Why doubt needs to have a place in your youth ministry this year

Doubt does not squelch faith; silence does.

Photo by Doug Robichaud

“I’m not sure if I’ll make a very good youth ministry volunteer.”

This statement took me a bit by surprise. I was meeting this week with someone from my church to talk about serving in our youth ministry. Over lunch I shared our vision for ministry and we talked about the particular area where this leader might serve. Then this disclaimer popped up.

The reason?

“Well, I’ve had a lot of doubts about God, and about Christianity. God is the only explanation I can give for where my life is today, but it’s been a journey to get here.”

In our research with young people across the past decade, we have become more and more convinced that it’s not doubt that is squelching young people’s faith. It’s not spiritual struggle that drives them away from church. It’s not questions that distance them from God.

It’s silence.

It’s well-meaning adults who shut down hard questions about God.

It’s protective parents who shield teenagers from conversations that feel too hard to navigate.

It’s ministry leaders who think they have to have it “all together” to be qualified to disciple teenagers who want to follow Jesus.

It's not doubt that is toxic to faith; it's silence. (tweet that)

Last time I checked, those of us who wrestle with doubt are in good company in Scripture: Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and basically every other disciple. They left their uncertainty on display for all of us through the gracious writers of the gospels who preserved these followers for what they were: believer-doubters.

It turns out that believer-doubters can be safe places for young people to explore their very real questions about God, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the issues in their everyday lives. According to our research participants in Sticky Faith, over 70 percent of high school youth group students had serious doubts about faith, but only a quarter of those young people talked with anyone.

In contrast, students who knew they had a safe place to share their struggles and questions tended to have stronger faith—both in high school and up to three years later—than those who lacked that safe community.

Similarly, in our new study Growing Young, we learned that young people who share their faith struggles honestly with others also tend to share their faith more with people who are not yet Christians. In other words, perhaps it’s not certainty that makes young people better evangelists but honesty. Because when articulated, young people’s questions open up exploration of both doubt and faith.

None of this means teenagers need completely unstable adults in their lives, or those who aren’t sure they believe in Jesus most days. But neither do they need adults who are so sure of every answer that they can’t handle hard questions. Instead, young people need us to be those who daily respond to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me” with openness and authenticity, within a community of believer-doubters attempting to do the same. Adults willing to be on a journey, and to go on a journey with young people. And on those days when their faith—or ours—is wavering, we lean into the Body of Christ to hold faith for us, with us, patiently and graciously.

We wrote a set of curriculum called Can I Ask That? based on scores of conversations with leaders who asked for help journeying with young people through hard questions. The overwhelming feedback we have received from this series is that it helps create space for conversations rather than simply delivering answers. Answers aren’t bad, but they aren’t the whole story. In fact, we can shortcut true faith formation (or “faithing”) when we give answers too quickly. We’ve learned that often the journey is as important as the destination.

So this week I looked this potential volunteer right in the eye and said, “You are exactly the kind of adult our young people need. Your story is a story they need to hear.”

This year, let’s courageously tell these kinds of stories together. 

Need help discussing tough faith questions with students?

Get Can I Ask That.