As is often the case, my students got emotional during the final worship service of our recent mission trip – a meaningful, poignant foot washing service. Tears still streamed down many of their faces as we left the worship space and went to process and discuss our day.
Oftentimes, because of where they are in their cognitive development, teens – especially those in junior high – simply do not have the language needed to articulate all they feel during highly emotional experiences. As a result, I asked only one question about the foot washing service, told students if they wanted to discuss it further, our trip leaders would be happy to do so, and then moved on, eager to ground their raging emotions in the truth of Scripture.
For many of my students, this mission trip was one that raised serious questions for them: About poverty, the value and worth of people, and a whole host of spiritual issues. A few nights prior to the foot washing service, we talked about the imago dei and the discussion among our church group exploded (and I mean that in the best possible way). Students passionately defended their understanding of people's worth and then wrestled with what Scripture says about this. Many of them were bothered by the fact that some of Jesus' statements seem to suggest an inherent hierarchy, even in heaven. How else do you interpret “The last will be first”?
Eventually, I had to end the discussion, not because it wasn't rich and vibrant, but because we were already well past lights out. When I returned to the girls room about an hour later, I was stunned to find them still up. They were up because of our discussion. It had unleashed a torrent of others questions from them about heaven, hell, justice, and God's mercy. It had also given them permission to express their doubts about God and their faith.
Is God real?
Will God really send people to hell?
Does God really forgive us?
What's the point of Jesus?
If God's all-powerful, why do so many bad things happen, especially to good people?
Is everyone who calls themselves a Christian actually a Christian?
We sat and talked for quite some time that night, but naturally, their questions lingered even after we finally succumbed to sleep.
Knowing this, the night of the foot washing, I asked students to each share one question they were wrestling with as a result of something they'd seen, heard, or experienced during our mission trip.
After students shared, we turned to the story of Thomas in John 20:24-29. We read and discussed this story, a familiar one to most of them. Slowly but surely, it became clear that despite it's familiarity, these students were beginning to see this story differently, a result of having come face to face with their own doubts while on our mission trip.
Among other things, we wrestled with whether Jesus' words to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” means it's wrong for us to doubt. We also discussed how Jesus met Thomas in the middle of his doubts. Finally, we wrestled with how Jesus might meet us in the middle of our doubts.
My hope in discussing Thomas was to show students it's OK to doubt; To give them permission to ask their questions and express their doubts. I wanted to show them that just like they did for Thomas, doubts can advance our faith and push us toward, rather than away, from Jesus. I wanted students to know, as Andy Root says, that “Doubt may not be a tumor but the very organ of faith surrounded by the tissue of fear, brokenness, and suffering.”
Thanks to our discussion that night, I think my students left the mission trip understanding this, or at least starting to.
The next day, during our final debriefing of the trip, I asked students, “What's one thing you learned during our mission trip?”
One of my students responded, “That it's OK to doubt as long as it pushes us toward Jesus.”
If you ask me, that's not a bad take-away from a first mission trip.
In fact, I think it's a lesson that will continue to serve this student well as she wrestles with her questions, unashamedly asks and seeks answers to them, and in the process, discovers that Jesus will meet her, right smack dab in the middle of her doubts.