Last summer, Andy Stanley brilliantly observed that many people had left church because they had simply outgrown God. Their minds had matured at a greater pace than their faith.
Stanley provides a pertinent example in his sermon: The answer to the question “Where do babies come from?” depends on who’s asking. (In the video, this starts at timestamp 40:33.)
To a 5-year-old, the answer “Mommy’s tummy” is completely satisfactory. But a 15-year-old young woman needs more information, particularly before she hits the dating scene. And a 25-year-old man about to marry needs even more. And the infertile woman still more. And the obstetrician more yet.
Every iteration of the answer is true. But how the question gets answered depends entirely on who’s asking.
Likewise, the big questions of faith–who God is, what sin means, how salvation is obtained, and hundreds of others–all have different answers based on who’s asking.
It’s no wonder they leave. It’s not because their newly found adult freedom leads to doubt and debauchery (well, not only that). It’s because other philosophies and ideas about life are giving them grown-up answers to their grown-up questions. And we’re not.
Maybe you can’t imagine questioning the validity of the Bible only to be pointed to the Bible’s statements of its own authority as circular proof.
Maybe you can’t imagine asking hard questions about hell only to be told that eternal torment is everyone’s conscious choice, whether they’ve heard the Gospel or not.
Maybe you can’t imagine having doubts about Jesus only to be told to simply have more faith and read the Bible more.
I can imagine those things because they all happened to me. A lot. With a thousand more variations beside. And they’ve happened to countless others, too.
This comparison to Santa Claus is apt. Kids express such delight toward both God and Santa when they’re young, but they gain such disillusionment when they grow up. Yet for some reason, they still want their own children to grow up with both, as if they can somehow reclaim some measure of their former joy vicariously through their children.
Kids often ask great questions about faith. (My nephew, who turns seven today, every time he prays, he says, “God, I hope you’re having a great day.” He takes ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus very seriously that way.) Teenagers and young adults often ask amazing questions. They deserve amazing answers.
No party lines, no canned phrases, no clichés, no hypocrisy. If you don’t know, SAY you don’t know. If the subject is debated at all, don’t present your opinion (or that of your church) as the only one. Know what the counterarguments are and present them fairly.
I suspect that many leaders don’t do these things because they’re subconsciously afraid of losing their own faith. Consciously, they’ll think that open discussions of doubt and difficulty will lead children astray. But dishonesty is so much more damaging to young hearts. It breaks not only their faith, but their relationship with people of faith. That means when they leave, they aren’t likely to come back.
My recommendation for every person who considers leading any kind of Bible study group, no matter the age of the audience: write and defend your own statement of faith. Don’t copy one. Write your own. Know what you believe and why. Discover the gaps in your knowledge and fill them.
And here’s the hardest part: doubt yourself. Doubt your beliefs openly. Be honest about that doubt. Be humble about it.
You just might save a soul that way.