May 16 2012 | Six ways to support those questioning the faith | Andrea Palpant Dilley, guest blogger
In high school, I entered a skeptic phase that eventually led me out of the doors of the church. My parents saw it coming. My dad started taking me out to breakfast at a local diner, the kind of spot cops go to after the night shift. We ordered omelets in a corner booth and, in between bites of egg and onion, started talking about God, faith, and philosophy. I wanted to know: Why does God wage war in the Old Testament? Why does God seem distant and inaccessible? And why would a good God allow suffering?
“How can I be certain of anything?” I asked him one Saturday morning. “How can I be sure that what I believe is true?”
My dad listened. He affirmed my questions and challenged me. But nothing he said kept me from leaving the church a few years later. While I was home from college visiting my parents, I overheard my mother say to my father, “Why are we spending so much money to watch our daughter lose her faith?” I could hear the panic. Her child was walking out of the sanctuary and losing her way in the world.
My mother didn’t know it at the time, but I had become a statistic. Barna Group recently released the results of a five-year study on why young people are leaving the church. The “Faith That Lasts” research project comprised eight national studies and included interviews with 18- to 29-year-olds (both current and former churchgoers) who were active in church at some point as teenagers.
The study focused on reasons for “disconnection from church life” after age 15 and identified three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals (those who lose their faith), nomads (those who wander from church but still maintain faith), and exiles (those who feel caught between church culture and the larger society). While 30 percent of U.S. Christians ages 18 to 29 stay faithful to church and faith, roughly 60 percent leave the church either permanently or for an extended period of time and typically fall into the prodigal, nomad, or exile category.
What’s going wrong? What can we do to keep young people inside the sanctuary? Should we be concerned, or is this church-fleeing trend just faith refining itself in a new era?
One of the concerns young people commonly voiced in the study is that church feels unfriendly to doubters. This particular critique has less to do with a polemical topic—be it sex or science—and more to do with whether the church welcomes dialogue in the first place. It encompasses all other concerns by asking the question, is there even a safe context for us to talk about doubts?
Thirty-six percent of young people surveyed said they didn’t feel free “to ask [their] most pressing life questions in church.” That’s a problem. Providing a space for open intellectual inquiry is essential for maintaining healthy conversation with people on the margins. Your guests won’t come in for dinner if you send pit bulls to the door. So how can Christian communities create a congenial environment that’s open to doubt and doubters?
I don’t have a catchall solution to youth attrition, but I know what it’s like to flee. Speaking as someone who left the church and eventually came back, here are half a dozen insights, an incomplete but helpful guide for the larger Christian community. Before or after your young adults leave home and potentially the church, think about:
1. Individuation: Spend time listening. Take their questions seriously. Let them “individuate” their faith from yours. Jonathan Merritt says in his new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, “I can cherish the faith of my father and grandfathers. But I also need to take hold of it myself … Like Peter, every generation must see Jesus with their own eyes and learn to follow him in their own way.”
2. Intellectual inquiry: Give them reasons to believe from science, philosophy, and apologetics. Recommend books, blogs, or DVDs by Lee Strobel, Nancy Pearcey, William Lane Craig, Eleanor Stump, Mary Jo Sharp, and others. (See Jonalyn Fincher’s recent Her.meneutics post on this topic.)
3. Relationship building: Be serious about discipleship. Send your kid(s) to pastors, priests, and professors who can engage their concerns, and encourage intergenerational friendship with healthy Christian individuals and families. According to Barna president David Kinnaman, “Cultivating intergenerational relationships is one of the most important ways in which effective faith communities are developing flourishing faith in both young and old.”
4. Integration: In the Barna study, 84 percent of Christians ages 18 to 29 said they have no idea how the Bible applies to their professional interests. With that in mind, help your youth think about faith in practice. How do their beliefs apply not just to school and work, but also to politics, art and culture, family, etcetera? Without integration, application, and participation in public life, faith becomes “ghetto-ized” and easy to lose.
5. Education: Think deeply about where you send them to college. Some kids will thrive at a mainstream school where they can push against secularity; others need a more traditional Christian university. If your child ends up at a secular school, encourage her to participate in parachurch organizations like InterVarsity or Cru (formerly Campus Crusade).
6. Spiritual searching: Remember that doubt is a natural part of faith and that anger at God is better than indifference toward God. Try to view their struggle as a sign of healthy soul-searching and truth seeking. Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.”
The final word
By virtue of her genetic soup, my 3-year-old is predisposed to asking tough questions someday as a young adult. The upside is, she has a philosopher dad who can converse about faith and science, epistemology, and theology. He’ll take her out for breakfast talks the way my father did, walking with her as she searches for faith and truth.
But even so, our kid might walk out of the church’s doors one day. I have proactive options, as per the above list. But they’re not foolproof. At some point, I’ll have to remind myself to do the simple things my parents did when I was on the brink of departure. Take time to listen. Be present. Pay for the omelet and then pray for my kid.
Andrea Palpant Dilley’s recent memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt (Zondervan), tells the story of her departure from church and her eventual return. She lives with her husband and daughter in Austin, Texas. For more information, visit www.andreapalpantdilley.com