the shape of leadership

Walking With Doubters

Five things to remember when ministering to people who are struggling in their faith

Erica Barthalow on May 14, 2019

A college student can’t reconcile her faith with what a professor said in class — and concludes the fault must lie in her faith. A teen, concerned with social justice, wonders how a loving God could allow poverty and corruption to run rampant. A young businessman struggles to understand where God is in the midst of his personal struggle with depression.

These are the kinds of challenges today’s church leaders are facing as they minister to millennials and Generation Z.

A 2011 Barna Group report revealed that many millennials were disenchanted and leaving church. Among the top six reasons they gave for their departure was, “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” That’s a problem. After all, if people don’t feel comfortable talking about their doubts in church, where will they turn?

I believe it’s not too late to reverse this trend. With a thoughtful and sensitive approach, we can create safe, inviting environments that encourage people of all ages to open up about their doubts and questions, giving us the opportunity to provide wisdom and guidance as they navigate the sometimes-scary path through doubt.

But there are some things we need to keep in mind if we want to be helpful, not hurtful.

I learned firsthand how important it is to address doubt correctly. During 2007, my husband and I were serving as missionaries in Northern India with our two small children. Within three months of arriving in the country, my sheltered faith was fractured. Along with culture shock, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, I battled waves of doubt. I began questioning God’s character and role in my pain.

Much of what I felt, thought and said during that season was shocking to my family and friends — and even to me. Thankfully, I was surrounded by people who were wise enough to steward that season in my life with grace and love. Their support ultimately played a pivotal role in helping me emerge with a much stronger faith.

Since that time, I’ve walked with others as they wrestled with doubts. Here are five things I’ve learned about helping people who are experiencing a crisis of faith:

Doubt can be a lonely road, but it doesn’t have to be.

1. Don’t minimize it. You can’t ignore doubt and hope it will go away. Doubts and deep questions often arise from painful and difficult circumstances. As leaders, we need to be willing to acknowledge that. Don’t pretend it’s just a phase or hope they’ll outgrow it when they’re older and wiser.

Be honest. If you’ve experienced doubts yourself, that’s a great way to connect and build trust. Sometimes, all a person needs to hear is that you’ve had doubts too — that he or she is not alone. Doubt can be a lonely road, but it doesn’t have to be.

2. Ask questions. You can’t always know what is happening inside another person’s head or heart. Don’t assume doubters just want to sow wild oats. Many of today’s young people are extremely thoughtful and sensitive. They need leaders who will help them process their thoughts and feelings in a constructive and healthy way.

You have the ability to make powerful inroads with three little words: “I don’t know.” Some things in life are simply inexplicable, but we often try to offer explanations anyway. Dogmatic certainty can be a real conversation killer. There are times when admitting you don’t know why something occurred is the best response.

Today’s young people respect someone who readily admits they don’t have all the answers. In a world of so-called experts, humbly confessing we don’t know everything can be refreshing. It’s possible the doubters in your path aren’t looking for answers from you anyway — just a listening ear and a friend for the journey.

3. Recognize it’s not about you. This is their journey. Don’t take their crises of faith or rejection of God personally. If we steward the moment well, we can have the incredible privilege of walking alongside people as God weaves a redemptive story.

4. Don’t panic. As church leaders, we understand the stakes are high when someone is experiencing doubt and considering walking away from God. It can be hard not to panic, especially when it’s someone we care deeply about. But we have to trust that God is sovereign over a person’s story and He can use every part of it — including their doubts — to write a masterpiece of redemption.

5. Believe God is at work. Don’t assume doubt will destroy their faith. Trust God to use this season of questions to make their faith stronger and more resilient. See their doubt as an opportunity to grow, not a catastrophe or a failure.

If we can keep these five things in mind, those struggling with doubt will welcome our influence and presence. Our job is to point them to Jesus rather than away from Him. Our words and reactions during this season can be powerful. They will either open the door of communication wide or slam it shut.

Choose to welcome the conversation and be part of the story of hope God is writing through the doubter’s journey.

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