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I’ve Seen a Thing or Two,
Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies

“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This is the tag line of what I believe is one of the most effective marketing campaigns over the last year. A veteran State Farm representative always delivers the line after highlighting an interesting, almost unbelievable story of a mishap that State Farm has faithfully covered in the past.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” is a tag line I can identify with after 42 years in youth ministry. Over four decades, there were times when I was convinced that I had seen it all only to be surprised, once again, by cultural shifts or movements which seemed newly birthed by the Holy Spirit. At these times, I knew I could resist or in humility be open to change. I’m still trying to learn that if you are not willing to change, you love yourself more than the truth. One thing I’m certain about is that there is never an arriving.

Life with Christ is always a journey requiring continual and relational discernment and openness to God’s future breaking in on us. Few would disagree that our current cultural realities are not fraught with confusing dissonance and stressful civil conflict. Yet, it is in the midst of this very cultural milieu that we must work out our faith, seek understanding, engage in serious theological reflection and passionately proclaim a hope-filled Gospel.

As a youth minister, I am extremely grateful for theological conversation partners and resources that help me navigate through what it means to practice youth ministry in our cultural context in a way that leads to Christian formation of young people. Andy Root’s book Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

In the genre of youth ministry books two of the following three things are normative. 1) A quirky, clever title that is culturally relevant. 2) Important content providing help in dealing with the emerging generation of young people. 3) A theologically robust, conversation-moving discourse that is really for the whole church, not just youth ministry.

While many youth workers are ok with two out of three ain’t bad, more and more of us are not. Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is a theologically robust, conversation-moving book important for the whole church, not just youth ministry. And yet, I wonder, will Andy’s book be accessible to youth workers? After all, that is the targeted reader. I don’t wonder because I think youth workers aren’t intellectually curious or committed to the discipline of study. I wonder because too often the youth ministry environments in which we minister are pragmatically focused, program driven and action oriented, leaving little time for theological reflection and face to face encounter with the young people we minister with.

I’m concerned about the state of youth ministry and youth workers when we don’t give serious attention to books like Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies. While I’m proud that a book of this caliber is written for my vocation of youth ministry, I actually wish this book were titled, Ministry to Emerging Generations in a Scientific Age, or something like that so more people in ministry would read this important work, instead of just youth workers. And I’m concerned that a youth worker drawn to read it because of it’s catchy title might stop reading when the challenging content unfolds in the book.

This book is really critical for all youth workers to read, contemplate and learn. The issue of the relationship between science and faith is really important. We have been confronted by many studies revealing the perceived conflict between science and faith as a leading reason why many young people feel that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for them and the broader culture. When a church community articulates a narrative that either science or the bible is true but they can’t both be true, it leads to an unfortunate exit ramp for many. Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

For many others the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the way they interpret the bible, results in a plan to avoid the subject and pretend a tension between science and faith doesn’t exist. This course leads to a faith that looks foolish to the broader culture for all the wrong reasons.

Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

I am grateful that, Andy Root, whom I believe to be a world-class practical theologian and Christian thinker, has continued to write books and engage in theological reflection for youth ministry. Along with new theological work concerning faith formation in a scientific age, Root also strives to make it accessible and practical to youth workers by weaving a storyline of youth ministry life in between chapters on science and theology.

The narrative woven throughout the book focuses on Jared, a 12-year youth ministry veteran who is trying to determine if he is going to continue in youth ministry or move into a new role in the church.

Aly is a 24 year old, who Jared watched grow up in his church but who is now in a full blown crises of faith feeling that science is more reliable and logical than the idea of a God that we can’t see.

Martin is a current high school youth group kid who has a vivid imagination and believes that mass extinction is on the horizon because ecological science, evolution and The Walking Dead point to a coming apocalypse. He wonders if God will intervene.

Sasha is a middle school student who is super smart and wrestling with how to integrate faith and physics. Sasha doesn’t want to embrace a belief system so feeble that science has to be viewed as an enemy of faith.

Sarah is a youth worker from another church who is dealing with the issue of Science and Faith in a different manner than Jared, so we get to consider other youth ministry contexts.

Jared also has to deal with a host of parents who often have a quite different way of seeing the world than their child. Those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know what it’s like to encounter an anxious parent. Anxious parents of the kids in our churches can range from the parent who hopes that you can help their kid through this stage of life without falling off the deep end to the parent whose anxiety leads them to blame the youth worker for all that is wrong in their world. Often this doesn’t go well and the horror stories youth workers tell are legendary.

Few issues, except maybe sexuality, can stir up a parent like science, especially if you find yourself in a church where creationism is a view held by many. Root’s book is more geared toward a post-liberal mainline and a progressive evangelical context. Should evangelical youth workers read Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies? YES! If you are in a typical evangelical church you might be trying to convince yourself, “The youth I work with aren’t asking these kinds of questions.” If you believe this, I think the reason why is that your youth for some reason have chosen not to raise these kinds of critical questions in the place where they should – your church. They may hold their questions because they know how politically incorrect it is in your church. And yet, few issues are more important for the Christian formation of young people than the relationship between science and faith, and science and the Bible.

Why Young Christians are Leaving Church

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group wrote a book entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The book was based on research pulled from eight national studies. According to the Barna Group, the national studies, included “…interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”[1]

Kinnaman’s book focuses on six themes that he thinks most impacts the disengagement of late adolescents with their churches. I think four of the six themes are directly related to the content Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies deals with. They are:

Churches seem overprotective.

Kinnaman argues that the reality is that today’s adolescents and young adults have unparalleled exposure to worldviews. When a narrow-minded, overly contextualized and limited view of faith restricts their understanding of a broader world context this is deemed irrelevant and parochial by the emerging generation. While they feel disappointed with their churches, they often believe that God has a more gracious view of the world than their church. According to the research cited, “one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said, Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”

Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Young people want to engage in a faith that deals with real life issues. They are not afraid of issues that are not clearly black and white. They are drawn to a faith that encounters the other with love and inclusion. Many don’t feel that the Bible is hanging by a literal thread and therefore requires us to defensively ignore new information that is constantly emerging.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

From a summary of the findings of the Barna Study and the content of Kinnaman’s book  “a big reason young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ’Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”[2]

The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

For youth workers who have focused deeply on classic Christian formation of young people, we know that there is no strong faith without good doubt. Good doubt that is properly wrestled with is vital to the Christian life. There is so much fear in so a majority of our churches today that the idea of creating an environment that is a safe place for young people to express their doubts is very threatening to many church leaders, parents and grandparents. This unfortunately leads to an inability to walk with young people through their intellectual doubts and the struggles they are having trying to make meaning out of their lives and the reality they are experiencing.

Of course, the above statistics stated by Barna research could and should be challenged. And for every study that states that the conflict between science and faith leads to young people feeling disillusioned about the church or concluding that faith is irrelevant, there are opinions or studies stating the solution to fix the problem is to double down on discipleship in order to turn these trends around.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life.

Root works hard in this book to present real youth ministry complexities in a scientific age. He engages in deep scholarship to present philosophical and theological dialogue with science.  He spends a lot of time carefully helping the reader understand that while many in our culture define science as “objective” and faith as “subjective” the reality is that both science and faith are socially constructed. Root knows that one of the most powerful statements in our culture is “Science says, …” The Social Practice of Scientism declares a position of “non-biased objectivity.” The Social Practice of conservative Evangelicalism declares a position of “Objective Truth.” A rigid social practice of Christianity smirks at the “objectivity of science” position and believes that the absolute truth of the bible always forces a checkmate on science. Root goes after both of these arrogant positions and invites us out of the battle between scientism and a faith built upon certitude.

The most wonderful part of Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, however is the truly extraordinary section of the book where Root explores reasons the Scientific Revolution occurred in the Christian West and not in another part of world civilization. Root fleshes out the story of Athanasius dealing with the challenge of Arianism and the consequent development of the Nicene Creed describing Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted orthodox Christian statement of faith, embraced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and most forms of Protestantism.

Root takes considerable care to describe how the work of Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, is picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus were able to profoundly and creatively work out the theological basis for the Nicene Creed, particularly how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine. Root, building on the work of Scottish Theologian Thomas Torrance, fleshes out the brilliance of the Cappadocian fathers working out the hypostatic union, Trinity as the three in one and one in three, while showing how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine of one substance (ousia) and being with the Father but differentiated by a being that is constituted relationally. This formula developed by the Cappadocian’s is beautiful, paradoxical and mysterious all at the same time. But Root shows how this kind of thinking, which shaped the imagination and mental constructs of the western mind, ultimately led to an epistemological framework that gave birth to the scientific revolution.

Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is ultimately about faith, seeking understanding. A flourishing faith is one that passionately seeks deeper understanding. I don’t believe this book is just about helping young people find answers to their big questions and seek understanding for the formation of their faith. I want youth workers to read this book because I believe it will also expand their faith in the midst of this scientific world in which we live.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life. Of course, not every conversation with young people will focus on the finely tuned universe or the big bang but when these conversations happen they are often seminal, epic, shaping the imagination and faith journey for a lifetime. Are you prepared for these moments?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/ accessed November 26, 2017

[2] Ibid.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.

What About the Dinosaurs?
Questions of Faith & Science

Each year my wife and I lead membership classes at the church where we serve as pastors. This past year we had a twelve-year-old boy ask about as earnest a question as I’ve ever heard in any study, class, group, or program. He asked, “But what about the dinosaurs?” As he continued talking, it became apparent that the question behind his question was this, “If God created the world exactly as is written, where do dinosaurs enter and exit the history of the world, and why can’t I find them in the Bible?” It was a big, and meaningful question. Perhaps the question really was, “If dinosaurs don’t appear in the Bible, can I trust that it’s actually true?” Big questions for a twelve-year-old, and yet not uncommon at all.

What about the dinosaurs? It’s one of many meaningful and earnest scientific questions that our youth and young adults are asking in the church and of the church; and sadly, I don’t think we’re always offering well thought out, meaningful answers. Was the world created in six, literal, twenty-four hour days, or did the universe evolve over millions of years? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was there really a flood? Are miracles real? Why am I here? How does it all end?

These are just a few of many questions that are being asked by youth as they grow up and interact with the world around them. Again, the question behind many of the questions is: “What is the meaning of life and where do I fit into it?” This is the crucial question we live our lives trying to answer. We might not all ask it in the same way or come to the same conclusion, but we’re all trying to figure out how we fit into the world around us.

In The Transforming Vision, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton suggest that everyone has a worldview which includes four basic questions: “Who Am I? Where am I? What’s Wrong? What is the Remedy?”[1] Sadly, I think these questions expose a truth about the church—it is largely unsafe to express doubt in church.

Why Might This Be the Case?

The opening scene depicted in Mark Clark’s book, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenge to Christianity, comically captures the popular idea that science and religion are fundamentally opposed. He writes,

How often have we turned on the television and heard the host say, “Tonight we will be talking about faith versus science. Or first guest is a former University of Oxford professor, evolutionary biologist, and bestselling author. He believes that science, not faith, holds the answers to all questions. On the other side of the aisle we have Joe Smith, who will speak for the legitimacy of faith and Christianity. Joe home schools his kids, thinks Oprah is the Antichrist, and lives in a swamp.[2]

This is the common myth: science and faith, like oil and water, simply don’t mix. Science is based on cold, hard fact, while faith is based on hopeful fantasy. Sadly, this idea permeates the church when we don’t offer a forum for questions to be asked and meaningful answers sought. Instead, and too often, we offer one answer, “the Bible tells me so,” and without realizing it we communicate to our youth and young adults that there is no place for questions or doubt within the church. When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth. Instead, we fear doubt and pretend it doesn’t exist or that it can be explained away with simple answers. In the process, we alienate those who are asking the tough questions and expecting meaningful answers.

What is Doubt?

Doubt is a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction. Interestingly, older definitions also include the word fear. I want to suggest that doubt is a problem in the church today, not because it necessarily leads to disbelief, a lack of faith, or a turning away from the church, but rather because we’re raising up a generation that doesn’t know what to do with its doubt. The church, I believe, has wrongly associated doubt with disbelief; thinking it is one step on the necessary path to atheism, or worse, leaving the church. In this sense, doubt has become something to avoid and fear. If, on the other hand, we were to embrace doubt, would we rather see an increase and flourishing of faith? The science and religion discussion, I think, opens up a conversation around a more fundamental issue in the church, “How do we deal with our doubt?” And more to the point of this post, “How do we encourage our youth to express and explore their doubt?”

When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth.

Doubt, rightly understood, can be a church term—a theological term that helps us understand God, the world, and our unique place inside of creation. Doubt helps foster faith, but only if it is engaged. When the twelve-year-old, or anyone for that matter, asks the question, “What about the dinosaurs,” the youth leader is faced with their own question, “Do I lean in and embrace the potential for doubt or do I shy away in fear of doubt?” When we engage doubt we create the environment for our youth and young adults to sharpen their faith. Doubt acts like a catalyst for greater faith to grow. If, on the other hand, we fear doubt, we create an environment where it is unsafe to ask questions and where we hinder the growth of faith. So, there really are two kinds of doubt; good doubt and bad doubt. Good doubt is used to foster faith and it arises when doubt is engaged. Bad doubt, on the other hand, is a doubt that is left largely unaddressed and unengaged.

The problem as I see it is that we don’t give ample space for our children, youth and young adults to ask meaningful scientific questions about reality. In doing so we inadvertently maintain their child-like faith with childish answers. When we avoid these questions in the church, people looks to find answers elsewhere. They often turn to science for answers to their questions about life and death. Ask any teenager what books they’re reading or podcasts they’re listening to and more often than not it will be a science based program.[3] One of the main reasons this happens is because by its very nature, science is a process of asking questions and seeking answers. It is safe to ask questions of science. What we need to seriously reflect on is whether it is safe to ask those same questions of faith.

So the burden largely falls on the church to develop strategies for engaging the questions, doubts, and scientific interests of its children, youth, and young adults. One such strategy might be reclaimed from science itself, the scientific method, which is founded on the first step of asking meaningful questions.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is the process by which scientific experiment is carried out. It involves formulating questions based on observations, making hypothesis, deriving predictions for logical consequences, and carrying out experiments to prove or refute the original hypothesis. 1. Begin with a question: “Why is the sky blue?” 2. Develop a hypothesis: Because light refracts through gaseous particles in the atmosphere. 3. Develop an experiment: Shine light through a solution of water and milk demonstrating that the blue light is scattered further than the other colors within the light spectrum making it visible.

My rudimentary (at best) scientific knowledge aside, what is apparent in the scientific experiment is a deep rooted hunger for knowledge and understanding. What I want to suggest is that it is that very spirit that we need to reclaim within the church today. In a sense, we need to reclaim the scientific method within the church; a fearlessness to address questions that might raise doubts about the things we believe.

A Potential Starting Point

As we continue to do faithful  ministry in the local church, we need to reclaim the spirit of the scientific method and ask bold questions. As pastors and leaders we need to be the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that the Bible doesn’t contain every single answer to every single scientific question that can be raised. Humility, I believe, is the first step in embracing a culture within the church where there can be open and honest conversation about doubt, science and faith. Humility deescalates and disarms conflict, largely before it has even begun. Humility is also the very spirit that allows us to ask questions, for by asking questions we admit that there are things we do not yet know. When we address doubt from a place of humility we convey that it is safe to have meaningful discussion without a fear of judgement.

In the ministry I lead, one of our values is “No question is off limits.” It doesn’t mean we’ll answer all of the questions that come our way, or that we need to know the answers to every single question that can be asked. It does mean that we work hard to create a culture that embraces questions and isn’t afraid of searching for answers. If we are to steward the faith of the next generation well, we need to embrace dialogue between science and religion. We need to create cultures and environments where no question is off limits. We need to lean into doubt and recognize it as a crucial part of Christian formation.

Here are five things you can do right now to create environments for youth and young adults to ask questions, explore doubt, and foster faith.

5 Things You Can Do Right Now

1. Commit to the hard and sometimes awkward conversations

When we commit to the awkward conversation and awkward places in ministry, we do justice to people’s doubt and honor their process of learning and engaging with God.

2. Practice humility

Humility, I believe, is the best place from which to have awkward conversations. Acknowledging that it’s okay to struggle with doubt and okay to ask difficult questions is the starting point for dialogue.

3. No questions are off limits

We can communicate in many different ways that certain questions are off limits; explicitly and implicitly. One of the things I’m convinced of more and more is that youth and children especially need to know what is on the table and what is off the table. They need consistency. We need to affirm and reaffirm that there are no questions we won’t address and that every question is an opportunity for growth — both for the leader and the youth.

4. Pastor people through their doubt

Doubt is a part of a developing spiritual life. Pastoring people through their doubt well necessarily means leaning into doubt and embracing it rather than fearfully avoiding topics that might create or address doubt. The best practice is to approach it as a non-anxious presence, ready and willing to have meaningful discussion around issues of faith, science, and doubt.

5. Invite your parents to do the same

Again, we want to communicate a consistent message that doubt is okay and the church is a safe place to ask questions. Inviting the parents of our youth and children into the same awkward conversations gives consistency to that message. It is important to continually invite parents into the faith development of their children and youth. So equip your parents to sit well inside of the tensions that arise out of meaningful questions. They’ll be glad you did.

[1] Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Transforming Vision 35

[2] Mark Clark, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptics Challenge to Christianity

[3] If you look at the top 10 most downloaded podcasts the list continues to include shows like “Stuff You Should Know,” and “RadioLab” which include conversations surrounding science and the meaning of life.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM


About the Author: Grant Vissers

Grant Vissers is a husband and pastor at St. Paul’s Leaskdale North of Toronto. Growing up he wanted to be anything but a pastor. Really, anything. After graduating high school he finally accepted that he was being called into ministry.

Along the way Grant worked at camp for seven years and as a worship pastor for two in Montreal, Canada. In 2014, he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with his Master of Divinity degree and stepped back into ministry, but not before getting married in July 2014.

He loves Jesus and believe that even if you’ve given up on the church, God hasn’t given up on you.

 

Encouraging Curiosity in our Youth

“Rachael, can I ask you a question?” I looked up to see Michael standing there wearing a look somewhere between concerned and curious. All the other high school kids had left youth group for the evening and Michael was not usually one to stay behind.

“Of course, Michael. Of course, you can ask me a question,” I replied.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I need to ask you….okay…it’s just that..I’m wondering…” I held my breath, doing everything I could to keep a smile on my face; Michael’s nerves were contagious and were putting me on edge.

“It’s just that I need to know something. If Noah’s boat landed in like Afghanistan or something…how the heck did the penguins get to Antarctica?” I paused. It was one of those moments in youth ministry where you know you have to tread lightly. The answers to such questions, weirdly, mean a lot to a young person’s understanding of who they are, who God is, and our origins. These questions actually get to the core of our existence. On the surface, it seems like a silly question, but it’s not – Michael’s question is, actually, a rather serious one.

What Michael was really asking me was – does the Bible make sense? Is it really true? Is it fact? Because it’s hard to fit it into a modern understanding of the world.

Michael has been part of the church a long time. He has gone to Christian schools his entire schooling. He knows the Genesis story front to back. Michael was also raised in the Episcopal Church, a denomination that leans a little more progressive and is constantly living atop a three-tiered stool of reason, faith and tradition. His adolescent brain and earnest Christian heart were doing their best to bring it all together.

With college less than a year away, Michael told me that he knows he’s going to leave his comfortable bubble and enter into an unknown world. He will likely go to a large public university and he’s afraid that once he gets there, people will be all around him with different understandings of how the world works. In light of new information and new experiences, he worries he’ll leave his faith behind.

“So, I feel like now is my time to ask all these questions I thought were too stupid or silly to ask before. Because maybe they actually matter, ya know?” he asked.

If only all seventeen-year-olds were so articulate.

What not to do

It could be tempting to shrug Michael’s question off as silly. It could be tempting to try to give him all the answers. It could be tempting to insist Michael be careful when asking questions because it could lead down a slippery slope of doubt and loss of faith. It would have been simpler for me to say to Michael, “Michael, you don’t need to worry about these questions. God will take care of you! You just need to trust that God’s Word is true and hand it over in prayer.”

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith.

The problem with that response, is that Michael would have missed out on some much better lessons, and I would have missed out on an opportunity to pastor Michael through his questions. And, ultimately, this response is about as unhelpful as they come. This kind of response provides nothing for Michael’s spiritual development, and nothing for Michael’s struggle to reconcile faith with reason.

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith. If we encourage our youth to build their faith on a black and white understanding of scripture – one that fully depends on a literal Biblical worldview – then we are creating a lot of opportunity for instability in our youths’ faith foundation. Imagine one block of your youth’s faith tower is “don’t be curious,” and another is “evolution is false” and “the Big Bang theory is antithetical to a Biblical understanding of the world,” and so on and so on. Then imagine they learn compelling evidence which supports evolution – that block gets pulled out of the tower. Then imagine they hear compelling evidence for the Big Bang Theory – now that block has been pulled out. As more blocks get pulled out it’s easy to imagine the whole tower crumbling.

Asking the Big Questions

Michael has a point. Eventually, the youth we are walking with grow up, and go out into the world. If we’ve done our jobs, they know Jesus loves them; they know we love them; and they know a thing or two about following Christ. But did they have an opportunity to ask the big questions? Was your youth group a safe space for them to truly wonder aloud?

Andy Root in his new book about youth ministry and science, “Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies,” articulates well the idea that science and faith, in many ways, are asking the same questions. We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith. Andy writes, “The overlap between faith and the scientific happens at this epistemic level. It was indeed the epistemic drive, born from their faith, that led Galileo…to passionately seek the shape of reality (p. 123).”

We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith.

Science asks big questions, and seeks out answers using a system of methods. Our middle and high schoolers sit in science class – whether it’s biology, chemistry or anatomy – and learn a lot about our universe and world. They are being given a lot of opportunities at school to ask big questions about our world, and are then given tools to answer those questions. I believe our faith communities should be doing the same thing – but how? Below are four suggestions on how to get the ball rolling.

1. Be curious

In his book Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that one of the marks of adolescence is curiosity. As adults, we tend to lose our sense of curiosity and settle into what we know (or what we think we know). In fact, healthy adults maintain their curiosity. While as youth ministers we should not be childish, I would insist that it is equally important to be child-like. Wonder at the world; wonder at scripture; wonder at God. Wonderment is a wonderful way to venture into curiosity. Wow those stars are amazing! What are they? How far away are they? Do you remember learning about stars in school? Do you remember learning they are millions of lightyears away? Do you remember learning that when we see the stars we are literally looking at the past? How amazing is that?

We know all these things because someone was curious enough to ask the question and scientifically found the answers. Your adolescents are curious about the world, the universe, God, existence – all of it. And so I would encourage you to be curious too. Meet them where they are at in their curiosity. Let yourself wonder and then create opportunities for you and your community of youth to wonder out loud together.

2. Talk don’t tell

It can be tempting as youth ministers to tell, not talk. What I mean is, we can fall into a pattern of trying to teach and directly influence kids, instead of walking alongside them in their adolescent journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with teaching our youth. Especially teaching them Biblical literacy, or about the traditions of our denomination, but we miss out on a different kind of learning when we spend all our time giving lesson after lesson.

For the youth community I lead, some of our most meaningful times together have been open discussions about the big questions. Recently, our high school group discussed creation. Instead of going straight to scripture, I asked them what they are taught about creation through science, and what they think scripture teaches us about creation. I had a senior in high school say she doesn’t think you can be a Christian and believe the Big Bang in the same conversation with a freshman who said she thinks you can believe the Big Bang Theory and still believe God is our creator. We started our discussion there, then I gave them time to read through Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.

I prodded the conversation with more questions, but they also came up with more questions on their own, and I mostly got out of the way. We ended with a discussion on what to do with the two creation stories in Genesis. “Even if you don’t believe the stories about creation in Genesis are fact, what do these stories teach us about God? And what do they teach us about ourselves?” I asked them. I believe one of the greatest favors we can do for our youth, is to teach them how to ask questions. If you want to be a youth community that asks big questions, provide opportunities for discussion amongst your youth. Not only will everyone learn a lot, it’s a lot of fun.

3. Set some guidelines for discussion

If you’re going to encourage open discussion in your youth group, it’s helpful to have some guidelines. I did interfaith work at the University of North Florida for four years, and we used the same guidelines at each of our dialogue events. I find the following especially helpful in a youth ministry setting, but encourage your youth to come up with their own!

One mic, one diva: Maybe it’s just my youth (though I seriously doubt it), but listening to others is still something they’re learning and aren’t always good at. It’s helpful to remind them that whoever is speaking “has the mic” and they are the diva for that time. Everyone’s eyes should be on them. Using a talking stick or “mic” can actually be helpful if your group is into it. Some people also call this the “two ears, one mouth” guideline. Everyone has two ears and one mouth, so we can listen more and talk less.

Vegas Rule: Sometimes in these open discussions people are afraid of sounding dumb, or asking a dumb question, or sharing an unpopular opinion. Assure them that everything that is said in the room, stays in the room!

Disagree, don’t debate: Don’t be afraid of a little disagreement. We learn so much when there is disagreement. Just remind everyone that a little disagreement is great, but when it turns into a debate, it has stopped being productive. We’re here to share our ideas and questions as a community, not convince each other of our point of view.

I-statements: Using I-statements helps many people in the room from being defensive and it also helps encourage healthy disagreement. For example, say, “I disagree,” not, “you’re wrong.” Statements like “I believe,” “I think,” or “I wonder” can be more helpful than stating opinions or positions as facts.

These are just a few – ask your youth what they think would be helpful guidelines for discussion in your group!

4. Don’t be afraid of doubt

Sometimes I think we can be so afraid of the doubt in our kids that we shy away from any questions at all. We teach so much because we’re afraid of their conclusions. We might insist the Bible has a singular thing to say about creation, or about our origins, in order to avoid confusion. Here’s the truth – your youth can handle nuance! They can handle multiple truths! They can handle complicated ideas! Here’s the other truth – they still might doubt a little!

When we read about Peter walking on water, we tend to focus on his doubt rather than his curiosity. He was the only one in the boat who wanted to know if it was Jesus out there on the water bad enough to risk stepping out. Ultimately, his curiosity gave him the opportunity to walk on water (something that is scientifically impossible by the way!).  Then the waves got big and he thinks to himself “Oh no, I am walking on water in a storm!” and he begins to doubt, only then does he start to sink. But you know what is amazing about that? Jesus catches him! Peter’s doubt is not too big for Jesus. Allow your youth to know that even if all their questions spark a bit of doubt in them – Jesus is there the whole way (and so are you!).

Ultimately, help your kids embrace mystery. They’re not going to understand everything at once, and neither are you, and isn’t there beauty and joy in that? Part of our role as youth ministers is to create a community of youth who grow in Christ together, and to empower them so that when they leave youth group they have all the tools they need to follow Christ in the world. What better way to do that than to explore questions of science and faith together? To give them a safe space to doubt and question? Allow their curiosity to grow, to flourish – allow them to see that a wonderful way to be in relationship with God is to wonder at the expansive universe God created.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.
The Dangerous Grace of Doubt - Andrew Zirschky

Video: The Dangerous Grace of Doubt

Andrew Zirschky gave this presentation, titled The Dangerous Grace of Doubt, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Andrew’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.

Transcript:

So her name was Alexia but all her friends knew her as Lex, and Lex was really one of the success stories in my ministry when I was in Idaho. The story was, basically, she had a come with a friend during one of those crazy outreach events that we always say draw kids in but never really do and yet her she was. And she found faith in the midst of the ministry. The only person in her family, even her extended family that was Christian at all. She literally came from a place of having no understanding of faith to a vibrant faith. And one of the last things that I did in youth ministry before I l eft to go to seminary, was I had the opportunity to baptize Lex in the Salmon river, the rushing waters of the Salmon river surrounding us, her friends were there and it was just this amazing celebration.

And then 4 years later, while I was doing a project on doubt and disbelief among teenagers and young adults, I sent out questionnaires to people I knew and one those came back from Lex, and she was in the significance place of doubt in her life. And I didn’t un-anticipate that in some ways, I kind of did anticipate it, because she was a pretty bright kid. She in fact had gone off to college a year early to double major in Political Science and Philosophy and some like, okay I know how these goes right, she’s bright kid, she’s been in philosophy class, she’s having some questions.

The Dangerous Grace of Doubt - Andrew Zirschky

But I was kind of shock to look down the questionnaire that she filled out for me, because the list of faith practices that she had was rather staggering for somebody that I thought was in the midst of doubting her faith. She was going to church weekly as a college student, like involved in the congregation going to potlucks even. I mean that takes a lot of faith right there, right?

She was involved in devotional Bible reading daily, she was involved in a women’s Bible study on campus, she was at a Christian college, she went to chapel 3 times a week, she was volunteering at a soup kitchen, she had, like, this enormous body of faith practices, and she was also in this place of significant doubt. And so I’m like, of course, she has this intellectual doubts to these faith practices that she’s undertaking. I know what’s going on here, so I called her up.

Having an interview with her is part of the research project and I was shocked what I found. I was shocked what she said to me, because she said actually, not real, nothing came up in Philosophy class at all. It was in the midst of praying and the midst of going to church and the midst of going the chapel and Bible study and all of this things, she said “all of those things that you think that my practices of faith, are actually my practices of doubt, because every time I do them, every time I pray, every time I go to bible study, every time I open the scripture and I don’t feel the presence of God, and the peace of God that I have been told I should, it reminds me again that God is not there.”

I was shocked. Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous in the case of Lex. But maybe doubt can only be a grace. A grace as well, that can do something to our faith, other than untangle it.

See, doubt happens. We know that doubt happens; this is clear in all the research that’s done. In fact, Sticky Faith, the research that was done at Fuller, found that 70% of conservative evangelical kids who are still in youth group as juniors and seniors – and you know it’s a subset right there, right? – 70% of those kids said we have significant doubts about our faith. 70% of them, and yet few of them had ever talked to anybody about their faith. In fact, I think the statistics are somewhere in the low single digits among the number of these students that have actually talked to anyone about the faith that they had.

Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous… But maybe doubt can only be a grace.

Doubt happens and it can be dangerous, but not only does doubt happen to this kids, we know that it happens beyond that as well. In fact, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who wrote Emerging Adulthood, found that really anyone in their early- to mid- to late- 20’s all the way along there, had come through or was in the process of some kind of searching out questioning of their faith, even those that returned to their kind of conservative roots, he said they went through this process of questioning and doubting.

Doubt can be dangerous, it happens all the time and yet Douglas John Hall, who I think says it really well, next slide, Douglas John Hall says ‘Hey one of the things that happens in the church that we do so well is we don’t doubt well, but we suppress doubt very, very well.’ We’re in fact experts at expelling doubt and suppressing it.

Doubt is toxic, it can be dangerous, but not when it arises. Doubt is toxic, we find, when its actually, as Kara Powell says, not expressed in a caring and loving environment. When doubt has to be internalized and can not be externalized in a community that understands the process of doubting, what it involves, what it feels like, then doubt becomes dangerous, then doubt ultimately becomes toxic. But maybe doubt isn’t just dangerous maybe it can be a grace as well?

Part of our problem, I think, that we encountered with Lex along the way is that we didn’t understand doubt well. We don’t understand doubt well in the church.  We have all this research we’ve done on the nature of faith, if you’ve been to seminary along the way you’ve probably read Fowler’s “Stages of Faith“. We talk about the different patterns and parts to faith. We have theology of faith.

But for the most part, the church has not spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of doubt, or what doubt feels like, or how doubt arises, or how doubt is resolved, or how doubt and faith actually fit together. You’ve probably said somewhere along the way ‘oh yeah doubt isn’t opposed to faith, it’s a part of it.’ But we often don’t understand how that works. We kind of say ‘yeah. You know it’s there, it happens.’

We haven’t understood that well and one of the things we haven’t understood most especially about doubt that it’s culturally conditioned. The historical period in which you doubt and the community within which you doubt, changes the nature of the kinds of doubt that you have.

So the Sociologist Peter Burger tells us really in the 15th century and 1500’s, 1600’s run around there it was really impossible in Europe to doubt the existing of God. There are of course a few people around that did, but for the most part, it was impossible to doubt God’s existence because everyone around you believed in God. And he calls it this sacred canopy of sorts, that kind of flowed all over European society, this sacred canopy in which, when people got sick or when something good happen, they all had this kind of common explanationable, you know devils, angels, or demons, or God was involved in some former fashion.

There was this of idea of magic that over took the 15th century, European culture as well. This sacred canopy that was common explanation for faith, for life. There wasn’t a lot of room for religious doubt. In fact, if the people did doubt during this time, says Burger, what they often doubted was if God loved them or not.

We are in a different epic, all together. In fact, moral philosopher Charles Taylor says this,

“We’ve moved from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace…. We cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.”

And what he means by this idea of living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty – it’s almost like our faith is growing in the midst of our cultural soil in which doubt and uncertainty is embedded into our experience. Not just in terms of religious things, but in terms of everything. We are in constant doubt about what news is real and what news is fake? I mean, open up news browsers right now, we don’t know what to believe right. We live our faith in this epic, not of a sacred canopy where we all agreed, but in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.

Kids like Lex, don’t need a copy of “The Case For Christ“. Maybe along the way somewhere they do, that’s kind of our normal ‘Hey you’re doubting? Let me handle this, let me figure out, here’s the pill to take.” But when we don’t understand well, actually the doubting experience, we end up giving remedies that are the wrong remedy, that don’t take to an account the complex nature of the cultural landscape on which we live and the very individualize experience of doubt that we have.

There is a guy in the 16th century, named Saint John of the Cross, but did something very unique that I think we have to reclaim. He understood that doubt is a dangerous grace. Not just that doubt was dangerous, but maybe it could be a grace but he put those together he understood that the doubt was a dangerous grace, and here what’s interesting about what he did. He was a monk and he watched these young monks coming into the monastery and he just was interested on their development along the way, because he started to notice was that 2 or 3 years into their journey of prayer and work and devotion, some of this young monks will get to a place where they could no longer feel God. When they said ‘Wait a second, I’m praying and I’m worshiping and I’m working and I felt like God has turned away from me, God turned back on me.

And he saw this young monks responding in such a way, that he was shocked and concerned, many of them left the monastery all together and went into secular jobs. And some of them even left and committed suicide, because they had come to the conclusion that God has decided that they were reprobate. That God has decided that they were not to be saved. And so they literally left the monastery, there is no hope in my life, I pray, I feel nothing, God is not there and so therefore, I might as well just end my life now.

And John said “wait a second, there is another way to interpret what’s happening here.” This period of doubt and unfeeling and all of this things that you are experiencing don’t necessarily mean that you have done something wrong or that God is turned away at all, but in fact his explanation was this; you can’t feel God, because God has taken away the feeling of God from you. And the reason that God has taken away the feeling of God from you is that you’ve learned to love the feeling of God, rather than God in God’s self.

He said it’s a dangerous grace. You are being visited upon by the work of God to withdraw God’s presence to you, to bring you into this period of questioning and doubting because you’ve learned to love the feeling of God and God wants you to learn to love God in God’s self. But, we need an exegete, a guide, someone to walk us thru that dangerous grace, because it can go one of two ways: it can either go to a place where we loose of faith altogether or in a case of some of his young monks losing their lives, or we can be guided well to the experience of doubt by someone who is a patient guide, who understands what we might be experiencing and feeling and going through and weaves that into a place where the grace of this dangerous grace truly comes out and forms our faith and who we are.

A dangerous grace. I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt, of trying to understand well what doubt feels like, of all the diversity of the experience of doubt in our culture, and yet we know some of our students are experiencing it, so many of us are as well because our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty. So instead of responding as exegetes and guides, which I think we have to learn to do…

I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt…

Some of the research I did a research I did at Princeton found that really there are two main ways tend to respond to doubt in the church. And the first one is kind of a pushing away response. We see this mostly in more conservative churches, evangelical churches, but not all the time. There’s kind of this “you know doubt’s ok, but you know your significantly questioning your faith… and maybe you just need to take that copy of “Case for Christ”… and like maybe step off the worship team for a while… and maybe not be on the student council team anymore… and maybe take some time away…” -almost like doubt is contagious. And we kind of like want to quarantine you over here because we don’t want  doubt to kind of seep into the rest of the student ministry. And so we saw that coming up in some of the research that we did, as opposed to saying “Hey we need to be patient guides, and exegetes of doubt, and walk with kids individually, this kind of pushing away response.

But the second thing we saw, in more of mainline, liberal churches, was kind of this embrace response.It’s like “Oh man, everybody down, is everybody down is that okay, like I’ve doubted, he’s doubted, she’s doubted a whole lot. Just come have some pie with us in the fellowship hall, we will get you some coffee, it will be okay.”

And next thing you know you have kids that are sitting there with their piece of coffee cake on Sunday mornings, amidst the community that says that they all doubt, but guess what they’re not talking about – they are not talking about their doubt they’re just talking about the pie and the kind of “everybody’s okay, but we’re not going to talk about it either.”

And what we found actually is that both of those responses led to this, kids doubting alone. Whether it’s was the push away response or the embrace response, teenagers largely were spending their time, whether in main line churches or evangelical churches, they were doubting alone, rather than having patient guides and exegetes of the experience of doubt in our own culture in time. They ended up doubting alone.

I think there is a third response. And I think it’s the biblical response, that the response to take a look at this afternoon in the workshops that I’m going to do. What does it look like to embrace those who doubt in the midst of the community? What does it look like to have a responsive community that understands the nature of doubt and the diversity with which young people experience it? Because sometimes it’s very intellectual and sometimes very experiential ,and sometimes it’s very situational, it can change. And how do we actually walk with young people? And how do we walk with one another thru this experiences of doubt?

I love this painting. You know what it is, it’s Doubting Thomas, right? The painter here is literally like putting his finger in the side of Jesus, it’s almost like your 12 year olds were like painting this “Oh yeah Jesus really got this finger like stuck in the side and really like looking at the wounds.”

But the most amazing part of this painting I think is you’ve got this two people looking on… Peter and John, the ways that we have always looked at Peter and John, there they are. And they are interested as well, they want to see, “Yeah what’s going on here? Is Jesus real?”

One thing we recognize when we read the story of Doubting Thomas, well it’s not the Thomas doubted, you know Thomas he doubted, but one of the things we don’t recognize, is that he doubted in the midst of the community of Christ. He doubts and then it says, the very next week, he was still there, and the doors were locked. There wasn’t a pushing away, it wasn’t just like “you know, hey you can hangout and not talk about this.” But in fact, the community together embraced the doubt he had, because doubt is a dangerous grace. It is a grace that can be visiting about us by God and it needs someone to guide it along and it forms our faith rather than deforms it.

I’m giving eight things these afternoon, help you figure out how you and your context, in your cultural situation, might become a community that embraces young people as they go through the dangerous grace of doubt. Thanks.


About the Author: Andrew Zirschky

Andrew ZirschkyAndrew holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He oversees the development of Center for Youth Ministry Training’s academic program and also teaches many of their youth ministry courses offered through Memphis Theological Seminary. He has 20 years of ministry experience as a youth and college minister at churches in Idaho, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He has also been named a Timothy Scholar by the United Methodist Foundation for Evangelism based upon his research emphasis in youth and young adult ministry.