. When teens face their doubts and discuss them with trusted adults, they often find that their doubts no longer carry the same weight. As students see that they can safely wrestle with their questions, they develop stronger and more genuine faith—faith that can withstand doubt. While their faith becomes stronger, it also becomes more personal. Most of us would agree that one of the goals of youth ministry is to help our teens make their faith their own. When you allow your students to confront their doubts, they learn to fight for their faith rather than simply inherit it from their parents.
Also, when you allow your students to voice their doubts, you demonstrate that your love for them isn’t based on their ability to regurgitate what you taught them. When you fail to react and you let them know their questions are important, you show them that they matter to you regardless of what they believe—you love them simply because they’re your students. In effect, you show them the love of God.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV).
As you commit to creating space for your teens to question and doubt, it’s important to remember you don’t have to have all the answers. By honestly answering your teens and admitting when you don’t know, you teach your students that doubt and faith can coexist. For example, a student might ask you why God would let her mom die of cancer when so many other people are healed. It’s possible to offer a long theological response on unanswered prayer or suffering—but what if you’re grappling with that question, too? In that case, you could choose to be real with the teen and acknowledge that it’s a tough question you also wrestle with. You could have an honest conversation with your student about what it looks like to trust God in the face of cancer. Youth workers have a unique opportunity to model real faith in the midst of doubt. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons you can teach your students in order to prepare them for future trials.
How do we create space for our students to question or doubt?
There are many different ways to create space for your students to doubt and ask questions. Here are some we’ve tried in our ministry:
- At our retreat one year, we turned the last session into a Q&A “safe zone.” We encouraged the teens to ask questions on anything from theology to personal challenges with their faith. The teens anonymously wrote their questions on note cards. Then another leader and I sat in chairs and answered as many questions as we could during the next hour. Sometimes we admitted we didn’t know the answer and acknowledged that the student was asking a really tough question. Then we talked about how to trust God in the midst of that doubt.
- Two young adults in our ministry who have studied apologetics for years created a Facebook group specifically designed to be a place for teens and young adults to ask hard questions about their faith. The young adults take turns answering the questions and sharing articles and excerpts from books related to the topic.
- We build in times for discussion—if we’re going to reassure our teens that it’s okay to voice their questions and doubts, then we must give them opportunities to talk. During our retreats, I place everyone into core groups (7-10 people) at the beginning of the weekend, and they meet with these core groups several times throughout the retreat. The hope is that the students will build trust with each other and with the core group leader and that an atmosphere of openness and honesty will develop. When teens feel safe and secure, they’re more likely to open up about their questions and doubts.
Creating a safe space for students to doubt and ask questions has more to do with your overall approach than with practical strategies. You need to foster an atmosphere of love and acceptance so that your students feel they can safely share what’s on their minds and hearts. You must welcome their questions and create time for meaningful conversations during which their questions can be addressed. It’s important to demonstrate to your students that doubts and faith can coexist and that God is big enough to handle their doubts. You must point your students to the Lord, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Miriam Frank is the full-time Ministries Director of the Young Messianic Jewish Alliance (YMJA). She was raised in a Reform Jewish family in suburban Chicago, IL. At 18, she made a decision to put her faith in Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah, which dramatically changed the course of her life. Miriam received her bachelor’s degree from Miami University of Ohio, where she double majored in psychology and speech communications. She received her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from University of Cincinnati. Miriam is devoted to helping teens grow in their faith and has had the privilege of serving in various roles in Messianic youth ministry for the past 12 years. In addition to serving young people, Miriam loves teaching figure skating, flying on trapezes, and spending time with her friends and family in Chicago, IL.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.