This post is by Traci Smith, pastor of Northwood Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in San Antonio. She is the author of Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home. (Chalice: 2017). Faithful Families is a book of faith practices families can use at home to deepen faith and connection. Traci enjoys speaking to groups of pastors, parents, and Christian educators about faith formation and practice. www.traci-smith.com
I went to seminary to get the tools and training to help teach people faith, never expecting my own faith would be challenged nearly to the point of breaking. And yet, like so many others, that’s exactly what happened. The story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho snuck up on me out of nowhere. Though it was more than 10 years ago now, I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in the basement of the Princeton Theological Seminary Library during my first year of studies, and the article I was reading was discussing how the walls of Jericho might not have existed at all in a literal sense. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the article presenting a case for there being no archeological evidence for those walls. The premise was mind-blowing to me. “Not literal walls? What?” My mind flashed back to being a small child in Sunday School, marching around in a circle, singing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumbling down.”
As I replayed that scene of that little girl, marching around the (actual, literal, real) walls the idea that there were no such walls was unbearable to me, and I started to cry big sloppy tears right there in the library. (Lots of people cry in seminary and university libraries, but it’s usually because papers are due the next day, not because crises of faith are commencing.) The article about the walls stuck with me for weeks. “If the walls weren’t real, what else isn’t real? Have I been sold a bill of goods? What am I doing here?” The walls started to feel like a metaphor. My faith was crumbling, just like those walls, which (by the way) weren’t even real! I kept my thoughts mostly to myself as I trudged on from class to class, learning and reading and turning in assignments. There’s not an end to this faith crisis I can point to as easily as I can the beginning, but it did go away, eventually.
Eventually I came to a place where I was able to say, truthfully, that it didn’t matter to me whether the walls of Jericho were actual, literal walls or whether the story about them in the Bible points to a deeper truth about who God is. By the end of seminary I was able to distinguish a theological truth from a scientific truth in a way that made my faith infinitely stronger. For me, the story turned out just fine, and the wrestling I did in seminary turned out to be an experience I would not trade for anything. I think I’m a better minister because of it. And yet, as I reflect on the my season of doubts and questions in seminary now as an adult, I wonder how it might have been different if I were better prepared for it.
When we think of the most helpful tools for children’s ministry and faith development we often talk about age appropriate lessons, craft projects, or creative ways of telling the stories of our faith. But what about doubt? Doubt rarely makes it on any list of appropriate “tools” of the faith. And yet, we as Christian Educators and Pastors might actually serve our congregations well if we talk about doubt a bit more than we do. So often, doubt is talked about as something to get through or leave behind, rather than something to sit with for awhile as it marinates in us and transforms us. I agree wholeheartedly with theologian Paul Tillich:
“Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
It makes good sense to think about faith and doubt as two sides of the same coin. Wrestling with doubt, asking questions about our faith, and teaching children to embrace doubts is a way to strengthen faith, not tear it down. Doubt is like a mysterious muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger our faith can become. How can we flex our doubt muscles and teach children to do the same?
Doubters and Questioners in Scripture
Scripture is full of great figures who doubted and wrestled with their faith. In these cases, the doubts and questions end up leading to a more mature faith that can withstand storms and trials. When we teach children about these figures, we would do well to emphasize their doubts and questions, not downplay them. Here are five stories of doubters that can be woven in to discussions about doubt. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start:
Abraham and Sarah: God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. When Sarah learns of this promise, her response is to doubt by laughing. “Yeah right,” she says in so many words, “I’m way too old!” But the prophesy comes true and Abraham and Sarah do become parents. When do we say “Yeah, right!” to God? When do God’s promises seem ridiculous to us?
Gideon: Gideon is one of the judges in the book of Judges who God chooses to deliver the people of Israel. Gideon can’t believe it, and puts God to the test by using fleece. One night he asks God to make the fleece wet and the surrounding ground dry. In the morning, there is so much water in the fleece he has to wring it out. But this miracle isn’t enough for Gideon. The next night he reverses the test, asking God to make the fleece dry but the ground surrounding it wet. Again, God answers the miracle. How do we test God? What does it mean when God answers us in the same way God answered Gideon? Even more challenging: What does it mean when God doesn’t answer us?
Thomas: Thomas is the quintessential doubter in the New Testament. When Jesus is raised from the dead he wants proof. He won’t believe it, he says, unless he can actually see Jesus and touch him. For Thomas seeing is believing and he will accept nothing less. We ought to raise Thomas up, not put him down. “Do you have questions? Would you like proof? You’re just like Thomas, he wanted those things too, and he was one of the disciples.”
Jesus: In Jesus’ darkest hour he doubted God and felt abandoned by God. From the cross he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When children or young people express doubts we can remind them that nobody, not even Jesus, has a faith that can withstand every trial or every question.
Do’s and Don’ts for Handling Doubts and Questions in Children’s Ministry
DO: Encourage questions and doubts. “Tell me more about that” or “Oh that’s interesting, I never thought about it that way,” or “Thank you for sharing that” are all affirming ways of hearing children and young people expressing their thoughts. Use them liberally. Don’t be afraid to follow conversations where children want to take them. I also love the idea of having a question box in the classroom where children can anonymously write down their thoughts and questions.
DON’T: Teach that faith is not an “all or nothing” game. Some faith systems are so rigid and so fragile that questioning just one tiny premise makes the whole thing fall down like a house of cards. Remind children that just because they question or disbelieve in one area doesn’t mean they have to give up all of their beliefs. There are many different types of faithfulness. My faith doesn’t have to look exactly like yours. The pastor’s faith doesn’t have to look exactly like yours.
DON’T: Give answers when you don’t have them. As I say in Faithful Families, the word “mystery” is a great one. I think the word mystery allows for room for a not knowing that has confidence. “That is such a mystery, isn’t it?” is a way that I answer a whole variety of questions. Another answer that inspires confidence and trust is this one: “Nobody knows.” Somewhere along the line, particularly in Western culture, we’ve gotten the idea that teachers know the answers and students are the ones who are there to receive them. Remind the children in your care that you’re there to learn together, and talk about mysteries together.
DO: Lift up stories of those who had questions and doubts, including your own story (as you are comfortable.) The stories listed earlier in this article are a great place to start, but there are dozens of characters in the Bible and throughout church history who wrestle and doubt. Explore them together, and lift up their struggles and challenges as well as their virtues. Our heroes are complex. It makes them more interesting.
DO: Maintain a sense of humor, joy, and curiosity when teaching. This is good advice all the time, not just when working with doubts and questions. Faith is playful, joyful and fun. There are so many lighthearted ways to approach ministry together with children and young people. Enjoy!
So what about you? How do you handle doubts and questions in children’s ministry? Do they seem like challenges to overcome, or a wonderful and necessary part of faith development?
Note from CEF: If you want to explore meaningful questions like these, register for Curious.Church, the 2018 CEF Conference.