I Am A Children’s Pastor And I Expect That Our Kids Will Doubt Everything We’ve Taught Them.

Grace Cowen
August 3rd, 2021

I am a children’s pastor and I expect that our kids will doubt everything we’ve taught them.

Working with young people, I love to pride myself in my knowledge of current language and trends. However, if I were to grab coffee with you, I’d admit how often I’ve slyly reached for my phone to google what words really mean. If you’ve heard the phrase “that’s so sus” in the past year, you’re not alone (I’ll save you the google search—”sus” = “suspicious”). While you’ll hear “sus” in anything from video games to captions for cute dog videos, behind the abbreviation is a glimpse into the deeper reality that today’s young people face every day. 

A world of suspicion and doubt that is complicated even more by the accessibility and adaptability of information. Tragedy. Injustice. Politics. Religion. Social Media. Confusion. And it’s in this world that we wonder just how we can support the young people we care so deeply about.

Young people in particular live lives marked by instability and doubt. In the continuous changes between relationships, jobs, sports teams, housing situations, and college majors, the struggle for a young person to define who they are, including their religious beliefs, can be overwhelming. 

Doubt might be the norm for teenagers and young adults (and for all of us, if we’re honest), but expressions of doubt in the church are often met with shame or silence. So, how do we support the religious and spiritual journeys of young people? It may start by shifting our perspectives.

Shift #1: Doubt is inevitable, so let’s shift from erasing it to embracing it. 

As leaders, we tend to approach ministry in such a way that we believe we can vaccinate kids against doubt. While children’s and youth ministries are valuable, Paulo Freire warns us of “banking education,”where we try to shove as much information as possible into a young person’s brain before they graduate high school, hoping that our efforts might be enough to keep them in church. 

In this case, what happens if (when) a young person expresses doubt? 

We freeze. We fear that doubt will cause the young person to “walk away” from church, in which case it appears that we, and the young person, have failed—even if the young person is indeed pursuing faithfulness in their exploration of doubts.

The best spiritual preparation will still lead to doubt. It must. For this is where young people grow the most. We can’t erase it; instead, let’s be prepared for it. 

Shift #2: Our world has changed, and our ministry goals need to also.

For one reason or another, our ministry goals always fall back to attendance. When this is our primary goal, our instant reaction to doubt is to invite, entice, bribe, or even shame young people into coming back to church. But many young people are wary of these spaces as their questions and doubts are often sidestepped.

Why are we holding onto attendance so tightly? I suggest that our ministry goals with young people might actually be built for a world that no longer exists.  

Philosopher Charles Taylor, with help from youth ministry expert Andrew Root, help us understand this. Most of us see our ministry within what Taylor refers to as a “Secular 2” culture—a world where “sacred” and “secular” are opposing forces one must choose between. We constantly feel the need to “win” young people to church. However, today’s world is actually a “Secular 3” context, where sacred and secular are no longer in competition, but where faith always and already exists with doubt. 

Perhaps our questions need to shift from “how can we get young people to show up at our church events?” to “how can we meet young people where they are and invite them to live into the narrative of Jesus?” 

We must learn to listen and enter into a young person’s real world- a world where conversations about faith and doubt are held together and where doubt can actually be a move toward faithfulness for today’s young people. 

Okay, sounds great! How?

Shift #3: Let’s move from programs (attendance-focused) to practices (people-focused). 

One practice in particular can be especially helpful in helping facilitate honest conversations about doubt with young people. And here’s a hint—it’s something young people are already doing!

The practice of testimony is a wonderful space for processing doubt. Whether or not they realize it, young people practice the language of testimony daily—take Instagram “stories” for example.

Testimony can be described as “a narration of events seen or heard.” Unlike one-sided “banking education,”testimony gives space for both giving and receiving, which opens up space for dialogue and expressions of doubt, communicating that the young person’s voice is valued as well. The practice is equally beneficial for the one listening to the testimony—perhaps the hearer has been struggling with similar doubts and learns through the testimony sharing that they are not alone. 

Testimony is particularly helpful in our secular world, giving space for marginalized voices rather than assuming that the dominant voice is best. The practice of testimony empowers young people to experience and relate to who God is in their real lives, not just to accept information about God and show up at church. Testimony can happen in a church setting, but also over a cup of coffee, or even online. 

Before we condemn emerging adults for the world they are living in (go ahead and throw out the idea that secular = bad), let’s remember to instead meet young people where they are and respond with empathy and compassion. In our willingness to listen, the very young people we so deeply love might be the ones who will free us to be truly honest with our own faith journeys and move toward faithfulness in our own lives.   

Without space for honesty and doubts, the church today just might become ‘sus’ in the eyes of today’s young people (and perhaps they might be right). 

Grace Cowen

Grace Cowen is the Children’s Director at Real Life Church in Santa Clarita, CA. She is pursuing her DMin in Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Seminary. Grace and her husband Blake love investing in young leaders- their current favorite being their three-month old son, Finley.

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.