Growing up under the watchful eye of his mom and dad, Eric loved going to church. Like most kids, he loved the songs, his teachers, and seeing his childhood friends each week. But even for a kid, church wasn’t just a social thing for Eric. He could clearly remember the summer of third grade during one evening at Vacation Bible School when it all made sense in his young mind. That night Eric gave his whole heart to Jesus. He told his parents about it and was baptized shortly after.
For Eric, Jesus and the Bible weren’t things you had to figure out or question. He had a child-like faith wherein he knew Jesus loved him and would walk with him throughout his life. The Bible was the moral compass by which he would live his life.
A few years later as Eric hit adolescence, it made sense that he would continue to grow in the faith of his childhood. He would discover even more concretely just how Jesus could make a difference to him in his high school years. He would see how his faith is a large part of what defines him.
But that’s not what happened.
His mom remembers how things changed about the time of her son’s sixteenth birthday. In the car on the way home from church one Sunday, Eric blurted out from the backseat, “Why do we think we are right and everybody else is wrong about how to get to Heaven?” Over the coming weeks his questions turned to, “Is it fair that God would send everyone else to hell just because they don’t know Jesus?” and “How do we know the Bible is real?” Pretty soon Eric didn’t want to talk much on the way home from church and seemed agitated whenever anyone else would bring up faith in daily conversation.
It all came to a head one night when his parents asked him about his plans for the youth group’s summer camp. Eric nonchalantly announced, “Mom, Dad, I think that stuff like church and Jesus is fine for you, but I’m just not sure if I believe all that anymore.” The tension in the air grew thick as his Dad’s mind spun, not knowing how to respond. His mother incredulously snapped, “What?!”
Discovery of Self in Christ
Adolescence is the phase of life for a child maturing into adulthood in which everything seems to be up for grabs. They discover new friendships, try out new interests, and develop new beliefs about everything from family to faith. Have you noticed how often their Facebook “likes” change? It’s all part of the process of your teen discovering his or her own identity. For most, it’s perfectly natural to gravitate toward a new passion one day but then drop a lifelong interest almost overnight.
A teen’s faith is a big part in the puzzle of discovering his or her newly developing identity. Many parents struggle while watching the forward-backward development of a teen’s faith. They mistakenly respond by insisting that their teenager must continue to believe exactly as they always have. Instead, teens must learn to “own” their faith as it grows to fit new situation. Similarly, they will see its legitimacy in their life as they are able to take a look at their faith from different angles.
In order for teens to solidify their faith, most of them will go through a season of searching. This could involve asking questions about other faiths or probing whether or not what their parents have taught them is real. When your teen asks hard questions about your faith, it can appear they are deconstructing everything you’ve taught them, but in reality they are making sure it has legs to stand on. Underneath the challenging words, they want to know that the faith of their youth will hold up under the scrutiny of the adult world they are learning to experience outside of mom and dad.
For teens who are seeking answers, Scripture assures us that the truth will be found. Jeremiah 29.13 reads, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” God does not make himself elusive, but finding answers to faith questions will always require a willingness to be intellectually honest on our part.
Sources of Doubt
Understanding the process and purpose for doubt can help parents guide teens into a deeper level of understanding in their faith journey. Regardless of how teens are dealing with their personal crisis of faith, it usually stems from one of three areas of doubt.
Intellectual Doubt — Growing from childhood to adulthood brings with it an ability to move from the concrete to the abstract in the cognitive process. Remember how Eric knew as a child that Jesus loved him, and it was enough? He grasped faith as a concrete concept that made sense in his concrete world. As he grew into an adolescent, his mind began to recognize abstract concepts that were not as easy to pin down or embrace. Cognitively, teens begin trying to figure out the more abstract “why” reasons behind every statement. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Why do Christians not believe in evolution?” “Why does the Bible contradict itself?” These are the types of questions the intellectual doubter needs answers to. Unfortunately, many times they either get poor answers from Christians or bad answers (which can sound convincing) from those outside the Christian faith. Instead, they need to see that Christianity can stand up to the tests of logic sound reasoning. Moreover, they need to see that God cares about the whole person, including the mind.
Emotional Doubt — Many times teenagers equate self-worth with acceptance. When they feel they aren’t enough in themselves, they assume they aren’t good enough for others either. Their feelings become their compass. This student says things like, “I pray every day, but it doesn’t ever feel like anyone is there,” or “If God cared about me, then I wouldn’t feel so (depressed, sad, lonely, etc.),” or “How could God love someone like me?” They need to see that God’s love for them is not contingent on feelings and will not change with their own self-perceptions. Additionally, this young person needs to see that because of what Christ has done on their behalf, God has declared them to be worthy even when their emotions cause them to doubt.
Experiential Doubt — This is perhaps the most difficult obstacle for students when questioning their faith. The doubts are rooted in a personal experience. This student makes statements like, “I prayed for God to make my parents stop fighting, but they haven’t. God doesn’t listen to me,” or “Christians always make me feel guilty, but they act just as bad,” or “I tried Christianity, but it didn’t work for me.” These doubters insist that they have held up their end of the bargain, but God has not. For this teen, faith has become merely a system they must fit into or a list of behaviors they must adhere to. Like Paul, they are in need of a faith that can stand apart from perfect performance.
Giving Them Room to Question
Part of your teen learning to “own their faith” is challenging them to find their own answers to the hard questions. The tricky part for a parent is to be available to be part of the process without doing the work for them. Pat answers that work for a child will rarely satisfy the mind of an adolescent.
I have to remember that it’s all part of the process. When my kids were little they experienced their first act of independence as they learned to clothe themselves. Later, they also learned how to wash those clothes, but those clothes away, and buy clothes with their own money. And from time to time, they even pushed the boundaries of appropriate ways to dress in their clothes. One of the big lessons my fourteen-year-old son has learned is if you want clean clothes tomorrow then you better wash the dirty ones today. To learn this required his mom to stop washing his clothes for him even if it meant he had to wear dirty clothes sometimes. The same is true for their faith.
As my kids entered middle school, they have each asked hard questions about their faith. Each time it has happened, my first reaction is to feel a moment of panic and an ache in the pit of my stomach. I quickly feel my mind spin to try and fit the perfect answer to their question. Then I remember that their security should not be found in me or my words but in Jesus who declared himself to be the way, truth, and life (John 14.6). So instead of being Bible-scholar Dad, I ask a question such as, “What have you found the Bible says about that?” or “Why do you think that’s true?”
It’s not comfortable or fun to hear my kids question things that I am firmly convinced are true. But they are in good company. Moses did it, Job did it, and Thomas did it. But I have assurance that God was not intimidated by Moses’ feelings, Job’s questions, or Thomas’ doubts. After their season of searching, each of them were brought to a new and deeper understanding of who God is. If you will guide them in the right direction, ask honest questions, and give space for the Holy Spirit to do his work in them, the same is likely going to be true of your teenager.
Creating a Faith that Sticks
New research out of Fuller Theological Seminary examines the long term faith of teenagers. In their study they followed hundreds of committed Christ followers from high school all the way through college. The found that about 60% of students will walk away from their faith and a great many of them will not return. But others had what they termed a “sticky” faith. When they were faced with real life hardships, temptations, and questions, their faith remained as firm as ever. There were three factors they found in most of the students with sticky faith that you have an opportunity to build into your own teen’s life experience.
Students with sticky faith are raised in a faith experience that emphasizes a relationship with Christ as opposed to an adherence to a set of rules of traditions. The second factor is a plurality of spiritually healthy adults in their life that models a love of Christ and his kingdom. But the most important factor by far in each of their lives is a parent that is willing to walk with them through their faith experience.
The season of searching can be a time of unrest for your teen, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely or fearful one. Eric’s parents may not have known how to handle his crisis of faith, but you can do it differently. If you are willing to walk with them along their faith journey, in both the good times and bad times, and are willing to surround them with a community of believers that love and encourage them, then doubts can lead to firm convictions of who they are in Christ and the plans He has for their life.
Answering Their Doubts
In order for your teen’s doubts to be answered, make sure you are not going into the discussion alone. Here are places for you to direct your teen in finding truth.
- Encourage dialogue with other mature Christians. These key people could become a safe person for your teen to ask questions of that they may feel uncomfortable asking you at the time.
- Provide resources that give answers from other people who once questioned the Christian faith. For older teens, try Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: Teen Edition and for younger adolescents, Don’t Check Your Brain at the Door by Josh McDowell. Both authors were once skeptics themselves.
- Introduce the Psalms. These short “songs” in the Bible are filled with emotion, questioning, and despair but end with a hope that God will provide answers for those who seek Him.
- Be willing to share your own times of doubts as a teen. This can be much more powerful than trying to give all the answers, and it lets them see God’s faithfulness to you.