What questions do adolescents have about the Christian faith?
I recently surveyed 208 scripture kids about their top 10 questions about the Christian faith and was surprised by some of the results. These kids were between 11-14 years old and came from 11 different schools in the Northern, Southern and South-Western suburbs of Sydney.
You would expect these kids to be fairly well informed about the Christian faith, being part of scripture classes rather than being complete outsiders from the Church. Also, you would expect that a proportion of these kids would have come from Christian families.
The four biggest questions were:
1. How can I know that God exists?
2. How could a good God send people to hell?
3. How can I believe in a good God when there is so much suffering?
4. Doesn’t evolution prove that God doesn’t exist?
What strikes me about those questions is that they are very focused on the question of God’s existence and his nature: Is he really a good and just God? We cannot merely assume that young people will believe in the existence of God. Mason and Singleton in their survey book of the religious beliefs of Generation Y claim that under 50% believe in the existence of God.*
In our apologetics we often get caught up in the questions that we think are important, like: “did Jesus rise from the dead?” “Why doesn’t God want us to have sex before marriage?” “Can I take the bible literally?”These are good questions, but we should be dealing with the more foundational questions first such as: “Who is God?” even when we are teaching kids that we think are well informed.
In the survey, as well as choosing from a range of questions, there was the option of writing down your own question. Popular questions that came up repeatedly were:
1. Where does God come from?
2. Why did God make us?
3. If the Big Bang is true does that mean God is not?
4. What is heaven & hell and how do you go there?
I was surprised by the interest in life after death that is reflected in these questions. I have heard many times that psychologically adolescents live in the moment and are not thinking about long-term consequences, certainly not about death. I had to re-examine my pre-suppositions. Many young people by this age have had to deal with the death of a loved one (say a grandparent) and have had to begin to think about where their loved one is now. The recent interest in vampires may also be part of resurgence in interest in the concept of life after death and a spiritual world. It may be that Generation Y is at times torn between the more materialist worldview of their parents and their interest in life beyond the material world.
Purpose and identity are also issues that adolescents are beginning to engage with as reflected in the question “Why did God make us”? The early psychologist Granville Stanley Hall developed a theory that adolescence was a time of “storm and stress” as children moved from the child to the adult world. The key questions they were asking were:
• in regards to their identity -“Who am I?”
• in regards to their affinity -“Where do I belong?”
• and in regards to their agency -“What do I do?”.
Those that are teaching God’s Word to young people must keep these questions on the agenda in order to communicate effectively with them. The Christian worldview has unique and satisfying answers to these three questions.
The questions of adolescents also show an interest in first causes. At this age adolescents are being taught the scientific law of cause and effect at school as well as the theory of the Big Bang. They seem to take to heart the maxim that every event has a cause: if the cause of the universe is God, then where did God come from, who made God? If the Big Bang is the ultimate cause of the universe, does this mean that we no longer need to believe in God? We need to clearly engage with these scientific questions of causation and show that a scientific explanation of the world and its origin does not rule out belief in God. The importance of this is shown by the number of children who grow up to give up their childhood faith. Mason et al show that the biggest reason for giving up faith at 16%, was “doing further study, especially science" Are we adequately dealing with the questions of origin to give children a coherent Christian worldview that can stand the test of time?
In doing this survey, I have found that I need to change some of my pre-suppositions about what questions adolescents are asking. As we teach them the Christian faith, we may need to go back to the foundational truths of the Christian worldview, particularly the question: Who is God and how do I know he exists?
* Mason, M; Singleton, A; Webber, R; (2007) The Spirit of Generation Y, Mulgrave: John Garratt pub.