As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.
Language of Skepticism
I was once told by a peer at seminary, “No church will allow you to openly ask that question, and certainly no youth should be encouraged to think on it.”
It was a response I’ve run into most of my life.
Suspicions are the death-knell of one’s belief.
Questions are best reserved for television mysteries, not the pulpit.
True faith is marked by one’s trust and obedience to God’s Word. There is simply no room for doubt.
Growing up in a rather conservative Christian household, and nurtured by a rather conservative congregation, skepticism was treated as an obscure foreign language – one whose characters were too challenging to study, whose nuances too pointless to waste time on.
The Word of God was perfect, anyway. Infallible and authoritative. Who are we to question it?
You see, inconsistencies weren’t really inconsistencies, just an absence of understanding on my part. And for a long while, I accepted that. I learned to shrug my shoulders at Genesis 2, the serpent’s honesty in the garden, the flood lasting 40 and also 150 days simultaneously, etc.
I even learned to silence the voices within that anguished when my best friend died in middle school; when my mother announced her intent to divorce my father; when my uncle was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s in his 50’s. I remember hearing things from the churched, saying: God needed another angel in Heaven; God has a plan; we are to rejoice in our sufferings, trusting it will produce endurance.
And to those responses, I would think… “Well, okay, I guess if you all say so.”
And so I continued to mumble my prayers. I went to youth group and volunteered at a local soup-kitchen. I even sometimes wore Jesus t-shirts to high-school (“Today He Forgives” printed over the Tommy Hilfiger moniker – I was quite popular). And so I tricked myself into pretending that things were going along pretty good. That my faith was sturdy enough to survive anything.
But then I went to college. And as the familiar refrain goes, so too went my faith.
The Power of Questions
The questions that once burned in my belly, that were never allowed to rise to my lips, were now foaming at the mouth after having finally been granted permission. And so I became rabid with hostility towards the whole system. Towards the religion that raised me, or blinded me I felt, in ignorance.
Looking back, I think I lost a good 5 years on my walk with Christ.
Now, perhaps this is all only testimony to my own spiritual weakness, but I also can’t help but feel that if only I wasn’t shielded from the questions; if only I wasn’t made to quiet my doubts; if only I was encouraged to think critically about scripture, theology, and faith itself, then maybe I would have been better equipped to handle the challenges posed by our increasingly secular, post-modern society. Perhaps even, I would have discovered that a healthy skepticism can also lead to a more honest investigation of one’s beliefs, and thus a deeper and more substantive articulation of faith.
Interestingly then, it was the questions, and the prospect of examining them for an undisturbed term of three years, that led me to eventually apply to Seminary (I had given my entire childhood to the church, that it only seemed reasonable to give it all one last, serious, shot before throwing it away completely). And it has been the questions, I think, that have defined my ministry for the last eight years at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
They are raised and schooled in such a way, that the winning of their trust (and interest) only comes after the most honest of critical inquiries.
In that time, I have found, here at least in Northwest Philadelphia that a significant number of youth share a similar account to my latest narrative. They are raised and schooled in such a way, that the winning of their trust (and interest) only comes after the most honest of critical inquiries. Why and How, as opposed to What and When, seem to dominate their cerebral cortexes. As such, I think our best approach when educating our youth is to advocate that skepticism is not our religion’s greatest enemy, but rather shockingly perhaps, one of its greatest friends, capable of enriching each of us on our paths toward self-discovery and spiritual renewal.
Faith Seeking Christ
Daniel Migliore affirms that “the witness of Scripture must be studied, pondered, questioned and argued with.”1 Naturally, I agree with this. A faith that does not ask questions stagnates and maybe even risks death. A faith however, that seeks after Christ and wonders about the mysteries of an unseen God is alive and fresh and can be more readily equipped to handle the examinations the world may throw at us.
I propose that we look closer at the Big Questions, and deeper into certain methodologies of Christian education and particular resources for Confirmation curriculum (curriculum, which allows for conversations on such topics like: The Problem of Evil, Heresies of the Church, and The Quest for The Historical Jesus). ] I believe these are ideal for preparing the hearts and minds of inquiring young people. I have reccent Statements of Faith written by teenagers who have studied under this model, and have explored just how far the identity of a Christian can be stretched before arriving at a definition we are potentially uncomfortable with.
Hopefully, by encouraging questions, we will all be equipped to help our young people engage in a more comprehensive and authentic relationship with Christ that yearns for greater depth and understanding, and not just in 2017, but every year thereafter.
1. Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 276.
Brian Russo is the Director of Youth and Senior Adult Ministry at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Brian received his M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2009 and holds a B.A. in Psychology from Seton Hall University, where he spent most of his time studying auto-biographical memory narratives. Brian began at PCCH as the Interim for Senior Adult Ministries, and shortly after was named the Director of Youth and Senior Adult Ministry. His main passion is helping young people navigate the many questions in their lives, specifically, though not limited to reconciling belief with doubt, faith with skepticism. Brian lives in Furlong, PA with his wife Anya, son Seth, and labradoodle Vincent. When he is not at PCCH, he enjoys photography, philosophy, and Radiohead, and has been swept up in the Golden Age of Television (Rectify, The Leftovers, Black Mirror… to name a few). You can find Brian on Facebook or his Instagram at b.d.russo.