Outside of many schools and other public buildings, there are signs declaring that the building is a “drug-free zone” or “gun-free zone”. These signs are generally right by the entrance, so you know to leave your drugs and guns at the door (I’m still seeking clarification as to whether harpoons are okay or not). These are good signs that set clear boundaries and are useful in the locations that they are in. But I really think that most people could get by without the sign. You don’t normally see people walk up to a school, read the “drug-free zone” sign, and then turn around and go back to their car instead of going inside. And you certainly don’t see people with harpoons standing outside the “gun-free zone” with confused looks on their faces. Whether the sign is there or not, there are just some things that people know not to bring into certain places.
One of the dangers we face in the church is that our church facilities can become a “question-free zone.” Even though we don’t have a sign at the entrance declaring it so, there are many ways that we set up such a zone. We set up this zone through solely lecture-based education in which our members sit silently and listen the whole time. We create this environment through confirmation programs that are only about memorization and spitting back rote answers that don’t force our young people to wrestle with the teachings of the church. We foster this mindset by shutting down those who question the doctrine or practice of the church. When pastors and other church workers are seen as automatically and inherently infallible in all of their teachings, we don’t even think to question what they say or search the Scriptures to verify the message. We can get into the mindset that if you question the church, it means you’re not a “good Christian” or don’t have enough faith. With all this, it’s easy to see how questions can be squelched in the church (even for good causes like pure doctrine) yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
The main underlying fear behind questions is the fear of being wrong. We don’t want to be proven wrong, so it’s better to not have anyone ask questions that could possibly show us to be wrong. This is true across really any subject in life, but is especially poignant when considering doctrine. What if someone asks a question and proves our doctrine wrong? What if these questions cause others to doubt or even reject their faith? These are legitimate fears, driven out of a God-given desire to keep His sheep in the fold. So it’s better to just have an unwritten rule declaring the church to be a “question-free zone” where you just nod your head in agreement to whatever is taught, and keep your wrestling with questions and wonderings silently in your head so as not to distract or disturb others.
There are numerous problems with this practice that could and should be discussed at length by others in the field, but I want to share two truths that can help us get past our fear of questions in the church. The first truth is this: God and His Word can handle it. Here’s the thing about doctrine, I don’t get to pick it. I don’t get to pick what I want God to say or not. Only God does. The only teaching I’m concerned about is His. Our interpretation of things can be wrong and should be questioned in those instances. Our main concern should be God’s doctrine, which is never wrong and can stand up against any questioning. God’s infallible Word will endure any test and trial you put it through. So the question that we need to be constantly asking in the church is, “Where is that in Scripture?” Asking that question led Martin Luther towards the doctrine that we now confess as a church body, so we should always welcome a return to that form of questioning because it keeps us rooted in God’s Word instead of our own ideas or tradition.
The second truth that I think is essential for overcoming the issue of questions in the church is this: even if churches may be a “question-free zone,” the world is certainly not. This is especially relevant for those of us involved in youth ministry. If we don’t allow our young people to wrestle with questions, fears and doubts while they are in the church, then someone else will. Oftentimes, that someone else is not Christian and will offer very different answers to those questions than what God’s Word says. I think this is one of the reasons why so many American Christians fall away from the faith in college. They did not really have an open opportunity to ask questions while in youth group or confirmation, and were left alone with those lingering doubts. Then they go off to college where someone else is asking those same questions, but not allowing any time for the searching of Scripture for answers.
We all have questions, things we’re not sure of, and ideas we just don’t understand. Instead of running away from them, ignoring them or pushing them aside, let’s talk about them. Thank others for the questions they’re asking. Offer up questions of your own that get at why we believe what we believe instead of just making them memorize the “correct” information. Give each student a note card at each class that they can write questions on and have a box where they can put them in anonymously. Gather those notecards throughout the year and hold a Q&A Bible study a few times a year so that you are continually giving the youth an opportunity to get their questions out in the open and discuss them together. Make sure they have your contact information so they can approach you individually with questions and things they are wrestling with. Most importantly, teach them how to search the Scriptures for answers. Point them back to God’s Word as the foundation for their faith and life. When the storms of questions, fears and doubts come, they will not be moved because they are built on the only foundation that lasts, the Word of God (Luke 6: 47-48). Let us keep always before us the great truth from Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”