Filed under: youth ministry, family, youth work
i’m starting a new series of occasional posts with this one. i’ll probably only post one every other week or so. but these will be a random tidbit of input for parents of pre-teens and young teens. if you’re a youth worker, feel free to copy and paste these into a parent newsletter or email (though i’d appreciate a credit line).
Welcome to the world of doubts
A nervous set of parents met me in my office. Tears came quickly. Judy, the mom, spoke in-between honks into her tissue: “Johnny, our 7th grader… [honk!]… he’s always been such a good boy. And he’s always loved Jesus.”
The dad nodded.
Judy continued: “But the other night at dinner… [honk!]… Johnny said, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a Christian anymore.’” [honk!]
A big smile broke out across my face, as I slapped my desk and exclaimed, “That’s fantastic!”
As they picked up their sagging jaws, I explained:
Questioning and examining (usually called “doubting”) Mom and Dad’s faith system, or her own childhood faith system, is a necessary part of early teen faith development.
Did you catch that? Parents (and plenty of youth workers) are usually threatened, even frightened, by their kids’ doubts. But teenagers who don’t go through this process will reach their early 20s with a stunted (childish) faith!
Let me back up and explain a bit more fully.
The Task of Discovery
Stephen Glenn, a psychologist who published a bunch in the 70s and 80s, developed a helpful little timeline. He said the first four years of life are all about “discovery”. The next four years (five- to eight-years old) are all about “testing”. And the years from nine to eleven (Glenn actually said age 12, but the average age of the onset of puberty has shifted down a year since then) are focused on “concluding.”
Then a shift of seismic proportions – usually called puberty – comes along and wipes that slate semi-clean. And the cycle begins again: 11 – 13 are years of “discovery”; 14- to 16-year olds tend to focus on “testing”; and those over 17 shift to forming conclusions.
Can’t you see that in your young teen? They’re in the midst of a massive adventure of discovery. That’s why they want to try everything – four sports, three clubs, five friendship groups, a new hobby or collection each month. They’re trying to gather data about the world, about how people interact, about values, about reactions. And, about what it means to be a Christ-follower.
So wrestling with “what do I believe?” becomes a wonderful question for young teens to ask. That doesn’t mean we fan the flames of their doubts (“I can’t believe you still believe that!”). It means we come alongside them in their doubts, rather than interpreting those questions (that data collection) as a real rejection of faith.
How Should Parents Respond?
Don’t freak out. When you hear doubts squeaking out, take a deep breath. Thank God that your budding teenager is still willing to verbalize this kind of thing with you. A strong negative reaction will teach your child that she shouldn’t share in the future.
Encourage verbalization. In other words, talk about it! Healthy dialogue is often all that’s needed. Ask questions, rather than preaching.
Share in first-person. Your pre-teen or young teen will “catch” more from your life than from your words. When you do choose to share words, try not to be too prescriptive (“Johnny, what you need to do is this….”). Instead, share from your own life. Respond to doubts with your own story, including your own doubts (past or present).
Pray. Isn’t that one obvious? Your child is going through the most formative and tender years in faith development. Talk to God constantly!
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I remember telling my mother this when I was a kid, too. Her response was perfect for what I needed at the time. “Well, know that, even though you might not believe in Jesus, he still believes in you and loves you.” I was looking for a shocked response from her, but I got a loving, gracious one - one that showed me that her relationship with this Jesus guy was solid and impacting.Comment by Sam 10.23.06 @ 11:54 am
[…] Marko had a good blog post today about this very subject. He says (and I agree) that it’s important for teens to question their faith and ask the hard questions. My question is why the church at large generally frowns upon those who ask tough questions and challenge the status quo. If our faith isn’t strong enough to hold up against these questions then maybe it really isn’t worth believing in the first place. […]Pingback by Why I’m attracted to blogging » Life in student ministry 10.23.06 @ 4:48 pm
Completely agree–have met far too many ‘adults’ who faith is childish not child-like.
My only concern is that someone will use this as an excuse to encourage the doubts on the students before they come to them on their own. As was pointed out there is a natural progression to this and to attempt to force it can cause a lot of problems.
So yes we need to educate and encourage parents and youth workers on how to handle this situation. But we need to make sure we aren’t attempting to cause this situation.
MAKComment by Mike Klein 10.23.06 @ 4:51 pm
Great Stuff Marko! Thanks for this great resource for parents and youth leaders!Comment by joshua michael 10.23.06 @ 5:27 pm
Thanks for this. Just posted it on our blog for parents. We just talked about this last week in our midweek service (MS and HS), and reminded the students that doubt can actually be a tool for strengthening faith and become an even more committed Christ-follower. Thx!Comment by Rob C 10.23.06 @ 9:48 pm
We have a new baby girl. I am already panicked about her faith…to the point of being willing to move to a really structured, fundamentalist church (much to the dismay of my husband). I loved your post. It is prayer and it is my life that will influence her faith. Thanks.Comment by Jennifer Dennis 10.23.06 @ 11:21 pm
great thought marko - i would add a note to youth pastors that helping your youth with their questions can look a lot of the time like you don’t have the answers, and that freaks parents out too.
we found at our last church that the leadership became very frustrated with us because we were allowing the youth to sit with their questions and wrestle with them (in the safety of being at home and in a stable church rather than their first year of university alone) without giving them the ‘easy answers’ or filling in the blanks for them.
sitting with them in the questions can look an awful lot like unintentional, directionless youth pastoring until you explain that you doing it on purpose, and that is is actually a lot harder to minister in this manner than by indoctrinating.
getting leadership on your side in this is crucial, helping them to see how the other path fails the youth we are so desperately trying to help because they will wrestle with the questions, it’s just a matter of when and where.
with us and in our care (high school years) or away at college when their support structures are thin, and usually non-existent.
just my 2 cents.Comment by bobbie 10.24.06 @ 11:36 am
[…] Some economist type explain this to me: 10.5 Billion?! I suggest you keep your eyes on Marko’s site, as he is beginning a series about teenagers, and who knows more about them than Marko? (Other than my wife Kris.) This first one is very good. […]Pingback by Jesus Creed » Weekly Meanderings 10.28.06 @ 8:33 am
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Great stuff! Yes I’ve had almost the same comments from parents and seen what can be the frightening results of young adults who carry through that childish faith into adulthood. I’m not what’s worse the ones who cling to it tenaciously or the ones who suddenly wake up, realize that it’s childish and dump the whole issue because we’ve not allowed and helped them reach a more adult understanding.
I’ll be sharing this with my adult leaders!Comment by Jay P 10.23.06 @ 10:34 am