On the first night of a Wyld Life1 camp, I sat on the floor in a circle with a group of five middle school girls. Although I had been given a few suggested questions to base the cabin discussion on, I decided to come up with some on my own. Mostly, my motivation to ditch the prescribed questions that first night came from a desire to get to know the girls better, particularly regarding where they are in their understanding of and relation to God. Before asking the questions, though, I made it very clear that it would be a safe place to share, to be vulnerable, and to question.
What would it look like if we cultivated a similar space for searching, if our kids felt as open as Peter to ponder and to seek truth? […] As teachers, we can work intentionally and diligently to create an environment where questions about God, the Bible, the world, life, and justice are not only welcomed, but warmly encouraged.
What came out that night took me by surprise. After the girls shared a bit about where they saw themselves in relation to God and the church, I asked them if they had any questions. There were no strings attached. Looking back, I probably would have set the evening up differently, because what came next was a flood of deep, thoughtful, and personal questions about God, the Bible, a Christian’s relationship to the world, and life. The questions were welcomed—that is what I had asked for, after all!—but I simply didn’t have the time to address them all even remotely well. I spent the next few days weaving them into discussions, both with the group as a whole and with individual girls. However, I struggled to adequately address the number of questions that were brought up that first night. That night also generated a few questions of my own.
Are We Cultivating a Culture of Curiosity?
The girls had so many great questions that I had to wonder—had they ever felt permission to ask them before? Is genuine curiosity being nurtured and encouraged in our youth ministries? I’m concerned that in our desire to teach content and offer fun programs we frequently fail to open the floor for serious question-asking. This would take time, vulnerability, and uncomfortable growth, both from youth leaders and from the kids themselves.
In the gospel of John, Jesus is revealed as a great teacher, who not only thoughtfully answered questions posed to him, but who also seems to actually have provoked and invited questions from his followers. Jesus cultivated a culture of curiosity. Not only did he encourage Nicodemus’ search for truth (John 3:1–21) and the Samaritan woman’s quest for meaning (John 4:7–30), but he also responded lovingly time and time again to his blundering disciples, particularly Simon Peter. Peter blurted out question after question to Jesus, not feeling inhibited by the teacher’s vast wisdom. Rather, he must have sensed Christ’s welcome to come and to learn. At one point during the Passover Feast, Peter even motioned to another disciple to question Jesus for him, since he was sitting closer to Christ than Peter (John 13:23–25).
What would it look like if we cultivated a similar space for searching, if our kids felt as open as Peter to ponder and to seek truth? In some cases, our kids might have a long list of questions, but need either confidence in themselves or assurance that their questions are wanted and welcomed. In other cases, our kids might struggle to uncover their latent curiosity, finding it hard to come up with questions. In both cases, as teachers, we can work intentionally and diligently to create an environment where questions about God, the Bible, the world, life, and justice are not only welcomed, but warmly encouraged.
Are We Prayerfully Discerning the Heart of the Matter?
When Jesus encountered the woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar, he revealed a knowledge about her life and her struggles that could not have been known from a simple examination of what she said. When she asked, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9) and “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (John 4:11–12), Jesus responded by guiding her on her quest for him. He knew what lay behind her questions—the deeper pain and deeper longing that was in her heart.
In addition to cultivating a culture of curiosity, we must also work to discern what rests within the questions our kids ask. Some people are naturally gifted with this type of discernment. Often, though, in addition to prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it requires years of experience to become adept at wisely seeing what is not observable, or rather hearing what isn’t said. This isn’t to say that we should gruesomely be picking apart the question asked, only to end up answering a completely different question. We absolutely must listen to and address the issue on the table. Sometimes, however, the issue at hand is both about where the living water comes from and about a person’s spiritual state. A wise teacher, like Christ, sees both the question itself and what lurks underneath the question—and responds to both.
Are We Responding with Love and Patience?
When I was bombarded with questions that first night of camp, I found that I could not possibly answer them all. I was also fully aware that my responses that night would dictate how open to sharing the girls felt during following cabin discussions. Instead of trying to answer them all, I listened actively, probing for clarity, and another leader wrote down each question that was asked. From that point, answers to the questions either came up naturally in later group discussions or were offered during one on one conversations with the girls.
We won’t ever have complete answers, but we can guide our kids toward biblical truth—toward the way, the truth, and the life—in how we respond and in what we say and do. The content of your response will depend on the question and questioner. However, the way it is answered can always be with love and with patience.
We can once again look to Jesus to discover how to better respond to questions. In all three examples given—Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and Simon Peter—Jesus responds with extreme love and patience. Knowing what he knew, Jesus shows incredible patience with these followers, who ask him seemingly obvious questions. Even in other less-gentle instances of Jesus answering questions in the gospels, he responds to each and every person with unending love. Our love for our kids, which reflects Christ’s love, can be evident in how we respond to their questions and to their searching.
Beyond encouraging curiosity and discerning the heart of the matter, we must also answer well. In love and with patience, we can get our kids to go deeper by asking more questions and by thinking of creative answers. How else can we minister following Christ’s example than to meet our kids where they are, at the very heart of their own questions?
1. Wyld Life is a part of Young Life, ministering specifically to middle school aged youth.
Kelsey Lambright is a Practical Theology PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Academically, her interests include Christian education, missional formation, and ecclesiology. When she isn’t holed up in the library, she enjoys reading for fun, knitting, and traveling with her husband, Marcus.