Recently, the Barna Group published research related to their new book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church, in an article, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church”.
Nothing here is really a major revelation. Their research “uncovered” six themes why 59% of young believers disconnect from church life after age 15. Three of them were related to the primary focus of this post, which is how people and the church deal with doubt:
• Churches seem overprotective
• Churches come across as antagonistic to science
• Church feels unfriendly to those who doubt
It is disturbing to me since these are issues that I experienced during my high school and college years, and nothing has seemingly changed in over twenty years except that today there is an obvious void of leadership and teaching within churches and parachurch organizations. If our culture more highly prized knowledge, truth and loving the Lord with all of your mind, the three issues above would hardly exist. Instead, there is a culture of ignorance and fear of knowledge sewn into the fabric of the Church that needs to be cut out.
Assuming God is omniscient, what does a believer have to be concerned about? That Ricky Gervais will outwit God? And then there is Jesus who indirectly claimed to be the most knowledgeable person on earth and who I believe is the most intelligent person in history. So what are people concerned about? Open questioning and knowledge seeking should be embraced.
“Unbelief is the absence of thinking” - Dr. David Martyn-Lloyd Jones
The idea of universal knowledge and public education came from the Protestant movement, so that everyone could read the Bible for himself or herself and that there would be no “high priest”. The first law in the U.S. to require universal public education came from the same roots:
“It being one chief end of that old deluder Satan to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures… and to the end that learning may not be buried in the graves of our forefathers” - Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647
So what have the body of believers become today? A group of people that fear rigorous thinking and hard questions? A body that embraces ignorance?
There are thousands of roads to believing in God and growing in faith. For myself, I was the first person from my family to attend church and become a believer during 8th grade. Prior to this, I didn’t hold any reverence for the Bible or Christian imagery. I was a natural skeptic and very cynical, so it took me years to be confident in the existence of God and fully accept the validity of the Bible and have satisfactory answers to all of my doubts about God. Knowledge gathering and critical analysis actually built a bridge to faith for me. It wasn’t a completed bridge and not all my questions were answered, but it was enough for me to take that leap of faith. The bridge will never be completed by knowledge alone, but there is enough body of evidence available to help the most critical mind across that chasm of faith.
Since those early years, I have never doubted the existence of God, the validity of the Bible or the life of Christ. Instead I have swung the pendulum of embracing God’s grace and abusing God’s grace. I struggled with living a life pleasing to God since it’s simply difficult to live such a life without being in a bubble. For many believers who are driven, submitting your will to God is a constant struggle. I do know when I was most comfortable in life and ignoring God, or at my most sinful and ignoring God that he was always with me. During my many drunken nights, most arrogant days and selfish moments, I knew the fact that God was always with me. I am not reveling in my sin, but just explaining that it wasn’t any feeling more so than the little knowledge I had of who God was that always brought me back to God.
“Jesus Christ insists that the whole trouble with people of little faith is they do not think. They allow circumstances to bludgeon them. They allow their feelings to collar them. The Bible is full of reasoning. We must never think of faith as something purely mystical. Faith progresses through thinking, Jesus tells us. Look at the birds. Think about them. Draw your deductions. Look at the flowers. Do the same.
This is the essence of worry. Instead of letting reason control your thoughts, other things have controlled them and you go round and round in circles. That is not thinking. Worry is the absence of thinking. Unbelief is the absence of thinking. And for a Christian a lack of faith is a failure to think." - Dr. David Martyn-Lloyd Jones
Which is why I believe whether early in a person’s faith or midstream, he or she needs to face doubts and questions about why they believe and how do they really know that God is real. I know of too many stories not just young believers but young leaders from churches who renounce their faith after simple challenges to their faith, such as reading a book by Sam Harris, one drunken night or sexual escapade.
The certainty of God and my faith has only increased with time, and it’s not because I’ve drunk more of the Kool-aid or become more isolated from the world. It’s actually been the opposite. One example is that the Bible’s validity has increased over my lifetime and its lifetime. When the Nabonidus Chronicle, an ancient Babylonian text, was discovered in 1879, it verified the existence of Beltshazzar, the King of Babylon from the Book of Daniel. Prior to this discovery, some people doubted the existence of such a King and even the validity of Daniel and his accounts. It’s not just one example -- there are dozens and dozens of examples where the Bible has stood up to the challenges of skeptics and was eventually validated by archeological finds over the past couple hundred years.
I believe there is a reasonable explanation as to why a fair number of world-class physicists come to believe in God. From Sir Isaac Newton to Cambridge’s John Polkinghorne to Princeton’s Freeman Dyson and many others, studying the creation of the universe led them to an inevitable truth of an ultimate creator.
“God, like a master builder, has laid the foundation of the world according to law and order... God wanted us to recognize those laws by creating us after his image so that we could share in his own thoughts.” - Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
So why isn’t a church safe place for youth or anyone else to express doubts? What is lacking in the culture or organization of churches to embrace such questions and critical thinking? I remember when I, or others I knew, would ask questions and a common response was, “Well, sometimes we have to have faith like a child.” I hated that response especially since I knew by then that God was not dumb and does not revel in ignorance.