Tackling the Hard Questions: Talking to Kids About Tough Theology

Tackling the Hard Questions: Talking to Kids About Tough Theology

Okay, full disclosure: this week’s #theologytuesday post didn’t get written.
As we’ve been journeying through the Apostles’ Creed, I have found myself up to my eyeballs in resources, articles & Scripture for each section so far.

Then, as I was prepping last week’s post on Jesus’ death & resurrection, I came across the phrase in the Creed I had almost forgotten:

He descended into hell.

And I may have stopped breathing for a few seconds. I had completely forgotten this was in the Creed! How on earth was I going to explain this to you – my reader – let alone to kids who I have the privilege & responsibility of teaching?

I had two major hang-ups with teaching on this phrase:
1. This phrase, “descended into hell”, isn’t found in the Bible. There is substantial controversy over if this was always in the Creed, or added later – and why. How do you address a phrase that may not even be biblical?
2. Hell in and of itself is a messy topic with kids. It opens itself up to fear, questions & challenges. How do we go there?

As I’ve been mulling this over, I decided that I wasn’t going to write a theological treatise on what this controversial idea of “Christ descended into hell” means. If you’re looking for that, I highly recommend this article from Luke Gilkerson at Intoxicated for Life (Disclaimer: I haven’t thoroughly read all the articles he links to, but his own article is excellent on addressing this with kids!).

What I do want to address this week – as a kind of bonus “#theologytuesday(wednesday?… haha!)” though, is a question that flowed out of this wrestling for me – how do we address the tough questions of faith & life with our kids?

As you work through the Creed, your kids may notice this phrase, or they may not.
They may ask you questions about what it means that Jesus descended into hell, or they may just skim over the phrase.
But if they don’t ask about this phrase at this particular time, they will ask the tough questions sometime. Whether something they overheard at church, something they read in their Bible, or something they didn’t quite understand in their kids’ church lesson, you may hear questions like these:

“Does God really let people go to hell forever?”
“What happens to people who’ve never heard about God?”
“Can I still follow Jesus if I do bad things? The Bible says God will forgive me!”
“Why does God let bad things happen?”
“Where was God when ____________ (fill in the blank of whatever situation your child is facing or is happening in the world)?”
“Is the world going to end?”
“Why don’t we believe in __________?”
“How is Christianity different than other religions?”

For most of us, when kids pose these questions, our stomach twists and our heart stops.
As a Children’s Pastor, my default answer is usually: “Great question!” or “Let’s talk about that another time!” If it’s a real doozy of a question (like the inevitable “What is a virgin?” at Christmas, haha!) my quick response is usually – “Why don’t you ask your mom when you get home?” Sorry about that parents.

As often as I do this, I know it isn’t the right response. Whether out of fear, unpreparedness or just plain shock, we often don’t have any answers – albeit the right ones – when our kids pose these tough questions. Yet, as those who lead the next generation – as parents, guardians, teachers and leaders – we must get serious about providing an avenue for these questions to be asked, and answered.

In their work on Sticky Faith, Kara Powell, Chap Clark & the Fuller Youth Institute determined that one of the greatest indicators of lasting faith is that students have a safe place to explore questions and express doubt. While often we associate doubt and faith questions with teenagers – this isn’t always the case.  In our click-of-a-button, constant-news-cycle world, our kids are being exposed to more & more viewpoints and world events that may trigger doubts in their minds.

So how do we respond? How do we create this “safe place” for questions? And how in the world do we even begin to answer them?

First and foremost, I think the most important thing we can do for kids is to acknowledge their questions matter. Writing off kids’ questions as “silly” or “insignificant” is perhaps the most damaging thing we can do. The next time your kid asks a question – no matter how taken off guard you may be – try to respond with statements like these:
“What a great question!”
“I’m so glad you asked me that, it shows you’re really thinking.”
“I bet you’re not the first one who’s asked that question!”
“I love it when you ask questions – it shows you’re listening.”

Make them feel that you are a safe place to ask questions, in fact, can I dare to say – a place that invites questions! They should feel that when they ask a question, they are doing something right. They are doing the hard work of theology – of asking questions and looking for answers about God, faith and the Bible. Celebrate questions!

The second thing we can do is make space for questions when you talk about God. Fredrick Buechner says this about questions and doubts:

“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

It’s true that questions about God certainly keep faith alive. A faith that asks no questions can quickly become stagnant or just ‘going through the motions.’ When we ask questions, we are forced to dive deeper into our relationship with God, study the Bible and sources of theology more fervently, and talk to other people. Some of the times in my life when my faith has been most vibrant is when I have been wrestling the hardest with serious questions about what I believe and why.

Making space in your home, Sunday worship service, small group or children’s program for questions will make it messy at times and chaotic at others, but will also provide a place for faith to grow vibrantly! Here are a few ways that you can make space for questions:

  • Consider placing a question box in the children’s space at your church. Allow kids to write down questions they have during the week or lesson and place them in the box! At the beginning of each session with your kids, answer a couple of the questions. (Bonus: This gives you time to research answers – and not just at the top of your head)
  • Instead of just asking the kids ‘review questions’ in your family or church study time, allow them to ask you and each other questions!
  • Pose tough questions in your children’s ministry that you may typically shy away from. Ask those hard questions about God, faith, ethics & morality. Allow the kids to weigh in on what they think – and discuss the questions together!
  • Provide Bible passages & other resources for your kids in light of particular questions, and work through them together.

Finally, if you’re going to venture into the territory of messy questions, you need to be prepared yourself. There is nothing more frustrating to me than when people think children’s ministry is a place for little-no preparation or just “winging it.” Kids are serious about faith and have serious questions – and you need to be prepared!

This means – whether parent or pastor – you need to be digging into the Word, commentaries, theological resources & doing the hard work on these questions yourself. You need to be up-to-date on issues in the world of our kids, and figure out what the Bible says about them. You need to be asking the hard questions – and wrestling through them with God and your community.

But be warned – no matter how much theological work you do, there are going to be times when you just have to look at a kid and say “I don’t know.” There are mysteries of faith & there are situations that our finite minds can never understand. Don’t be afraid of the “I-don’t-knows.” Show your kids what real, steadfast faith looks like, even when we don’t have the answers.

The faith of our kids is too important to be shallow or surface-level. We need to allow it to go deep – and asking the hard questions is a part of that. I am fully convinced that the faith of the next generation can be rock-solid in the face of a shaky world, but we must be a part of the journey by helping them ask the challenging questions and grow a faith that sticks and stands firm.

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