The Ministry of Questioning Everything
I am both hopeful and saddened as I reflect on young people and their connections to Christian traditions and communities. Many young people still consider religion an important part of their lives.1 But increasingly youth and young adults do not feel that churches welcome their involvement or the issues significant to them.2
The narratives of the young men and women I have interviewed over the past decade propel me in my work to empower congregations and individuals along their journey of faith development. Marissa, a 17-year-old from the Northeast, captures the complexity when she states, “… My church is constantly begging for youth, and when they have them in the church, they like run them off; they are constantly ‘you can’t do this,’ and it violates our youth …”
Marissa hears the hypocrisy or confusion of so many congregations who purport to want youth and young adult involvement but then remain closed to their ideas and gifts. Marissa’s language emphasizes the pain of many young people who attempt to work within religious communities.
As I ponder Marissa’s critique, I also reflect on the kinds of faith formation found in the Bible and the life of Jesus. The narratives about Jesus’ ministry are full of boundary crossing, questioning the establishment, and hanging out with more sinners than saints. I see a model of youth ministry based on Jesus as the one who questions everything.
As a tween, at the age of 12, Jesus inaugurates his own ministry of questions. He sits in the temple among the teachers, inquiring. And he not only questions but begins to amaze those who encounter his pre-teen zeal for knowledge – “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). In true adolescent fashion, Jesus gets caught up in what he was doing, loses track of time, fails to tell his parents where he was going to be. And when he is chastised for getting left behind, he sasses his mother – saying, “Didn’t you know I have to be about my father’s business?” (Luke 2: 41-52)
From this starting point, we see numerous examples of Jesus’ direct challenges to the practices of his day. Jesus questions the traditions of not healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). Jesus questions social structures by lifting up little children as models for the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15) and teaching that “some who are first shall be last” (Mark 10:31). He challenges the corruption in the Jerusalem temple, when he reminds the people that God’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer but they have made it into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12-13).
He questions the generational relationships between Samaritans and Jews and he esteems the Samaritan as a model of care for the neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).
He also questions some of the traditions of interaction between men and women by engaging with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
In general, he questions socio-political and religious norms by embodying a compassionate vision of the kingdom of God, which had very little in common with contemporary political structures.
The idea of Jesus having a ministry of “questioning everything” is not simply an intriguing interpretive lens for reading about the life of Jesus. For me it is a reminder of an essential element of youth and young adult spirituality: Each generation is involved in a journey of making faith its own.
Trying It On
Young adults look at the traditions that have been passed down to them. They strive to see if or how the tradition works and how it can shape their lives. In my observation, the traditions that hold are not primarily the ones young people take on unquestioningly. Instead, the enduring traditions are those that youth are allowed to wrestle with, to try on, and to eventually become shaped by. I often remind students preparing for youth ministry that the last thing they want is a group of young people who take everything they say about God and life without challenge. When youth fail to question, they most often fail to make the tradition their own.
It would be unfair for me to propose questioning as the norm of adolescent and young adult spirituality without acknowledging the difficulties that questions raise. For the most part, religious communities and families are created around understandings of their identity, purpose, and usefulness. And this tentative identity is often what feels challenged by an onslaught of questions.
When a younger person questions why or how something is done, there is a fear that the young (now seen as an outsider) is intentionally contesting the community’s sense of who they are and why they exist. The outsiders are challenging “the way things have always been done” – and by extension challenging the group’s particular and unique identity. Some innocent questions can morph into unwitting threats to ways of being.
However, most questions emerge not from a place of wanting to destroy traditions, but from wanting to understand how things function and how they connect with the vast array of life experiences.
As a kid I loved clocks. I wanted to know how they worked and why they made the tick-tick noises. I wanted to know about the circular parts in the back. As my questions became more difficult, my fascination with clocks pushed me to explore the inside of them. Such that at some ridiculously young age, I began taking clocks apart and putting them back together. My curiosity was never intended to rid the world of all clocks. My exploration was born out of a genuine fascination with them.
My early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood was also a time when my curiosity and questions intersected with my religious life. From these experiences I began to see the importance of questions in the life and work of thriving religious communities. I struggled and then learned to wear as a badge of honor the prestige of often “getting kicked out of Bible study.” In college and the early months of divinity school, pastors and leaders shot down my ideas or questions in public forums.
Lucky for my faith journey and for me, after getting silenced publicly, I was glad to see that some pastors and community members wanted to continue the conversations (in private). Knowing that my theology was evolving, I struggled to return to Bible study in my congregation. But it is clear now that had I not continued to question and to have conversation partners, I would not have persisted in faith or pursued a passion of helping others grow in faith.
James Fowler, in his seminal text Stages of Faith, describes changes in faith that typically occur during late adolescence or early adulthood, when young people have experiences that call into question the symbols, images, practices, and traditions of their communities of origin.
Sometimes the trigger can be a first romantic relationship or a cross-cultural friendship. In light of these experiences, their faith becomes more critically reflective and individuated. And sometimes the communities come up lacking or the practices seem insufficient. In other circumstances, young adults recognize they have to wrestle with the faith tradition and imagine it in new ways in order to make it their own – and not simply accept the faith of their parents, pastor, or friends.
In Fowler’s theory, many young adults – just by nature of maturing – encounter questions that can then lead either to a crisis of faith or an enlightening moment. Embracing the importance of faith questions prepares communities for the turbulent changes young adults will experience as they move through life. When we accept questions as a way of being faithful we begin to live into the inquisitive faith of Jesus, and we honor the fullness of who God has created us to be.
Walter Brueggemann reminds us that any community that wants to survive beyond a generation has to concern itself with education.3 Like Fowler, Brueggemann proposes a model of education and community that honors questions. He accounts for the inquisitive young children, who are yearning to know the narratives of the community. He notes the ruptures – often the prophetic speaking of truth to power – of adolescents and young adults, who offer new eyes and skills to question our complicity with the status quo. Brueggemann’s model includes the wisdom tradition, which emerges only from attending to (and I would add exploring or questioning) what we see and learn as we live.
Each of these forms of inquisitive learning shows us a way to be more welcoming to actual young people – with all of their innovations and annoying questions as well as their genuine sense that we can do things differently.
A faithful embrace of questions reminds us that each generation is saying with Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
Almeda M. Wright is assistant professor of religious education at YDS. She is co-editor of the book Children, Youth and Spirituality in a Troubling World (Chalice Press, 2008). She has a B.S. from MIT, an M.A.T. from Simmons College, an M.Div. from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from Emory. She is ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA.
1. The continued importance of religion was noted in the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by Christian Smith and others over the past 10 years. See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).
2. In particular I reflect on a recent study of millennials claiming to leave the church because of its stance on sexuality and homosexuality. See the Huffington Post article, “One-Third Of Millennials Who Left Their Religion Did It Because Of Anti-Gay Policies: Survey,” Feb. 26, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2014/02/26/millennials-gay-unaffiliated-church-religion_n_4856094.html. Another important source is the Pew Foundation research on the “rise of nones.” See http://www. pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ released in 2012.
3. Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as Model for Biblical Education (Fortress Press, 1982).