An apologist’s response
I want to commend Phoebe and her team for their research on this topic. Their findings are informative, but not completely surprising in light of my experience of working with young people – even those with a strong Christian upbringing. The article stimulates three wider considerations for understanding the faith of children and young people.
The importance of helping teenagers think
One of the greatest gifts we can give our young people is the ability to think for themselves. There is a broader cultural discussion about whether our current methods of education are actually teaching our children to think, or simply telling them what they need to know in order to pass exams. The latter approach can also happen in youth ministry, where in our (commendable) enthusiasm to have teenagers believe the ‘right’ things, we start telling them what to believe. The problem with this approach is that, although our young people may ‘believe’ the things we want them to, they don’t do so out of personal conviction. This type of faith only survives when such influences remain complementary. The moment they are challenged, an adopted faith is in trouble.
We need to show our young people that the Christian faith is cultivated, rather than compromised, by asking questions. Giving young people space to think is inevitably risky because it involves exposing them to alternative ideas and belief systems, and there is no guarantee what they will do with such exposure. Nevertheless, it will enable them to cultivate a faith that is not only their own, but also one which is robust enough to weather the questions they will inevitably face from those who do not share their worldview.
The importance of a questioning environment
We need to create space for questions. Young people are very good at reading the cultural environment they find themselves in and conforming to it. If home or youth ministry is not an environment in which questions, challenges and alternative opinions are being welcomed, explored and handled respectfully, it’s unlikely that teenagers are going to think about whether they have questions, never mind pluck up the courage to ask them.
I can remember one youth event when I decided to do an ‘Ask any question’ slot instead of a talk. To my discouragement, the young people were either not able to think of questions or completely indifferent to asking them. It wasn’t because they didn’t have questions. It was because we had never really done this before. It had caught the teenagers unawares and unprepared. When we started to make big questions more regular the young people got comfortable with the concept and we discovered that they had endless questions to ask and thoroughly enjoyed asking them.
I would go even further than Phoebe in saying that we do not just need safe spaces within youth ministry to allow young people to ask questions. We need to integrate these qualities into the everyday fabric of our culture, in which leaders respect a young person’s individual needs and spiritual journey and model in themselves the reality of building faith by exploring (and never suppressing) our questions.
The importance of showing the relevance of questions
Youthscape’s research also brought to mind the need to demonstrate the relevance of big questions to young people. Perhaps the problem with a Grill a Christian type event is that it already assumes that young people see the relevance of worldview issues. This research suggests this is not always the case. It may mean we need to start a little further back by helping our children and young people to realise why big questions matter in the first place.
Most people struggle to engage with any topic that they don’t really feel affects them. But the moment you put your finger on something they really care about, just watch how engaged they get! The young people in this research appeared most engaged with religious questions / activity when it had clear relevance for them in terms of their dying loved ones. We need to explore creative and stimulating ways that help our young people see the connection between big questions and the things that really matter to them at this point in their lives. If we can do that, the questions will come.