Don’t Be the Answer-Guy

Posted: January 31, 2012 in faith development, Fowler, junior high ministry, learning, middle school ministry

Don’t you just love when middle schoolers ask deep questions?

If one of my students asks a really good question during a youth group or small group function, my heart just lights up. Whether it has anything to do with the actual topic we’re talking about… well, I don’t really care! Whenever I see evidence of a thinking process happening, I feel validated as a youth worker. Two weeks ago in my middle school Life Group, one of my 7th grade guys asked this question: “If we believe in God, does that automatically mean we have to trust in God? Or does it come later as you grow in your faith?” Man, I just about jumped out of my seat in excitement!

I know it may seem like not a big deal, but to me, it is evidence of genuine faith development. What is your philosophy of faith development? We need to start with this question because if you don’t have a clear and research-based philosophy of faith development, you may end up being very frustrated with middle school ministry or with parenting middle schoolers.

This really smart guy named James Fowler created a stage-theory of faith development after his extensive research in the field. He found that generally 12-18 year olds are in a stage called “Synthetic-Conventional Faith.” What does this mean? The “synthetic” description means that these particular kids haven’t truly authenticated their faith; it can be very fake, like synthetical material. I don’t think Fowler’s intention was the demean the faith that these students have. Rather, I think he was alluding to the fact that many of these students haven’t gone through trial or some trauma that makes them reflect on the faith that they claim. Often it takes an event, a broken relationship, a painful experience, or a debate in class to force these students to examine what they truly believe and why they believe it.

The “conventional” description means that these kids look to the convention of trusted people around them to determine what they should believe. In other words, they will look to their parents, teachers, youth pastors, and yes, especially their closest friends, to tell them what they should believe. It’s a highly dependent stage, though many do not realize they are doing this. They want to feel like they are part of the majority if they are still in this stage. So instead of doing their own exploration or discovery, they will ask someone in the “convention” to tell them what to think, not how to think.

Fowler also said that many people never graduate from this stage, and in fact, we have many adults who are still here! Sitting in our congregations we have many people who haven’t truly examined their own faith and simply wait for the pastor to tell them what to think about a certain topic. Is this the kind of faith Paul prayed for in Ephesians 1:17-19, which says,

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Something about those verses makes me think that synthetic-conventional faith is not the kind of faith that Paul had in mind…

So how do we help our students move past this stage to the next stage of faith (Individuative-Reflective)? I have just a few ideas:

  1. Encourage question-asking. If a student doesn’t fully agree with whatever you’re saying, allow them to do so! But then encourage them to explain their thinking and dig deeper to see if there is any life experience that is dictating that belief. Allow them to discover any flaws in their thinking by themselves, and it will actually take root in their mind.
  2. When students ask questions in group settings, allow other students to answer. My biggest temptation in ministry is to answer big theological questions with all the education I received from my Bible and theology classes in college. But the problem with this is that I would just be continuing the trend of “conventional” faith by being the answer-guy. Answer-guys don’t build deeper faith; they’re just glorified versions of Google. Allow other students to attempt answering their questions! This will not only be beneficial for the original student, but for the answering students as well. It is a safe place to explore and communicate doubts. Now, occasionally the question will be so deep and theologically complex that no one really knows how to answer. In this case, explain the answer by asking more questions. And if all else fails, the last resort is to answer the question yourself. But make sure it’s the last resort!
  3. Always ask the question, “Why?” When I’m leading a small group, and a student gives a good Sunday-school type answer, I love asking them, “Why do  you believe that?” or “Where in the Bible does it say that?” These two questions can be instrumental in forcing them to examine their own faith. I led a group of middle school guys for four years (when we ended the group, they were in high school), and I asked those questions so much, they started to ask each other the same questions before I could even ask them! They learned not to give cheap answers and started examining their own faith.

What would you add to this list? Have you found any good methods for helping our students move to the next stage of faith?

  1. Rick Clapp says:

    David, great stuff. I wanted you to know I so appreciate your investment into middle school students. Your heart and leadership are a blessing to our family.

  2. Nate Davis says:

    good stuff man. i dig it.

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