When I began my teaching career I began each year asking my students to write about their reasons for believing—or in some cases, not believing—in Jesus. I never expected them to really articulate much of anything. Some managed to write some great reasons, but most were left repeating phrases they heard in their elementary years in church. But I was okay with that, because that wasn’t the point. I didn’t really intend for them to write much. The point was to simply create a specific kind of culture in my classrooms. I wanted to create a culture of questions.
Every one of your students have questions. There is no way around it, and there is no way of avoiding it, so please don’t. Students need to feel a part of a community and culture where questions are encouraged and answered. Keep in mind there are students who have been raised to believe that to doubt and question is to have insufficient faith. However, questions and doubts can be incredibly productive when it leads to answers and certainty. Create a culture that encourages students to ask the tough questions and then explore answers together.
The brain of a teenager is developing incredible fast, taking in tremendous amounts of information at lightening fast speeds. The faith many of our students were introduced to in elementary school changes almost overnight as they approach middle school. Which of course creates an unending stream of questions that demands an answer. Although I don’t have the space here to provide you with every answer to every question I can think of, I created five categories of questions that I believe capture many of our students top concerns when it comes to their faith.
Questions of Existence
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that students may question the actual existence of God. Not necessarily on the grounds of a rational belief, but simply because the absence of a physical presence and the possible limited experience of him would create the natural questioning of whether or not God is there. These kinds of questions from students are not much more than a more sophisticated version of a young child’s inquiry of God. Depending on the development of abstract thought students at times will have difficulty wrapping their minds around the idea of God’s existence.
The question of existence, as students get older, becomes a question of origins and explanation. If somehow I can know God is there, then I can readily explain the existence of the universe, creation, my sin and mortality, etc. If I can’t know, then I am forced to rely solely on science for answers. Which of course is not only limited in its explanation of the universe, but will result in a series of answers far different from church. So you might see where questions of existence left unanswered can created a myriad of problems in the minds of our students. This creates a critical need to address these kinds of questions head on.
Questions of Plausibility and Reliability
There is no shortage of secular scholarship selling the notion that Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax, the Bible cannot be trusted, and the Old Testament is nothing more than mythical tellings of an ancients people’s understanding of the forces of nature. For example, Bart Ehrman, former Christian, New Testament scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina has argue extensively for many years that mainstream evangelical Christianity has Jesus all wrong. According to Ehrman, Jesus is not the Son of God, the Bible cannot be trusted as the inspired Word, and the resurrection belongs on the shelves next to other works of mythology.
If our students don’t know any better, scholars and authors like Ehrman sound real convincing and can send even the most committed students into a faith crisis. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover that Jesus is not only a real historical figure, but there is plenty of data beyond the pages of Scripture and even other early Christian writings concerning Jesus. Similarly, what if we could know that the Bible we read is accurate and a reliable record of history and theology? It is. What if, despite the seemingly impossibility of the resurrection, the historical evidence actually showed Jesus raising from the dead three days after being put to death, was the most likely scenario? It is.
If the Bible is going to be the ultimate source for truth in our lives and the lives of our students, then they need to be confident that what they read is actually true. Consider for moment our culture’s current moral condition. Our culture is overwhelming condoning and even celebrating sexual expression of every variety, while the Bible clearly condemns any sexual activity beyond what happens between a man and a woman inside the bond of marriage. Who are our students listening to? Even the nature of sin itself. According to the Bible, sin has tainted every last thing, especially the hearts of humanity. Yet culture, has unequivocally declared a belief in the inherent goodness of all people. Who our students believe will directly inform how they choose to live. When your students understand that what is in the Bible is a reliable source for truth, they are much more likely to live it out.
Questions concerning pain and evil
Every time I ask students for questions about their faith. Questions about pain, evil, suffering, etc. are always at the top of the list. Apologists commonly call this the problem of evil or the problem of pain. But the questions take all kinds of forms and originate from all types of people and circumstances.
“Why did God allow this to happen to me?”
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”
“If God exists, then how come there is so much evil in the world?”
“If God were good, then he wouldn’t allow evil to exist?”
The list seems endless. But these questions are generally either philosophical in nature or much more personal. It’s the difference between asking, “why does God allow evil?” and “why did God allow my sister to be raped?” Allow students to ask the question and you’ll quickly find a number of layers that often exist below the surface.
Questions of pain and evil can be—and often are—incredibly personal. And whether we realized it or not, ignoring the questions sends the clear message to our students that there is no answer. Perhaps God isn’t in control after all, or worse he doesn’t care. Their solution is to find answers elsewhere because in their minds, the church has failed them.
Maybe that slippery slope is a bit extreme. But to be sure I want to stress the importance of pastoring our students through these kinds of questions. There are good answers for why there is evil, why some people experience incredible pain and suffering while others don’t, and why God allows it all to happen.
Questions of Truth
Every time I have the opportunity to speak to a group of students on the topic of truth, I am always surprised at how engaged they are. It’s almost as it they already know that culture is selling something they aren’t willing to buy into just yet. They want to hear more. They want to make a more informed decision. I generally walk them through what truth is, the difference between subjective and objective truth, and why relativism doesn’t work. The vast majority of students leave the room encouraged. Not only that truth exists, but that it can be known.
Questions of Depth
I had the privilege of teaching in schools that served many different denominations all at once. So at any given time, I could have a classroom with Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Non-denominational, Church of God, Church of Christ, even the church of “I don’t really know.” I learned that what can hold up the spiritual growth of our students are the deeper theological questions. It might be as complex as trying to understand the complexity of the Trinity, the debate about if one can lose their salvation, or the hypostatic union of Jesus. They are hard to learn and even harder to teach, but absolutely cannot be ignored.
Don’t be afraid of going deeper with your students. We will get into this much more in the next chapter, but let me make a few comments here first. Never underestimate the ability of your students to think deeper and more critically. They are taught to do in school, so when the church fails to connect a students faith with their intellect, we are devaluing and de-prioritizing their faith. We absolutely must teach our students to connect the Christian worldview with education, politics, science, and history. One of the most straight-forward ways of doing that is introducing apologetics into your ministry and home life
As youth leaders, pastors, and parents it is our God-ordained responsibility to help our students see not only that there are reasons, but point them to the best possible resources. It’s critical that we continue to educate ourselves, search for the answers to our own questions and the questions of our students.