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How authentic youth and children’s work could avoid future heartbreak

In light of Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson’s recent announcements, Ruth Jackson urges us to prioritise creating safe spaces for questions, doubts and objections

In the last few weeks we have seen two high profile Christians publicly air their doubts about the Christian faith. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye recently said in an Instagram post: “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” Within days Hillsong’s Marty Sampson, whose writing credits include O praise the name’ and King of Majesty’, also took to Instagram, saying: "Time for some real talk... I'm genuinely losing my faith…and it doesn't bother me."

I’m absolutely gutted for Joshua and Marty. I can’t imagine the confusion and pain they’re going through and our response as Christians must be compassion and prayer. But this is also a stark reminder of the importance discipling our children and young people well.

In Marty’s original post (which has since been removed), he listed some of his many unanswered questions, saying that no one talks about them. This seems to be so many people’s experience of faith – particularly as a child.

Like Joshua and Marty, I grew up in a Christian family. I had a genuine faith of my own, but I never really questioned why I believed. And I never thought to interrogate any of those beliefs.

Then I studied theology at Oxford and it felt as if every part of my faith was not only questioned, but brutally ripped apart by my atheist professors and fellow students.

Gradually, with the help of some great Christian theologians and a lot of reading the Bible, I began to put my faith back together and it actually emerged much stronger post-questioning.

But then a few months into my second year of university an old family friend tragically took his own life. It felt like the faith I’d just begun to put back together started to crumble away again. This time, my objection was emotional rather than intellectual. And again, it took a while to get back to a place where I could believe in a loving God and trust him with my life.

And I think this is the crux of most questions people have about God, no matter how they are articulated: is God loving and can I trust him?

Our children often have profound questions or doubts that are a blockage to belief in God. I don’t think any of these questions are ever asked purely from an intellectual perspective – just look at the emotion behind Marty’s posts – but we need to gently work with our young people to help them unlock some of their head barriers before we can engage their heart.

About 40 years ago there was a shift in education. Pre-mid 70s teaching largely used a ‘didactic model’ – it was very teacher-centred, lots of learning by rote. Then we gradually saw the rise of the ‘critical method,’ which is more student-centred learning and encourages children to learn by asking questions, explaining and formulating truth for themselves.

Too often in our churches and (dare I say it!) our Christian homes, we’ve just told our young people what to think and not let them have their own opinions.

But if our children are learning through this critical, questioning model at school, it doesn’t make sense for them to just be learning by rote in our youth and children’s groups and at home.

I know this makes our lives much more difficult. It means stuff is going to get messy, it means there will be a lot of questions we inevitably won’t be able to answer. It means we’ll have to leave room for our young people to disagree with each other, with us and maybe even with the leadership of the church!

But I think it’s really important that we encourage this critical approach to faith, because if they don’t get the chance to ask their honest questions, they’ll either abandon their faith – like Joshua and Marty are in danger of doing – or they’ll end up with a blind faith.

I also honestly believe – and it worked for me – that encouraging our young people’s questions will strengthen their faith in the long run and it will ensure that they are not just borrowing our faith.

On her blog about Christian parenting, Natasha Crain says: “Make no mistake: a borrowed faith leaving home can be just as dangerous as a broken faith. The result is often the same, just delayed.”She goes on to say: “The number one sign your kids are just borrowing your faith is that they rarely, if ever, ask questions.”

We’ve got to encourage our children and young people to ask questions, to grapple with their faith, to think about the difficult stuff that we’d probably rather avoid.

I’ve met some people who think that apologetics is not for teenagers and especially not for younger kids. But our young people have ideas and arguments thrown at them all the time by the beauty industry, the fashion industry, their teachers and their friends. If we don’t do apologetics with our children then somebody else will.

No young person wants to be treated as their age. When I was working in TV, we were always told to aim our content at a higher age than our target age group because kids always want to be older than they are. If we want to engage with our teenagers, we have to stop patronising them and start treating them like adults.

We’ve got to trust them with this stuff and create spaces in our homes and churches for questions, doubts and objections.

And we’ve got to trust that God is big enough to handle all of our questioning!

John Lennox, a former Oxford maths professor and an absolute wizard at answering horrible questions says that saying “I don’t know” is a powerful thing because it shows that we’re all on the same level. We shouldn’t be afraid of not knowing the answers.

Maybe we can explore some of the difficult questions with our young people and try and find answers together. But I also think we have to learn to live with the tension of loving God even when we don’t know the answers. Loving God even in the midst of the doubt.

It’s that Lamentations 3:23 thing: “I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness.”

Let’s point our children and young people to the amazing hope that we have. Let’s pray they have genuine and profound encounters with the author of this hope. And let’s provide a safe space for them where they can always bring their questions, doubts and objections.