Monday, March 21, 2011

Lord, I believe! But help my unbelief! -- Making Room for Faith, Doubt and Cynicism in Youth Ministry

By Andrew S. Tatum

Often I think ministers, and ministers who work with young people, are pressured to be dispellers of doubt in the people with whom they minister. In both our cognitive work (i.e. doctrinal instruction) and our relational / spiritual work, it is thought that orthodoxy in belief and practice should be the primary goal for the people of our communities. In other words, we assume that in order for faith to be strong, genuine and generative there can be little room for doubt and no room at all for cynicism.

I cannot account for the experiences of others in this regard but I can share my own and recently, I have had many experiences that left me scratching my head and wondering where I went wrong.

The first of these came during a recent youth Bible study in which we were studying the "basics" of the Gospel message - i.e. sin & salvation through Christ. I found that the young people with whom I work genuinely believe the "facts" about the Gospel: that human beings are sinful and that Christ lived, died and was resurrected to bring a new kind of life that seeks God and serves others through the power of the Spirit. What is troubling, however, is that often it seems that this good news is received with glazed over looks and shrugged shoulders. In other words, many of the youth with whom I work genuinely believe the Gospel but they don't see where such belief makes a practical difference in their lives. Others of them, I am sure, "believe" the Gospel - i.e. they know the basic narrative and they can tell me all about it - but they are not fully convinced that it is true.

Another recent experience happened in discussing the fall of man and God's compassion and judgment for human disobedience. One of the young people in the room looked me in the eyes and - with a little laughter in her voice - said, "You mean God fixed the game." When asked her to clarify what she meant, she replied, "You're telling us that God created us for his glory and so that we could have new life in him and that the only way for that to happen is through Jesus?"

"Right," I said.

"Well, why didn't God just make it right from the beginning? It's like he wanted sin to happen so that he could show us how bad we are and teach us that we can't have life unless we follow Jesus. Did he send the serpent to us? I mean, did God make us fall?"

Of course, my outward reaction was to correct her and say something about "mystery" and God's "love" in general. But I have to admit that my inward thoughts turned immediately to David Bazan's song, "When We Fell" where he delivers a one-two punch of doubt and cynicism:

"When you set the table
when you chose the scales
did you write a riddle
that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
so they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when we fell?"

I know at least a handful of youth pastors who heard these lyrics and cringed. One of them even said, "If we let our youth hear this, we're screwed!"

What I'm getting at is this: when Christians begin being cynical and expressing doubt, are we doing them any favors when we try to suppress these doubts and feelings? For my part, I don't think that suppressing these sorts of thoughts and feelings is very helpful at all. Indeed, it may even be unfaithful.

Douglas John Hall once said, "I am not very much worried about the reduction in numbers where Christianity ...[is] concerned. I am far more concerned about the qualitative factor: what kind of Christianity...are we talking about?"

Indeed, what are we helping to create when we teach young people and adults that faith is about the suppression of doubt? What are we doing to the minds and hearts of young people when we don't honor their cynicism and encourage them to continue to question received tradition so that they can "own" the faith that they profess? I think we're creating individuals who do not know how to express their faith in meaningful ways because they have never had to grapple with its claims on their lives. We're creating religious people. However, we are not in any measurable way creating disciples of Jesus by telling young people and adults what they must believe without making space for them to express and grapple with their unbelief.

Paul Ricoeur wrote of a "second naivete" that comes only after one has both accepted and criticized the foundations of their world view. He wrote:

I]n every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short it is by interpreting that we hear again."

A man came to Jesus whose son was afflicted by an evil spirit. This spirit had "often thrown him into fire or water to kill him." The man asked Jesus, "Lord, if you can do anything take pity on us and help us."

"If you can?" Jesus replied. "Anything is possible for the one who believes."

The man replied, "Lord, I believe! But please help my unbelief." (From Mark 9)

I think that our young people need us to help them question their faith - to become believing unbelievers - so that they can live into genuine faith in Jesus because such faith is not easy and it will call them to do hard things for the rest of their lives. If the people you serve all believe easily and if they all believe without question, then I would say that perhaps you need to "help" their unbelief along. For it is by not believing, for a time, that we come to believe in ways that are good, true, beautiful and - most importantly - real.

I am not saying that we ought to help young people become atheists or agnostics - to actively give them questions and doubts that they may not already have. That, I think, would be
manipulative and just as unfaithful as suppressing doubt. What I am aiming it is simply the creation of imaginative space in which young people and adults can ask real questions about the truth claims of the Gospel and their practical significance - and yes, even to express doubt - without judgment or fear of disappointment on the part of their families, ministers and peers.

Lord, we believe! But help our unbelief!

Andrew Tatum is the Director of Youth Programs at Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina, and a graduate of Campbell University Divinity School. This post is originally taken from his blog. You can find out more about Andrew on his website:

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