How to teach faith to teenagers starting to question everything

OfA asks:

I teach teenagers in church, but recently they have become increasingly difficult to manage, questioning everything. What can I change to make them cooperate? The age range is 14 -16, boys and girls. P.S: I am a mother of two teenagers, a boy and a girl.

Hi OfA –

            I love your question.  Because you’re getting at such an important aspect of the development of humans!  When we puppies are first put on leashes, we have no idea what to do, and fall down, or pull, or whatever, in complete confusion.  But later, as we learn what we’re supposed to do and how leashes work, we start to actively, knowingly, fight against them.  We’ll pull away, try to walk ahead of our people, take the leash in our mouths – anything to feel in control.  That doesn’t make us bad dogs; it’s fully normal and actually a sign of character and intelligence.  Sure, it has to be “trained out” of us, but it’s nothing of any concern.

            Similarly, humans go through two main stages when growing up, when they’re just oppositional as anything.  The first is, famously, around two years old, what’s often called “the terrible Twos.”  That’s when you guys learn the ability to say “No,” and all hell breaks loose.  You become obstinate, demanding, and refusing of all sorts of things.  And if your parenting is good, this is a time when you learn both your strengths and the limits of your strength, the joy of expression and the importance of boundaries.  And you start to get along pretty well with your parents and other authority figures.  And that lasts, oh maybe about ten years.  And then…

            Teenage hits!  After the comparatively healthy experience of childhood, humans get to a point where their bodies change, their interests change, and their brains grow – and suddenly they experience the really odd sensation of being neither children nor adults, or maybe it’s both children and adults.  And they hit a wonderful frustration where they realize that everything they took for granted as children (that their parents are right about everything, that their society’s rules all make sense, that theirs is the only acceptable religion, etc.) might not be completely true.  And so they enter a time of doubt.  Of questioning everything.  And, usually, of deciding that everything they’ve ever been told is actually false!

This period lasts a few years, after which, if all goes well, the young adults start to actually think for themselves.  No longer are Mom and Dad always right, or always wrong, but rather… well, I’ll defer to Mark Twain on this one, who famously said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Now you’re dealing with this struggle on two fronts.  First, as a parent.  But it sounds as though you’re managing that one pretty well.  But then, as a teacher in a church!  Where of course your job involves teaching things that are based in faith – which means always open to question!

How can anyone do it?

Well I have one answer – by encouraging just that sort of thinking.  By siding with the doubting, questioning, minds of the teens instead of struggling against them.

Look at yourself.  You sound like an intelligent person (especially as ONLY the most intelligent people join my Pack!).  Have you never questioned the teachings of your faith?  How did you arrive at the conclusions that made you devout enough to teach them yourself?  Your job is to help your students through that process. 

Besides, I don’t know what faith you work in, but doesn’t it include doubt in its teachings?  Judaism includes the story of Job, who questioned how badly his life was going.  Christianity includes Jesus’ times of doubt, as well as countless stories of the doubts of the apostles and saints.  And both of those and Islam all include the story of Abraham’s questioning of the order to kill his son.  And of course the Buddha went through years of indulgence in everything other than the wisdom he eventually learned!

So I’d start with these sorts of parables – how did others in your faith’s history contend with doubt, with questioning?

And then I’d go even deeper.  What do your students question about the faith itself?  For example, in the book of Genesis, there are two completely different versions of the story of creation.  Can both be accurate?  If not, how do you explain that?  What’s the history of the writing of your main texts?  Did they come out at different times?  Who is on record as writing them?  Are there issues of translation?

Do you see what I’m doing?  I’m engaging the curiosity, the questioning, the impassioned teenagehood of the students.  I’m telling them that they’re absolutely right to be in the mindset they’re in.  And as such, I’m letting them know that they’re miracles of creation just as they are… just as your church does!  Doing this gives them a reason to actually accept the teachings of your faith, because it has allowed them room to question, and yes, to doubt.

            Anyway, it’s worth a try.  See what happens.  If it doesn’t work, you won’t be any worse off than you were.

            And if it does?  Well then you’ll find your students saying “I can’t believe how much OfA learned in one week!”

            Best of Luck!  Please let me know how it goes!


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