People who have left Christianity often tell about how, in their church-going days, they had gone to a pastor with a serious, troubling question, only to get blown off with a superficial, banal answer.
This creates the impression that the church has no answer for them, and that Christianity is itself trivial and irrelevant. And so the questioner, often a teenager or young adult, leaves it behind. But the church does have answers, and Christianity has a rich intellectual and spiritual tradition that pastors and those they minister to can draw on. Nevertheless, the questioner is sent away unsatisfied and never comes back.
I have come across this syndrome when reading about notable atheists and in conversations with people who have left the church. Trevor Sutton, my co-author of Authentic Christianity, has written an article for Gospel Coalition on the subject. He tells about this happening with Voltaire and Steve Jobs (who left an LCMS church), but I was most struck by what he said about his mother, who father died when she was 6 years old. She asked her pastor why he had to die. The pastor told the sorrowing little girl that God needed her father with Him in Heaven. She replied to this pablum by saying that she needs her father with her at home.
To be sure, it’s hard to know what to say sometimes. Turning to pat answers is understandable. Part of the problem is that adults are often condescending and patronizing to children and teenagers. Young people pick up on this attitude and are hurt by it, no matter what the adult says.
Trevor, a Lutheran pastor, gives some very helpful advice for dealing with situations like these. In his article, entitled Tough Questions Don’t Deserve Trivial Answers, he offers four suggestions:
(1) Ask “Why do you want to know?” Sometimes, as in the little girl, the answer is obvious. But sometimes a question that seems to be just a matter of intellectual curiosity is actually the cover for a deeper concern. “Understanding why someone is asking a question helps you to know how best to respond.”
(2) Serious answers often take time. Don’t just respond off the top of your head. Be willing to say, “Can I get back to you on that? I’d like to give you a thoughtful response.”
(3) Answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). “Gentleness and respect means asking for further clarification before answering, respecting the other person enough to give the question adequate time, and offering a thoughtfully nuanced response. Respect might also mean humility—admitting to the asker you don’t have a fully adequate answer and that you have wrestled with the question too.”
(4) Be willing to switch media. “Simply because someone has posed a question in one medium doesn’t mean you must respond in the same medium.” That is, if someone asks you a question on Twitter, don’t just tweet back. Some questions call for a more personal response, such as a face-to-face meeting.
Read the entire article, especially if you are a pastor.
Photo: Rev. A. Trevor Sutton, via Twitter
HT: Paul McCain