An African proverb says, “Where you sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth.” There are many Bible stories where we encounter Jesus taking a stand on issues as he meets the needs of others through teaching, service, peacebuilding, and justice making. In our churches we have youth who are passionate about ministries that nurture and help them understand their personal religious identities and that also meet the needs of the world. In the midst of their faith seeking understanding, youth raise critical questions of faith that don’t have easy answers. It’s often in the context of youth ministry that they feel most free to express and raise these questions.
Youth are constantly questioning everything. They question authority, societal norms, and the traditions of the church. They seek deeper meaning through relationships that are authentic and consistent. They seek community in sacred spaces where they can feel safe and loved. How often do we invite young people to explore and be challenged by their critical questions of faith?
In several congregations across the world, youth ministry leaders serve as guides and sojourners, inviting youth to experience the holy in new and unexpected ways. They are encouraging youth to look for God in their ordinary, everyday living. Young people want to know how God is present and near to them yet also active in the world. The rich ruminations of youth about their faith, beliefs, and theological discontent challenge us to create hospitable spaces for this type of faith formation. What would happen if your church began to embrace the theological curiosities of youth?
Does your youth ministry operate from the premise that every young person is an emerging theologian? Young people have an astute sensitivity to the divine, even if they’re unaware of their own capacity for engaging in theological inquiry. We must invite youth to bring their questions of faith as they nurture a spiritual discipline of faithful witness in word, reflection, and action. Youth may not always have the ecclesial language for talking about God, but they do have their own theological narratives. They encounter God in their daily struggles and through their acts of service. They encounter God as they journal, dance, write poetry, listen to music, and promote justice in the world. This is their language of witness, their embedded theology, which comes from their daily formal and informal encounters with God. When youth are called to reflect on how, where, and when they experience God, it opens them up to discover and interpret the meaning of faith in their lives.
It isn’t only a process of learning how to pose the questions but of learning to seek the God of their questions. Paulo Freire offers, “The point of the questions is not to turn the question into an intellectual game, but to experience the force of the question, experience the challenge it offers, experience curiosity, and demonstrate it to the students.”1 If young people are to be transformed by their faith, they need to be in congregations that challenge them to raise questions and probe beneath them, sit with them, note what feelings and thoughts arise from them, and offer them up to God. Renegotiate the questions, rephrase the questions, and reflect on how the questions encounter the Christian story. Initiating critical theological questioning involves what Freire would call discovering the living, powerful, dynamic relation between word, action, and reflection.2
Youth bearing questions is not always a comforting image for adults. The problem is not that youth have theological questions; it’s that adults don’t feel equipped to give them appropriate answers. Most times the questions help young people reinforce their deepest faith convictions and develop a richer appreciation for their faith traditions. At other times, the questions may challenge traditional religious language, practices, or images that perpetuate exclusion or injustice. Youth are looking for affirming ways of relating to their faith. In what ways does your youth ministry bring young people to an active and liberating faith? It’s in the teachable moments that we should serve as loving theological dialogue partners on this journey with youth.
Learning to question should not be done in a vacuum. Christian practices are a way of exploring the meaning of the Christian faith. They’re practices of communal and personal action that draw us closer to God and one another.
As youth explore and examine the tensions and ambiguities of their faith, they need mentors and spiritual companions who are ready to listen, love, and learn with them on their journey. Cultivating relationships with loving, caring adults is one way young people improve their own capacity for raising critical theological questions. Mentors provide guidance at a time of critical thought development and formation.3 When young people engage in the Christian practices of Bible study or service and reflect critically with a mentor or spiritual companion, it helps them develop their identities and discover their deep passions.
There will always be big questions of meaning, purpose, and faith that young people will raise on their faith journeys.4 Learning to question is a lifelong process that requires courage. The process seldom leads to immediate answers, but instead leads to “living the questions.”5 This search for deeper meaning shapes both the seeker and companion and nurtures the whole congregation. How will your congregation help young people live out their questions of faith? Below are some practical ways that congregations can walk alongside youth engaged in critical questioning as a faith formation practice. Talk with and learn from your youth ministry leaders and add to this list as you prayerfully examine the needs of youth in your church.
Ways to Use Critical Questioning as a Faith Formation Practice with Youth
- Serve as mentors and spiritual companions for youth.
- Encourage youth to engage in or create Christian practices that will deepen their understanding of God’s presence in their lives.
- Encourage youth to journal their questions or write a letter to God in the form of questions. Create a prayer ritual, and design a sacred space or prayer box where the letters can be placed and left for a couple of days. Later, have the youth come back to reflect on and re-engage what they learned when they stepped back from their questions.
- Design contemplative retreats for youth where they can experience Christian practices in community and engage in exercises of critical thinking and theological reflection with adults.
- Get youth involved in service work and afterward convene some small groups with lay leaders to reflect on pressing questions or thoughts that surfaced in the midst of or as a result of the service.
1. Paulo Freire and Antonio Faundez, Learning To Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1989), 37.
2. Freire and Faundez, Learning to Question, 38.
3. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 128.
4. Parks, Big Questions, Worth Dreams, 137–38.
5. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1993), 35.