Do Your Students Really Feel Ashamed for Doubting?

In the not so distant past, one of the dominant discussions permeating throughout student ministry consisted of the tension between doubt and shame. Does the church bestow shame - either implicitly or explicitly - upon students who doubt?

Perhaps, among certain cultures, certain geographical locations, certain groups of people who interpret Scripture a particular way, certain networks and denominations of churches - perhaps - but I believe that this paradigm of discipleship is fading fast into the distant background. 

As a disciple of modernity and Christendom myself, I can argue from my own anecdotal experience that doubt was not a regarded as a legitimate value for faith formation. In fact, I would assert the exact opposite. Church leaders in my context rarely - if ever - created any space for doubt. Quite frankly, it was not in their paradigm. Not because any of these leaders and pastors were naive or uneducated; quite the opposite! Rather, these folk would not doubt their faith anymore than they would doubt their family heritage.  

Throughout the decades of Christendom, however, as we witnessed among the Emerging Church movement, as well as from reflective and self-revealing boomers and Gen-X'ers, many have since admitted that personal doubt often gave way to shame. Little room for questions and a low value for doubting subtly (or explicitly) communicated to these generational groups that to doubt anything related to faith equated to unbelief - an ultimately shameful revelation for anyone to face. As a result, many stagnated in faith - not allowed to ask the necessary questions - and even left the church altogether. 

Like many, I believe that doubt and faith coexist at the same time. They go hand in hand with one another. As one doubts, faith grows, and as faith grows, doubt generates. It's a natural cycle of discipleship. Unfortunately, for an entire period of the church, many faced shame as a result for doing so. 

Yet, as our culture has increasingly evolved into post-modernity and post-Christianity, doubt has evolved, too, from a fringe, unspoken, shame-inducing precept of the church to a highly-regarded and revered essential to faith formation and life, as a whole. Post-modernity elevates deconstruction, criticism, and suspicion as core tenets of culture. Doubt fits the M-O. As a matter of fact, these have been values within academia since the 18th century. 

For our purpose of the church, however, the days of modernity, truth with a capital T, and the belief that American culture buys into an overarching metanarrative that includes Christianity are over. Doubt and suspicion now rue the day, and our teenagers are on the front lines of leading the charge into a full-fledged society that no longer possesses the muscle memory of Christianity. 

What does this mean? In terms of faith at least, doubt no longer leads to shame, but rather, your students, my students, and just about every critically thinking student out there will doubt some aspect of faith because everything about their worldview tells them to do so! No teenager takes anything at face value anymore without at least some question, some doubt, some suspicion of the biblical metanarrative. In fact, I think the opposite is now true: for a student to feel ashamed of this would seem preposterous! 

For a teenager to believe and trust the full metanarrative in one fail swoop as our grandparents perhaps did would be considered shameful by their peers for sure - certainly their educators - and most likely, even their parents.

As youth workers, we must come to a realization that the pendulum has fully swung the other direction.  

As youth workers, then, our task in the church should be to continue to create space for faith and doubt. One needs the other. Yet, we ought not feel any baggage for leading our kids into a growing relationship with Christ. You should not feel any sense of shame for potentially inciting shame because of what you believe and you do. You should feel free to teach truthful, biblically centered concepts without questioning or 'doubting' yourself and your motives. You should feel motivated to bear a faithful and true witness to the nature and essence of Christ, teaching the tough stories of the Gospel, and the validity of crazy happenings (like the resurrection) without wondering if students may spiral into shame for not readily believing these ideas. Of course they may not believe these ideas right away. Everything about their worldview - school, arts, and society - shaped them not to believe in these ideas right away.

And that's ok. Faith formation is not an overnight venture. 

What would your ministry look like if you shifted your focus from creating more room for doubt to creating more room for the truth and reality of the Gospel? 

This should be great news for us! How great that you do not need to tip toe around doubt for fear of shame. I believe this realization could free all of us to do better ministry and meet the true needs of our students and families. 

I love doubt. It is necessary for faith. It is also now part of the open conversation streams of life. So teach truth - with boldness and determined clarity!