Does anyone else feel like you’ve watched more people walk away from faith in the last 2 years than at any other time? Whether it’s close friends and family, social media connections, or more high profile voices, there definitely seems to be this wave of deconstruction and even deconversion. I don’t know if this season is truly unique or we are just waking up to a real problem, but with the rise in social media and everyone starting a podcast, it just seems to be more prevalent than ever.
If you’re like me, I try my best to listen to the stories of those who have walked away from the faith they grew up with. As a local church leader, I am all too aware that many in our churches, especially those in our children and student ministries, are experiencing the same circumstances as those walking away from faith and understanding why, has to be a priority for Christains everywhere.
There is a seemingly never ending list of reasons why people are deconstructing and either adopting a more progressive view of faith or just walking away altogether. To be honest, most of the reasons given I find are shallow, inconsistent, and the result of human selfishness colliding with truth. But there is one reason I hear often and it resonates with me and should be a consideration for all of us.
It goes something like this: “My church was not a safe place to express my doubts about the Christian faith”.
Odds are you’ve heard this criticism in one form or another. And while it of course could be a cop-out for some, I think for many, this is a genuine struggle that causes true spiritual damage. Every church is different in its handling of doubt. Some do a great job and lean into the tensions of faith and help people see the truth found in the risen Jesus. Others though can fall into some destructive ends of the spectrum. You may have been at a church that treated doubts as sinful and never would allow open expression of deep, heart felt objections or concerns. You may have experienced other communities that have created almost a religion of doubt where truth is never something to be pursued.
How we navigate, teach, and disciple in the context of doubt will have massive implications on the future of those in our communities.
Our church recently started a small group specifically designed to get people talking about the “difficult” aspects of faith. We discuss everything from suffering and morality to the danger of Christian nationalism. While this is just starting, we have quickly found that our church has more doubts and questions than we realized. Maybe they aren’t ready to abandon ship, but without a way to talk and discuss their struggles, doubts can quickly lead to “deconstruction”. My guess is that the same is true in your church. That more people than you realize are having serious questions and doubts about their faith. Especially due to the events of the past 2 years. And my prayer for my church and yours as well, is that rather than being intimidated by this, we lean into it. That we have bigger conversations. That we make room for doubt and recognize that doubt isn’t the end of faith, but is often the beginning of it.
Perhaps the best example of this is in the life of John the Baptist. Even he experienced a season of doubt during his imprisonment under King Herod.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3)
I can only speculate the reason why John was asking this question. Maybe the Jesus he was hearing about looked and behaved a lot different from the Savior he had expected. Perhaps he was struggling to understand a Messiah who could heal the sick, feed multitudes, and stop natural disasters, but didn’t seem interested in rescuing His cousin from prison.
Whatever the reason, John asked a question that illustrates a place we will all be at one day. When what we believe doesn’t line up with what we see. Where we are faced with a God who we don’t fully understand. This is where so many in our communities find themselves. In seasons of loss, fear and pain where all that they have heard on Sundays just seems to match what they are facing. This is the moment the church needs to rise to the occasion. Because those are the times when the Gospel can not only be told, but experienced. Consider how Jesus responded to John’s question.
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
This is our roadmap to engaging with those who are doubting. Rather than giving them a cliche Christian answer or telling John to “have more faith”, Jesus showed John the truth. He embraced his questions and helped John see that He was the Messiah. He quoted the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1) and then showed through His actions that John’s faith was not in vain. We too need to embrace the doubts of others and walk with them in pursuing truth. Show them the truth, not just tell them the truth. Help them experience it in their life so their faith can be built and strengthened. The Gospel message has held up for thousands of years. We can trust that it will continue to do so today.
Notice though how Jesus ended His answer. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus embraced the doubts of John, but never promised that everything we face will always make sense to us. From Scripture, we know that John never made it out of that prison cell. It’s not hard to imagine John experiencing some level of doubt even beyond this moment. Jesus was leading John to trust God even in the midst of doubt.
As we engage with others in their doubt, we will not have all of the answers. And the more we attempt to have an answer for every struggle, the more we may lead people away from the comfort that can only be found through a personal relationship with Jesus.
I don’t know why we always experience the pain we do. What I know is that God has provided everything I need to trust Him even when I can’t see what’s on the other side of my circumstance.
There is a generation of Christians who are experiencing real doubts about what they have been taught. They are living in a culture that has made it near impossible to reconcile their faith and their daily reality. This is the moment when Christ followers need to live up to that title. I’m thankful for every sermon I heard growing up and for every class I attended, but I’m just as thankful for leaders who helped me with my doubts by loving me, discussing, and leading me towards Jesus.
Is there a step by step guide for this? Not at all. Engaging doubts can be exhausting, messy and will challenge us as much as the people we walk with. It will require us to embrace conversation, build trust, and create space where doubts can be expressed. Above all, it requires a closeness with God that will lead us in this journey.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)
Engaging doubt will require us to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us and open the eyes of those we lead. It means we cannot make Christianity simply an intellectual assent. Knowing the truth can only happen through a daily, vibrant, active relationship with the Author of Life.