If my travels across the country have taught me anything, it's that deep fear and anxiety sit at the foundation of most ministry work, especially ministry with youth and young adults. Clergy, parents, and youth workers are terrified that young people will leave the Church.
On their one hand, their fears are certainly reasonable. We've all seen survey after survey indicating the "rise of the nones" and the increasing drift of millennials away from the life of the Church.
Yet our response is often unreasonable, and quite dangerous.
Our fear of losing young people can lead us into forcing them to attend youth group, and threatening them to attend Sunday Liturgy. Sometimes we use a “bait-and-switch," luring them in with the promise of pizza and then blindsiding them a dose of Orthodoxy. And if they give us any reason to believe that they're struggling with uncertainty, it can lead us to act swiftly to "fix" the problem with tedious lectures or stern warnings.
Unfortunately, our responses to this issue of doubt, in particular, actually do more to push young people away from the Church.
A recent article by Larry Barnett titled "The Need for Apologetics: What the Data Reveal About the Crisis of Faith among Young Christians in America" (*Philosophia Christi*, Vol. 17, No. 2. (2015): 473-87) indicates that "unresolved doubts and unanswered questions about Christianity are key factors in the movement of so many young adults away from Christianity."
In a nutshell, his study found that "doubt was the single best predictor of non-Christian affiliation and impaired spiritual health." Doubt, when mishandled, is the biggest factor pushing young people away from the Church. And it’s a factor that become more serious over time.
Though Christians have struggled with misgivings and uncertainty in every generation, it appears that young people today are both (1) more likely to doubt and (2) less likely to identify with the Church as a result.
Over time, doubt has become both more widespread and more potent. And, as our culture evolves, it's striking those who are most vulnerable.
As Barnett writes, “Doubt has a stronger adverse impact on those who are (1) younger, (2) more highly educated, (3) widely knowledgeable, (4) high achieving, (5) more active online, or (6) who have more religiously diverse friends."
Yet as Barnett's research indicates, and the experience of the Church confirms, doubt is not a death sentence. People are led away from Christ not because of their questions, but because of our (flawed) response to them.
Maintaining our faith in the person of Jesus Christ is very difficult. An unexpected death or a terrible illness can cause us to challenge everything we once took for granted, including our relationship with God. The Lord can seem a lot less loving, and perhaps totally absent, from beside a hospital bed or freshly dug grave.
Yet youth and young adults aren't the only ones who struggle with doubts. I've certainly wrestled with them, and you almost certainly have as well. And we're in good company: if you flip through the Psalms, you'll find several anguished and deeply heartfelt prayers written in the midst of great struggle.
Psalm 88 in particular doesn't even have the benefit of a happy resolution; it's eighteen verses of anguish and doubt, of painful crying out to the Lord with no hope of answer.
Yet misgivings may even arise absent deep personal tragedy. We may be frustrated that our attempts at prayer seem dry, that participating in the services seems impossible, that the Bible and Church traditions seem irrelevant.
Yet these are not bad things in themselves. They are struggles that are born of attempted engagement with the life of the Church and the perception of our current limits. They are, in other words, invitations to walk with those who feel lost and help lead them out of their anguish.
Yet, to do so, we must first of all be brave enough to converse with doubt. We must be good listeners who are confident to let people express their doubts free of correction and judgment. Sometimes, people simply need the space to be frustrated or confused or angry, or a shoulder to cry on.
And if they do have questions for us, we need better answers than "because you're supposed to" or "because otherwise you'll go to hell." If we don’t have an answer, we need to be honest enough to admit it: “I don’t know, but let’s look and learn together.”
And then we need to follow through.
If we can help people truly encounter God rather than an oversimplified and mean-spirited caricature of Him, we'll be surprised by the Lord's capacity to enter a person's life and transform it.
As Barnett put it, "if we will passionately pursue our duty to doubters—answering their questions and offering them good reasons to believe—then we can expect a bright future."
Of course, this is much easier said than done. We can't offer people answers without knowing them ourselves. And, more fundamentally, we can't introduce people to God if we don't know Him first.
We no longer live in a world where people will remain engaged in the Faith despite serious misgivings. They will ask questions, and not simply from the Church; technology offers people simple and easy answers to almost any question. "If doubters fail to get answers from Christians, they are likely to search for information online."
This is a big reason why so many of our efforts at Y2AM have focused on the development of online resources. With close to one hundred episodes of "Be the Bee" now available for instant viewing, along with our newest video series, "The Trench," and our new podcast, "Pop Culture Coffee Hour," and an extensive archive of blogs and articles and other resources, we're offering both young and not-so-young Christians an extensive library of resources to help nourish their Faith, answer their questions, and introduce them to Christ.
We even have episodes that specifically deal with difficult issues of faith and doubt, and the perception that Church can be boring or irrelevant. We aren't afraid to tackle difficult questions because we know the stakes are too high.
The seeds that Christ is planting in the hearts of people all over the world are slowly beginning to bear fruit. We keep receiving messages from parents excited to learn and grow in Christ with their children; from teenagers and even young children who are excited to get to know the Lord better; from new converts who have finally heard the Gospel and are excited to become a part of the Lord's Risen Body.
As Christians, our walk to the Kingdom is a bumpy road. And just as we have benefited from the patience and guidance of our fellow believers, just as we have worked through our own questions and struggles, we need to make room for people to doubt. We need to offer them the support and answers they need.
And know that we at Y2AM - as co-strugglers and often as co-doubters - are right there with you, ready to ask and answer questions, ready to offer whatever help we can.
1. Fear Has Big Eyes
2. Man Raising Eyebrow
Steve is the Director of Y2AM. Perhaps best known as the host of "Be the Bee," he's a graduate of Yale University, Fordham University School of Law, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. You can follow him on Twitter here.