Students need space to share their doubts. We all do. If serious questions about Christianity and uncertainty toward God are not recognized and explored, they remain in the heart and mind, only to surface farther down the road and often with greater force. Simplistic Christian responses will not suffice. “Do extra devotions” or “just have faith” don’t do justice to a student’s real struggle with doubt.
I encounter student doubt all the time. My work actually helps to surface doubts, as I raise challenges to Christianity and then explore answers in my talks. I remember when Helia, a freshman at a Christian college in Southern California, approached me after the talk I gave at a Summit Ministries student conference this past summer and shared her struggle with doubt. I was glad for her honest questions and told her as much. Why? I want students to get their doubts on the table while they’re with me. So I always allow space for questions, the starting point for dealing with doubt.
But what’s the next step? How do you help a student move from doubt to confidence in God’s truth? Here’s where some prominent voices in youth ministry are doing more harm than good. Andrew Root, coauthor of the book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, has an entire chapter on doubt titled, “Doubt and Confirmation: the Mentor as Co-Doubter.” Root seems to suggest that doubt is not something to eventually overcome.
Rather, it is an end in itself: “But what if the objective of the confirmation teacher was not to work to pass on anything but was rather to be a partner and companion in doubt? …what if the best way to actually pass on the faith was not through lessons, certainty, and knowledge, but through doubt?" (p. 194) Here's more of what Root has to say about the role of doubt in youth ministry. A recent youth ministry article entitled, “I Doubt It,” begins well, discussing the need to create safe places where students can share their doubt. But after that, what?
The authors seem to recognize that “students need to understand the basics of Christian faith in order to discuss their faith with others, and training in core beliefs (sometimes called apologetics) can be helpful.” Alright, sounds great. I’ve seen confident faith emerge in many young lives as a result of good apologetic training. But in the next sentence, they undermine the very thing they’ve just suggested. “However, learning to argue about faith may not be the most helpful approach.” So, apologetics “can be helpful,” but since it really amounts to arguing about faith, it “may not be the most helpful approach.” With that, apologetics gets a quick dismissal. And parents and youth leaders lose a valuable tool in dealing with doubt.
Thankfully, Jesus offers a different approach. In Mark 9:14-29, the father of a demon-possessed son pleads with Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” What an honest expression of doubt. And how does Jesus respond? He casts the demon out of the boy. Jesus provides evidence in the form of a miracle, confirming His claims about Himself.
What is Jesus’ response to “Doubting Thomas?” Before seeing the resurrected Jesus, Thomas declares, “Until I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into he place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:22). When Jesus first appears to Thomas, He offers evidence: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do no be unbelieving, but believing” (v. 28).
Jesus offers the way forward for students struggling with doubt. Don't shut down your students' doubts. Give them all the space they need to share them openly and honestly. Listen to them. Seek to understand them. Even cry with them. But then patiently, lovingly, diligently, and intelligently guide them to the truth. Yes, offer them apologetics. When students are given sound apologetic instruction, they discover the rich storehouse of evidence confirming the truth of Christianity. Such evidence will help them to doubt their doubts and move from unbelief to confident faith.