I know what it is like to question. After growing up in the evangelical church, I did a Ph.D. in philosophy in a department that was almost all atheists. I know how disorienting it can be to question your most central beliefs and values, and I know how lonely it can be when you’re no longer sure where you fit or who your people are.
From the outpouring of responses following the heartbreaking death of 37-year-old Rachel Held Evans, the Christian writer known as the “voice of the wandering evangelical,” it is clear that I am not alone in my doubts and questions. There are a lot of people who feel like spiritual outsiders, not quite sure where they fit.
What should churches do with all the questioners?
Given that Barna found that roughly half of those who reported either currently or previously experiencing spiritual doubt reported leaving the church, this question has serious implications for the future of the church.
I do not pretend to speak for all wanderers and wonderers. People question and challenge the church for different reasons. Some have doubts about whether God exists or whether he is good. Some have doubts about whether the church is right about social or political issues. Some, like me, have questioned all of it.
People also have different experiences when questioning or challenging the church. Some find that their questions are welcomed. Others find their questions politely dismissed. Some find the door slammed in their faces for even asking.
I can’t speak for all the questioners, but I can offer one perspective of what it is like to be a questioner. I can also offer another perspective. As an ethicist, I research, write, and teach about why we don’t always get along with people we disagree with and what we can do to get along better. This is important because if we want to know how to make the church a safe place for those who question, we need to know more than just that we should listen — we also need to know how to listen well.
For churches that want to know how to listen well to the questioners, here are four key places to start.
- Don’t wait until we “have our act together”
Churches are often good at publicizing the success stories — the mother whose cancer miraculously disappears, the wayward teen who gives his life to Jesus and is immediately transformed, the praying family on the brink of foreclosure who receives an anonymous envelope of money on their doorstep. These are the kinds of testimonies churches really like people to share on Sunday morning. Stories that show that God is good and powerful and wise and that he takes care of his people.But what about all the other stories? What about the mother who dies way too young? Or the family that prays incessantly but still loses their house? Or the teen who gives his life to Jesus but still struggles with depression? Why do these stories so often go unshared in church?
When we only hear success stories, we get the false impression that our story is only worth sharing once we’ve conquered our problems. We hear: Come back when you’re a success story; we like it better when people’s imperfections are in the past.
What can churches do to help the questioners? You can start by letting people share their broken, unresolved, or challenging stories. We need to know that being different or having struggles doesn’t make us less valuable to the community. Don’t wait for us to “get over” our doubts or addictions or depression or sexual orientation before welcoming us into the community. If you’re waiting for us to “get over” these things, many of us will never find a place in your church.
- Make it safe for us to question
If we want questioners to have a place in the church, we need to make it safe for people to question. That doesn’t mean that we can never disagree or that we can’t speak what we see as the truth. But we need to be careful how we are speaking our truth.One way to make conversations about contentious theological, social, or political issues less threatening is by not socially excluding those who disagree with us. As Rachel Held Evans said so well: “One of the most destructive mistakes we Christians make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationship, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.” For many people, the cost of asking hard questions would be too high if they risked losing their friends, family, or church if they don’t agree with everything their group believes.
This also needs to extend beyond the church walls. When Christians make hurtful and incendiary comments about those they disagree with — whether online or in real life — people notice. If people in the church show contempt for a group that we might identify with, they treat us with contempt too.
Being kind to those we disagree with not only helps those individuals feel loved and respected, it can help the whole church. When we see other people in our group get along with those who are different from us, we become less prone to dehumanize and more likely to cooperate with those outside our group.
If you are wondering whether your church is sending off a threat of social exclusion, take a look at who is involved in your church and what they do and don’t do. If no one ever challenges the status quo, that’s an indication that questioners might not feel safe there.
- Don’t just try to protect, convert, or convince us
The desire to persuade people often comes from a good place — the desire to share truth with people we care about. But it can also be egocentric — I know the truth and I want to save you from your lies — which goes against the spirit of respectful dialogue. If your only aim as a church is to get questioners to change our minds, this sends the message that the church doesn’t care about what we have to say and that you don’t think you have anything to learn from us.Another inclination the church might have toward questioners is to try to protect us from what you see as false or misleading views. Please don’t. That doesn’t make the questions or issues disappear; it just makes us think that the church can’t answer them and that you don’t trust us to either. And feeling that the church is overprotective is one of the main reasons young people are leaving the church.
Don’t just let the questioners question, though; encourage a curious mindset in the whole church. Researchers have found that being in groups makes us less likely to check our facts, so asking questions rather than just assuming we are right can help us all get closer to the truth. Curiosity can also help combat ideological extremism by helping promote open-minded engagement and leading us to interact more with contrary sources of information. By encouraging a spirit of curiosity in the church, we can create a more charitable community and a safer space for asking questions.
- We all need to be more patient and gracious
This last one is for all of us. We could all show a little more patience and a little more grace. We could be less judgmental when well-intentioned people don’t know the politically correct language or ask the “wrong” questions. We could stop demanding perfection from imperfect people and, instead, encourage each other to keep trying.And for the questioners who have moved on from where their faith started, Jen Hatmaker has some wise advice for us: “We don’t have to burn down the house simply because we’ve moved our things out. Other good folks probably still live there, and until one minute ago, we did too. We can bless the honorable parts of that house and express sincere gratitude for what we learned under its roof.”
No matter where we find ourselves, let’s remember that we’re all neighbors.