Keeping a generation of young doubters in church is less about having answers than it is about tone, space and spirit. Create a place where doubt is welcome, says a young writer who left the church -- and returned.
When I was in college, just entering the first stages of a faith crisis, I worked part time as a nanny for a widowed professor of church history who taught at the school I attended. I took his kids to soccer practice. I emptied his garbage. I folded his laundry on the kitchen table.
My mother, who worried about my waning faith, took comfort that I was employed by a man of faith. Maybe Jerry’s influence would do some good. Maybe folding the underwear of a famous Christian scholar -- oh holy undertunic! -- would somehow save my soul from faithlessness.
Often, after Jerry came home from work, he and I talked in the kitchen while we cooked and set the table for supper. Sometimes we talked about faith.
“Jerry, I have a question for you,” I said one evening.
“Yes? What is it, pal?”
“We say the power of God is in the church, but the church seems just as dysfunctional as every other human institution.”
“Well, the church is made up of fallible human beings. It’s bound to be dysfunctional.”
“Yes, but if the power of God can redeem and transform, shouldn’t the church stand out more in contrast to the rest of the world?”
“Maybe it does,” he said, moving around the kitchen. He somehow managed to be both serious and relaxed about my faith questions. “What about all the volunteer organizations, the Catholic hospitals, the universities? If you took all that out, society would be significantly worse. I’m not whitewashing the failures of the church. I’m just asking for a fair perspective.”
“That sort of answers my question and sort of doesn’t,” I said.
At the time, I had one foot in the sanctuary and one foot in the street. No one could persuade me to stay inside -- not my parents, not the community of my Presbyterian childhood, not a wise, widowed Christian professor.
About a year after college, I left the church in the midst of a full-blown faith crisis. I’ve since returned. After writing a book about my faith struggle -- “Faith and Other Flat Tires” -- I find myself now in Jerry’s position, trying to answer probing questions from young people who find fault with the church and with faith itself.
At a recent speaking event at a Catholic university, for example, a student raised her hand and said, “I don’t like the church or its history. Why should I stay?”
“How do I even know that what I believe is really true?” another asked.
“How do I read the Bible?” said a third. “How do I separate something culturally bound from something universal?”
But a comment after the event sobered me more than all the rest. “I don’t feel at home in the church,” a student emailed me. She wasn’t asking a question that your average pastor or Ph.D. could answer. She was describing something more fundamental: the ethos of the church.
In an exchange of emails, she told me more about her struggles with faith, and said that being in church made her feel deeply uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Among other things, she believed that her questions and doubts would not be welcome in church -- and therefore neither would she.
She’s not alone. In a study last fall, the Barna Group found that one of the top six reasons young Christians leave the church is that “the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” Well-known author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, who spent three years away from the church, made essentially the same point in a much-commented-upon blog post, “15 Reasons I Left Church” (No. 6: “… because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt”).
“We aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers,” Evans writes in her memoir, “Evolving in Monkey Town.” “We’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.”
Those of us inside the church have the responsibility to make a space where doubters can bring their questions safely into the sanctuary. Creating that space is easier said than done, of course. But as someone who left the church and returned, I know we have the power to affect this generation of doubters. And that power is less about answers than it is about tone, space and spirit.
A child psychologist once told me that if you used the right tone, you could read a Stephen King novel to a baby and it would have the same impact as reading Dr. Seuss. Tone matters more than content. When it comes to keeping young people in church, this means thinking not about a perfect response but about the spirit of response.
No church can answer every question from every skeptic. What we can do, though, is embrace a model for mentorship that allows us to walk alongside the seekers and doubters in our midst. What does this mean practically? What does it look like to create that open space? Every congregation can find its own way to make that journey with doubters, but here are a few ideas to consider:
- Host an open-session coffee hour with teens, college students and other seekers and doubters.
- As a congregation, read a book on the subject of doubt, such as Lauren Winner’s “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis” or Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God.”
- Invite a Christian apologist to come and talk with seekers and doubters.
- Hold a Sunday school class on faith and reason.
- Host a biannual forum on doubt and faith.
- Have the head pastor, associate pastor or youth minister meet regularly one-on-one with seekers and doubters in the congregation.
Regardless of the program or setting, focus on the spirit of the conversation. Establish the right tone and tenor for dialogue. Listen to and view the doubters in your congregation not as pariahs but as truth-seeking, soul-searching pilgrims. Share openly about your own past or present struggles. And affirm their struggles at the same time that you challenge them to push through in pursuit of God.
“Be merciful to those who doubt,” Jude counsels (v. 22). On this front, I take my cues from Jerry. Although we had dozens of conversations about faith and doubt in my four years as his children’s nanny, I remember how he responded more than what he said.
Whether we were cooking soup or setting the table, he always had a casual confidence that helped me relax. He wasn’t trying to sell me on faith. He wasn’t reactionary, judgmental or coercive. He listened and gave me space to express my doubts. He affirmed my struggle and took it seriously.
Even then, as a troubled 20-something, I got the distinct sense that he trusted the process, trusted God’s grace to make room for my doubt, and trusted that faith worth keeping would stand up to scrutiny.