This article is borne out of experiences of hearing out various young adults about the journey of their relationship with religion, particularly in my therapeutic work as a adolescent counsellor. In some ways, the journey is not new to me; I dare say I have come full circle myself, but the power of hindsight and a deeper understanding of the young adult’s psychological development has shed much light as I ponder about this topic.
As any youth pastor would know, it is not uncommon to hear of young adults who decide to walk out on the faith of their parents. Some fade away into obscurity, others bang the door and never return. Different emotions often drive the young adult to make this decision – pain, frustration, sadness, anger and occasionally indifference. No young adult makes such a decision lightly or without pain. Very often, they are acutely aware of how their decision are going to impact the friends they have grown up with, and more importantly the parents who love them and brought them up. Unfortunately, pastors don’t matter very much unless the pastor was also a human and a friend and not merely a role.
If they are so aware of the pain and distress their decision could cause, what then drives them to make such a decision? It seems to me that many of them hold it off, hoping to get some form of an answer to a question or healing to an injury; until one day when they can no longer bear the burden of their un-answered questions and un-healed hurts and off they go. When that happens, it often sends shock waves through the church youth community, until the community comes to terms with it, moves on business as usual, and the young adult begins to think that all those teaching about ‘God loves you and you are important to God’ seems more like a bunch of rhetorical bullcrap than a spiritual reality.
I write about this because I have been through that journey myself and I know first-hand the burdens of the questions and the injuries. For years I was a leader in the youth group, but deep inside I struggled with questions about my faith. As I grew older, I also found it harder and harder to swallow a watered-down, simplified understanding of life preached from pulpits that could not water my thirsty soul. I wondered why Christians hurt one another with their words and actions. It hurt that the secular world was often disgusted by Christians for our insensitivities in preaching and many saw us as not much more than hypocrites. Science and philosophy seemed to offer so much more wisdom to the questions of life; and in contrast the Church often could only offer spiritual cliches. It’s a mystery, they would say. Or that all things worked for the good of those who loved God – often in the face of tragic human suffering. So did wisdom truly come from a fear of the Lord?
It was October 2001. I had just completed my A-levels, one of those subjects being International History. If you recall, it was also the time when the Sept 11 attacks shook the entire world. Lives were lost senselessly, and if there was a time I believed in evil, that was it. Questions swirling in my head, I remember having lunch with a pastor in a restaurant at Bugis Junction. Just as well, I thought. I’d ask her all my questions. ‘Why did this happen?’
‘We can only hope this brings revival to the Church in America.’
I blinked. Hard. Huh? Such tragedy, and all we can think of is.. revival? Isn’t that kind of insular given the horror of such evil? Perhaps this began my search for answers and triggered my dissatisfaction.
For the next 10 years, I began to have some very serious doubts about my faith. Why is God Trinity and not ‘unity’ or Tawhid as the Muslims believed? Do people really go to hell? What is the meaning of existence? Isn’t the Buddhist teaching that attachment brings pain much more true than the teaching that sin brings suffering? Did God really say it’s wrong to marry a non-Christian? Is it an abomination to be gay? What is love, anyway? Does God even exist? If God is love, why does the church suck so bad? A friend taught me the phrase: ‘Church sucks, God rocks.’ I couldn’t agree more, not in reference to a particular local church or para-church, but in reference to the fact that the church remains a human institution fraught with sin and pain.
It came to a point, I seriously considered renouncing quietly my faith. Since I knew that would bring a lot of pain, I coped with my own feelings of incongruence by pretending to be a Christian on the outside. I knew how to do it. I had gone through the rituals since I was 15.
Through this journey, I found it harder and harder to listen to sermons without coming away with an extremely intense anger. How could he! How could he trivialise depression as merely a lack of faith! How could he claim the first 5 books of the Bible were written by Moses because Jesus said so! How could he tell elderly that they are sent to the nursing home because they did not make themselves useful!
Yet, if there was one guy I could credit with keeping my faith alive, it was Ravi Zacharias. At one point, he was probably the only Christian speaker I could bear to listen to. I don’t agree with everything he preaches, but for once I found someone who was not afraid to confront the difficult questions of life. He faced them squarely and offered humble, human answers as best as he could. Even when I didn’t agree with him, it was hard not to give credit for his humility and human-ness. What touched me most deeply was when he said in one of his talks: ‘All apologetics must answer not merely the intellectual questions, but the existential questions for meaning.’ I found a glimmer of hope.
Young people walk away from the church for a few different reasons. Some want personal space as they grow into adulthood, and they need to formulate for themselves exactly what they believe. Psychologically-speaking, we call this differentiation; a process where one tests out beliefs, values and ideas they were taught to examine the fit for their own lives and time.
Others have real questions about their own existential concerns: who am I? why am I here? where am I going? how do I make sense of suffering in the worldview of a loving Creator?
Some have serious questions about the validity of the faith, but this tends to happen more in young adults.
So if you are a parent, or a youth pastor, what can be done?
1. Search with all your might for the places you agree with your young adult.
Don’t assume that just because he’s younger, he’s wrong. Young people are often deemed to be idealistic, but oftentimes that is because they have not yet been tainted with the skepticism and money-chasing endeavours of the world. Their questions and doubts almost always come from good intentions and ideas of how they think life and people should be.
As a client recently articulated: “I get really offended every time the pastor says God wants everyone to be happy. I mean. I think about wars, rape victims, children in Syria, and the pastor says everybody is meant to be happy? I think it’s just bull****.’
Young people really need the adults in their lives to affirm and acknowledge their good thoughts and intentions. If not, they learn to shut up and it will be hard to ever hear an honest answer from them ever again.
2. Connect with real life
The lives of adolescents change with such astounding speed, even professionals like ourselves who specialise in working with youth find it hard to keep up. Yet, if you attempt to teach something without actually understanding what they are experiencing, you will be exposed as nothing more than a phony with no credibility. You expect them to listen to your teaching about God when you still think they are on Friendster?
One example I experienced was with a mentor who attempted to teach a youth group about why they shouldn’t go clubbing. Except, well, he had no idea what clubbing was and had never been in a club. He thought they were the same as discos. He thought you absolutely needed to take Ecstacy in order to enter a club. And he thought you could pay sexy karaoke hostesses to sit beside you and stroke your thighs.
Credibility, out the window.
3. Point them to community
Often, if they find it hard to fit in with one community, encourage them to try another one. Not everyone can fit into any community, but it’s very important that young people can find a community where they are accepted, loved and can contribute to. They need a place where their doubts and questions are entertained, embraced and not dismissed, where others can also share about their similar questions. Young adults often can live with their own doubts and questions, but if these doubts – when expressed – lead to alienation and a feeling of alone-ness, then the situation often becomes much more unbearable for them.
4. Shop around
The church is not Christ, pastors are not God. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that messages are shaped as much by the Scriptures as they are by the Pastor’s personality. Is it any surprise then that we have theologians as diverse as Stephen Tong, Edmund Chan, Ravi Zacharias, Kong Hee, John Piper, Joseph Prince? I believe we are called to be married to Christ, not married to a church. I am not advocating a consumerist mindset towards church or to embrace even heretical teaching as truth here. All I’m saying is that some pastors have messages that speak more directly to a particular background, life stage and personality than others. If your child is disillusioned with your church, instead of letting them disappear into the wilderness, encourage them to visit other churches and see if they might find a better fit for themselves.
Personally, attending a church which is authentic and real about the pains of life spoke deeply to me, and in that process I found a measure of healing that helped me to carry on.
5. Embrace doubt
As my friend Irwin reminds us often, ‘Doubt is not the absence of faith. Certainty is.’
It is normal for young adults to have many questions. Remember, doubt does not mean that one does not have faith. In fact, doubt is often a sign that one is taking faith very seriously. If I couldn’t be bothered, why would I raise any questions at all? Encourage your young people to express their questions openly and genuinely dialogue with them. No human is doubtless, particularly about an entity one cannot see. Embrace the doubt, reduce the angst.