What happens when we accept people's doubts?

Hi friends,

How does our posture toward doubts affect our posture toward people?

I don’t know if I’ve thought about this before, but I came across an interesting study as part of my D.Min. program in the book Practical Theology and Qualitative Research.

Here’s what I found as I read about a case study into a church pseudonymously named “Jacobsfield Vineyard” for the sake of protecting the member’s privacy. So, in the book, members are referred to as “JVers.”

Here’s the insight that woke me up:

… one JVer explained how the space for doubt created a culture of safety at JV: Other churches imply doubts mar one’s character and indicate a weak faith. [JV’s acceptance of doubts and questions] helps people feel accepted. It creates a culture of acceptance

… Everyone has small [doubts], and since big ones [at JV] are OK, small ones don’t become big ones.

Because at most churches, small ones aren’t accepted and then they turn into big ones. Consequently, JV’s acceptance of doubt was directly linked with their acceptance of people.

Since human thoughts are the most central thing that constitutes individuality, respecting one’s ability to think differently is possibly the deepest expression of holistic acceptance of that person.

By creating a safe space for doubts, JV created a safe space for people to be themselves, thus spawning a tremendous evangelistic effect.

(John Swinton; Harriet Mowat. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research (p. 154). SCM Press. Kindle Edition.

If a church culture doesn’t accept people’s doubts - small or big - then people may not feel fully accepted. They might feel afraid to share what they really think - and then they have no one to talk to about their small doubts.

Over time, that might lead them to quietly leave the church - because they have a problem the church doesn’t want to hear about. The larger their doubts, the more they feel unwelcome, rejected, or disconnected.

However, consider a church community that is sincerely at peace with people’s doubts and is open to exploring them without pressure to conform to the church’s position. In that case, people can talk through their concerns, potentially resolve them, and emerge from the discussion a stronger Christian.

In your experience, does this link between the church’s posture toward doubt and people hold up?

How do we make churches welcoming environments for sharing doubts?

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I think this link holds true in my experience. I have heard from several people who left the church quite early in their lives and for whom being shamed when asking questions or voicing doubt, along with never receiving thoughtful responses to these questions and doubts, played a primary role.

Though more difficult to tell, not having a safe space for doubt may play a role in why some people leave so unexpectedly. Like you said,

If shame leaves someone nowhere to go, there is no place opportunity for the church to loving respond to the difficulty, pain, or doubt that they are walking with. And even smaller things - when unaddressed - overtime can lead to far greater shame, pain, and doubt that is much harder to reconcile.

Even for those who remain within the church, I think not having space to process questions and doubts can severely hamper spiritual growth.

When I led manuscript Bible studies through a campus ministry I was involved in, a key part of the process was making observations and asking questions about the biblical text. I found that the studies often went FAR better when those who were not believers were a part of it. Because it was often the case that the questions that might be the most uncomfortable for Christians to ask, like when my roommate at the time asked during one study, “Is this saying that those who do good works are saved?” that are often the most crucial to understanding a passage.

So many in those Bible studies who grew up in the church were afraid to ask the questions that the passages brought up - whether from past experiences of shame, concern that the question they had didn’t have a response that would cohere with the rest of scripture, or just out of having been taught that questions weren’t welcome. Yet often the Bible presents us with riddles - like Proverbs 26:4-5 - or omissions - like the commandments left out of Luke 18:20-22 that it purposefully brings up which are meant to be questioned and reflected on in order to understand the broader passage, chapter, or book. So, by not asking these questions we can miss out on some of the wisdom God is revealing through His word. It can also perhaps be putting ourselves in a position in which we are unable to respond to the questions of others and so lead to more people, like those I had first mentioned, leaving the church.

Bible studies like that, where questions are encouraged and necessary, and having elders and mentors who are willing to hear questions and doubts with sincere love and without shaming or condemning have gone a long way toward creating welcoming environments in my experience. The Psalms and the questioning, doubt, anger, and anguish expressed have been really helpful for me as well. So perhaps making more space for the Psalms - particularly Psalms of lament may help build those environments as well?

Do you or others have ideas to help make churches more welcoming environments for doubt and questions?

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