The Barna Group, a leading Christian research and resource company that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture, published the article last September entitled, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” This is the sixth and final in a series of articles in which I give my take on Barna’s conclusions.
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).
Let’s face it; there are many difficult to believe things in the Bible:
- Talking snakes and talking donkeys.
- The parting of seas and walking on water.
- The creation of the entire universe in 144 hours.
- People being swallowed by a fish and thrown in an oven, and surviving
- A world-wide flood that wipes out everything except for one large lifeboat.
- Virgin birth.
- God becoming a man.
The list can go on and on. The claims of Christianity often defy our senses and experiences. Our limited, fallen minds are going to naturally question the validity of the fantastic accounts of God’s miraculous interventions recorded in the Bible.
How does the church respond when young people express doubts about their faith? One unfortunate response is to reinterpret the Bible to try to explain away the difficult parts. Some teach that the Genesis creation account is some sort of allegory or story that contains spiritual truth, but no historical facts. Others teach that Hell doesn’t actually exist, that the virgin birth never actually happened, or that the flood of Noah’s day was just a local event. The problem with these types of responses is that they undermine the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, and they make God out to be a liar. If some parts of the Bible aren’t actually true, then why trust any of it? If the Bible is the Word of God, but the Bible isn’t completely true, then God is either a very poor writer, or else He hasn’t told us the truth. Most young people are smart enough to figure out that if the Bible isn’t accurate, then there is no rational basis for Christianity. No wonder so many are leaving the church!
The second common response is to give a shallow, superficial answer. “Why? Because the Bible says so,” or “Good Christians don’t ask such questions” are typical responses. Many, if not most, Christian teachers and leaders have not equipped themselves to adequately defend the Christian faith. They can’t explain the difficult things in the Bible and in life because they don’t really understand the issues themselves. In 1 Peter 3:15, believers are commanded to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Too many Christian leaders have not sanctified the Lord God in their hearts; their relationship with Jesus Christ is not the true focus of their lives. Too many Christian leaders have no idea how to give a defense of the Gospel. They have not diligently prepared themselves to give reasoned, rational explanations for the truth of God’s Word. And, too many Christian leaders do not approach these issues with “meekness and fear,” but with pride, arrogance, and indifference. Then, they wonder why young people leave the faith!
What should the church’s response be to the doubts expressed by young believers? Over a third of the young people surveyed in the Barna study said they can’t ask the “most pressing life questions” in church. We need to encourage questioning! But, we also need to be prepared to give solid, insightful, Biblical answers to the difficult issues facing young people today. When young believers express significant intellectual doubts about the Bible or their faith, we need to listen. We need to be able to help people work through their doubts and struggles, pointing them toward understanding and reasoned answers. God tells Isaiah in Isaiah 1:18, “’Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord…” God encourages us to use our minds to find reasoned understanding of the difficult issues of life. The church has the responsibility to help young people to reason out the answers, based on the Bible. When young Christians say their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems,” the church needs to listen! Too often, we tell people suffering from depression that their illness is because of a spiritual problem, which only makes them feel guilty, and serves to reinforce the depression and doubts, rather than resolving the issues. Rather than judging people for having emotional issues, we need to help them work through their doubts, fears, and depression by providing support, love, and solid Biblical answers.
The church must never compromise the authority of the Bible. Nor should we give superficial or judgmental answers when young people express doubts or ask difficult questions. Rather, we need to listen carefully and empathetically to the issues young people bring up, and provide solid, Biblical answers. If we fail to provide answers to the questions young people have, they will seek answers elsewhere, and the answers they find outside of the Word of God will only lead them to destruction and despair.