Understandably, we in the Church put a big focus on belief, the acceptance of certain teachings. But doubts are natural and inevitable. How we approach doubt can make a big difference in the lives of youth, adults, and children.
Authenticity and Belonging
I’ve just finished a six-week series on expansive worship, in which I looked at various parts of worship to identify some of the obstacles that visitors, children, and youth (newbies) face to fully participate and feel a sense of belonging. That itself was building off the series I did earlier this summer on insiders and outsiders, how we unintentionally create boundaries and barriers that keep “outsiders” out of our congregations. Now, I’m going to spend the last three weeks before the start of the Narrative Lectionary (Sept. 12) looking at the power of authenticity in our communities and relationships.
Faith in the Church
The Christian Church—like most other religious movements—puts a lot of focus on faith (belief, trust). That’s kind of our shtick. It’s pretty important in the Bible. There are several significant, and correct, definitions of “faith” as we use it,* but I’m going to focus on what we often call “belief:” the acceptance of teachings that do not have an objective, evidence-based basis. It’s the stuff in the creeds: God’s existence, Jesus’ resurrection, the kingdom of God, etc.
In my view, there are three main responses to a religious teaching (doctrine): belief, doubt, and rejection. So, on the resurrection of Jesus (for example):
- Belief: I accept that the resurrection happened as explained in this teaching.
- Rejection: I don’t accept that the resurrection happened as explained in this teaching. OR I don’t think the resurrection happened at all.
- Doubt: I’m not sure if the resurrection happened like you are explaining in this teaching. I can neither accept it with certainty nor reject it with certainty at this time.
And a particular faith tradition (religion) is a collection of different teachings (which is what doctrine means) that require acceptance (belief in). It’s important to remember that it is a collection of teachings; it is not an all-or-nothing situation.
Doubt Exists, Now What?
While some people have absolute certainty about what they believe (and reject), most of us have at least some questions, unease, if not full-on doubt on at least one thing. This is true of youth, adults, even children (some time later I’ll complain about our misuse of the “ideal child”). That is inevitable and natural. You might teach me something about the world that might be contrary to—or at least dissonant with—something I already believe. Some people will say “yes, certainly” to everything you teach them, but most of us will not (at least in our heart of hearts). So, to expect everyone in church (even leaders) to have perfect faith—without any doubts—is unrealistic. The main question becomes: how do we deal with this in our Christian education programs, youth groups, even whole congregations?
The Permission of “I Don’t Know”
One way to deal with this existence of doubt is to create a culture that demonizes it and expects 100% belief in whatever teachings one deems as essential. Many people would still want to belong in that church, so they will say what they need to say, even convincing themselves that it’s true. Others will reject everything and leave. To me, that is a false and unhealthy situation.
The other way to deal with doubt/uncertainty is to name it and welcome it. Publicly. State outright that everyone has doubts at some point or another (or always) and everyone is welcome in our community, no matter what. Something that leaders can do to encourage this culture is to use the phrase “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” When leaders express the limits of their understanding and doubts, then that gives the laity the permission to admit those limitations and doubts, too.
In a previous small group Bible study, some of the other members considered me the Bible “expert” due to my seminary education and faith formation work here. When I would say that I didn’t understand or wasn’t sure about something, I was surprised at the response of my groupmates. They were appreciative because they had had as a goal complete certainty and knowledge of the Bible and saw me as someone who had reached that goal. My own experience with the Bible had taught me that this was an unreasonable and unattainable goal, so their response surprised me.
The Authenticity of Doubt
Knowing that our doubts are welcome in our Christian education, youth group, worship, etc. can lead to some surprising things. If we don’t have to pretend like we have things all together in our beliefs, that is one step closer to authenticity. Admitting this is a form of vulnerability, breaking down those walls that keep us apart in our relationships and community. But, as with any other time we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, it is critical that we are in a safe space. That is what you as a faith formation leader (teacher, youth director, small group leader, pastor, etc.) are called to do: develop safe spaces.
The Good News
It is when we can become vulnerable that we can grow in authentic relationships with each other and with God. It is when we can be accepted and loved for who we are, not who we think we should be.
One of the teachings that I hope that you can hold onto is that God loves you, forgives you, and brings you into an unconditional relationship. This isn’t because you are good enough. This isn’t because you accept the right teachings. This isn’t based on anything about you. It is about God and what God has done for you. Yes, faith (belief) is the goal, but that comes after the relationship, not beforehand.
God loves you, doubts, beliefs, and all.
In the love of Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
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* In the New Testament, the same Greek word (pistis/pisteuo) is variously translated as faith, belief, and trust. These are synonyms in English, too, but each has its own shade of meaning. “Faith” is a rich and complicated word in Christian theology, a topic for a later time. On a bit simpler side, “trust” is a relationship word, appropriate for our part in our relationship with God. “Belief” is often used in relationship with teachings (beliefs, creeds) and is the variation I’m using here.
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