When I started leading confirmation classes I inherited the practice of meeting with each student one-on-one before presenting them to our elders for membership. At first, I didn’t really know what I was doing and basically just asked them about their experience in the confirmation program. Eventually, I realized that this was a sacred opportunity to invite them to talk about important matters of faith in their own words. Years later the importance of this practice was validated by the National Study of Youth and Religion when the researchers reported that most of the youth they interviewed had never had this kind of conversation with an adult.
For years my list of theological questions basically followed the contours of Christian systematic theology. What do you believe about God? What do you believe about Jesus? What is the Bible? What is the purpose of church?
When I noticed that most of the answers to these questions were adolescent versions of the kinds of theological answers Christians often provide to such questions, I began to fear that confirmation was becoming nothing more than an academic exercise. Churches and youth ministries spend a lot of time talking about doctrines but not nearly enough time experiencing God. It’s been said that many Christians know a lot about God without actually knowing God. I didn’t want my confirmation program to perpetuate this paradoxical problem.
So I started asking this question: How do you know God is real? Almost every student responded with something like this: “Well, I don’t know for sure. You can’t prove God’s existence. You just have to trust or believe. That’s why they call it faith.”
This is a developmentally appropriate answer for and adolescent. But I wanted to push them a little further, so I started asking this question: How have you experienced God’s presence in your life? Some could articulate a response and some had a difficult time—which tells us that youth ministry needs to devote considerably more time to contemplative spirituality.
These two questions—How do you know God is real? and How have you experienced God’s presence in your life?—have become cornerstone questions in my evangelism work. Both youth and adults need to be challenged to understand faith as more than simply believing something that can’t be proven or believing an unbelievable story. If this is what faith is, why choose one unbelievable story over any other? Every religion—and every non-religion—has unbelievable stories. Why is the story of Jesus—and more importantly, the reality behind it—worth following?
“What do you believe?” is the underlying question of many of our church practices. It’s the basic question behind our Sunday School learning outcomes and our lists of things we want children to know before confirmation. It’s the question we ask confirmands as they present statements of faith and publically profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. It’s the question in worship that prompts our recitation of a creed or confession of faith. It’s what we ask candidates for ordination.
“How do you know God is real?” is a more important question. While I appreciate our progressive critiques of certainty, I think these are most helpful with regard to the particulars of our faith, not the existence of the divine altogether. Without grounding ourselves in an experiential knowledge of the divine, all of our God-talk is just a bunch of interesting concepts and ideas. But God is not an idea.
I’m convinced that mature faith and transformative spirituality is rooted in experience. I’m convinced that evangelism—in youth ministry and beyond—is about articulating that experience in compelling ways that just might resonate with other people and help them recognize God’s presence in their lives and throughout the world.