Talk by Dr Conrad Gempf. Part of the Youthwork Summit 'Inspire'...
How do you tell young people about Jesus when your own faith is going through the wringer?
We need to talk about some things. There are a few issues in youth ministry that for reasons of awkwardness, pride or taboo, simply never get discussed. When they do, we limit ourselves to pat answers and hypothetical, third-person examples. And because of all this awkward silence, none of these things get solved. So it’s time for some radical honesty, time to talk about the things we don’t talk about. Welcome to The Elephant Room.
The preacher stands before his congregation, and delivers a tremendous piece of exegesis. He manages to bring the ancient scriptures to vibrant life, brilliantly explaining the relevance of the passage to the congregation’s impending Monday morning at the office and the school gate. As they leave the church, they all shake his hand and pat him on the back, hugely grateful for his input into their spiritual lives. But when he retires to his study at the end of the night, their words haven’t had their intended impact. He knows something they don’t; he’s not sure he believes a word he just said.
That story might be familiar to a greater or lesser extent, but one thing’s for sure, doubt comes to us all. Often it strikes from nowhere: a response to tragedy, failure or loss. For others it builds slowly, as questions go unanswered or life continues to make little sense. However it hits, we all experience it, and for the vast majority of us, it’s a challenge from which we do recover.
If we find our faith completely on the rack, it may be that Christian leadership is the last place we need to be, because often that’s the very hardest place to seek and find God
The problem for leaders however, is that these inevitable doubts have no respect for position. The fact that we might be leading youth groups, churches, or entire organisations makes us no less immune to that middle-of-the-night moment where we ask ourselves if this whole ‘God thing’ was in our heads all along. Or perhaps we wonder if that miraculous answer to prayer was actually an extraordinary coincidence, or if heaven is really just a metaphor invented to keep us sane. Whatever the nature of the doubt, it means that at some point, we’re going to have to stand in front of a group of people and tell them about a faith that we’re no longer quite so certain of. Like that preacher, we have to pray for help from the God we’re not sure we believe in, for help explaining a book we’re not sure we trust. At least, not to the extent we did yesterday.
It doesn’t follow however, that we have to lie to young people. Even when we’re battling with our own doubts, we can tell them what the Bible says about God, and we can also be honest about the fact that at times we don’t entirely understand those things. Occasionally (although not frequently) being honest about our own doubts with young people not only helps us to avoid feeling like a fraud, it helps them to develop a more robust idea of what faith is.
Because of course, doubt is a part of faith. It’s the natural testing mechanism which helps us to realise that our beliefs are strong enough to withstand a bit of challenge. A faith which has never processed, or allowed itself any kind of doubt, risks being blown apart if and when a serious challenge hits. The Bible might say a fair few negative things about constant doubt (James says doubters are ‘Like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind’), but it also gives us some helpful pictures of how wrestling with the tough questions of faith, rather than blind acceptance, is a natural part of the journey. From the father in Mark 9 who cries, ‘I believe, help my unbelief,’ to the stories of Jacob in the Old Testament and Thomas in the New, it seems to me that doubt is a biblically recognised part of learning to fully trust God.
Which all sounds great, as long as your faith neatly pieces itself back together after an appropriate wilderness period. But what if it doesn’t? What if those doubts go on… and on? In some cases, it’s going to be better that we take a break from investing in the faith development of others, rather than force ourselves to teach them a belief system that we can’t fully subscribe to, because however well-meaning we are, the latter is deceitful and wrong. And very occasionally, if we find our faith completely on the rack, it may be that Christian leadership is the last place we need to be, because often that’s the very hardest place to seek and find God.
Whether they’re relatively trivial or truly dramatic, the best thing we can do with our doubts is to fully engage with and be really honest about them. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, we should bring them before the God we’re unsure about, just as those three biblical examples did; we should look to process them with trusted friends. Doubt is a part of faith, and one doesn’t have to bring about the death of the other.