This past spring I was invited to be a guest speaker for an Introduction to Philosophy class. Here was the setup—they had just been reading Dostoyevsky and looking at the plausibility of religious commitments in the face of suffering and doubt. I was introduced as “someone who was relatively educated, for the most part rational, and still believed in God.” How’s that for a welcome? I just started laughing, and settled in for what would surely be an interesting hour. The topic of the day was doubt. What is the role and function of doubt in a Christian’s experience of faith? Is there room for doubt in the Christian community? Does doubt negate faith? How should we handle the doubt of others within the experience of a Christian community? These were the questions that the hosting professor established, and then he sat down.
Our desire to teach young people must be surpassed by our love for them. Education—especially Christian education—isn’t just about content, it’s about people… To learn about love, they must experience love.
I walked up to the board, grabbed a marker, and accepted the fact that I was on my own. For whatever reason, I just wrote the word “doubt” on the board, and then turned around and asked what else they would like to talk about? What other questions did they have about Christianity and the faith? I was shocked, it felt like the floodgates opened and for about 15 minutes they rattled off question after question about science, the Bible, sexuality, creation, war, pluralism, conversion, proofs of God, etc. etc. After a while I joked that if we kept going, we could burn the hour and they would help me escape the fact that I couldn’t answer all these questions simply because time had run out! It made for an amazing conversation, and I hope that my willingness to affirm good questions without having all the answers reflected a genuine sense of God’s invitation and love. But for sure, I know more was going on there than simply a conversation about faith and doubt. The students were experiencing a Christian, not just Christian thought. What mattered wasn’t just that I shared answers to a few questions, and doubt about others, but that I was willing to share myself and share in their questions. I was hoping to put my love for them on display.
Our desire to teach young people must be surpassed by our love for them. Education—especially Christian education—isn’t just about content, it’s about people.
I teach youth ministry at a small secular liberal arts school called Flagler College. I know—that last sentence still shocks me at times as well. Youth ministry in a secular college? Anyways, it has become painstakingly clear to me that my students want more from me than just well thought-out lectures, solid classes, and intentional reading lists. They want me. They want my time, my friendship, my voice in their lives. They want my affirmation and they want my solidarity. They need to know their crises are valid, and that they are not alone. I want them to know all about youth ministry, all about how to lead, how to love, how to think well, and how to ask great questions. But I also want them to learn about this as we practice that kind of community in the first place. To learn about love, they must experience love. So, they come over for dinner.
My father-in-law built us a large banquet style table that seats 14 when crammed together. We gather around the table, and my wife and I prepare feasts for each of my classes at the beginning of the semester. Our hope is to foster community, to invite people further into relationship with one another, with myself, and with my family. I realize that the greatest gifts I have to offer my students—much like the greatest gifts I could offer to the philosophy class—are my time, attention, and my love. My hope is that by practicing ministry together, by embracing each other, we might actually be drawn further into God’s presence and learn how to love and be loved. This would mean welcoming questions of doubt, celebrating and suffering together in community, and experiencing true fellowship. Is this proper to the classroom? Is it central to youth ministry? I think the answer in both cases should be yes. I wonder sometimes if our implicit curriculums, the way in which we teach, are louder than any Sunday school lessons, small group studies, or youth group talks ever could be? The continuity of our word and deed might actually be the central means by which we communicate the good news we long for our friends to understand and experience.
May the ways in which we teach put our lessons on display.
Justin Forbes serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. Currently a candidate for his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Justin is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary earning a Masters of Divinity as well as a Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry. He also attained a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Having spent 12 years working for Young Life, and serving locally in his church, Justin brings a broad base of experience across different types of youth ministry to include urban, multicultural, suburban, special needs, and college ministries. He is the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry, a youth ministry resource organization, and is a proud foster parent. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. He and his wife Bethany live in St. Augustine, FL with their 4+ children.