One of the most enjoyable teaching opportunities I had last year was walking through Clear Winter Nights with a group from my church. We met on Sunday nights and talked through the Conversation Guide at the end of the book. (You can access the PDF of the Guide here for free.)
Three aspects of the discussion stand out, and they are applicable to any group that wants to discuss the big issues related to our faith and practice.
1. Saying your church is a safe place for doubters doesn’t make it so.
During the first couple of weeks, our group focused primarily on our past experiences of faith and doubt. I wanted everyone in the group to put themselves in the shoes of Chris Walker, the college student who is dealing with disillusionment and asking big questions related to Christianity.
Almost everyone has entertained doubts of some sort, but our churches are not always a safe place for expressing them. Many Christians feel guilty for ever questioning the authority of their church’s teaching or the reliability of God’s Word or the cohesiveness of Christian theology. The list goes on.
We all say we want the church to be a safe place for people to be honest and open about their struggles, but too often, we paper over our problems and satisfy ourselves with individual Bible verses, while never dealing with substantive questions. This facade gets tiresome, of course, and it is the reason some people just drift away.
2. Doubting is never just intellectual.
The interesting aspect about discussing Clear Winter Nights (“theology in story”) was the focus on the characters’ stories, not just their intellectual hang-ups. We tend to treat people who doubt as if their issues are primarily intellectual. If we can just give the right answers, everything will be fine.
Now, to be clear, the conversations between Gil and Chris in Clear Winter Nights provide plenty of answers, and that’s a good thing. But doubts don’t start only in the mind, nor are they ever totally resolved only in the mind. We are embodied creatures. Our lives are individual stories, and there are all kinds of events and people who affect the way we view things.
We shouldn’t assume that people who express doubts about Christianity are coming simply from an intellectual standpoint. There are always more factors at play. A comprehensive approach will help identify some of those big-picture issues.
3. Strengthened faith should lead to the strengthening of other people.
God uses doubt. God uses doubters.
In the first instance, God uses doubt in a similar manner to the way a broken limb can actually wind up stronger and more fortified at the very place the break occurred. We don’t have to see broken limbs as a good thing to observe that good things can come from the healing process. Many times, our experience with doubt leaves us stronger in the end.
In the second instance, God uses former doubters as instruments in the lives of other people. It was fascinating to see how the early group sessions about Clear Winter Nights had us identifying with Chris and his doubts. By the end of the sessions, we had put ourselves in Gil’s shoes. We were asking questions like:
- What did Gil do right?
- What did Gil do wrong?
- How can we be a mentor to other people?
- How can God use us to bring peace and clarity to people who are disillusioned with family, friends, or church members?
Good conversations about “truth, doubt and what comes after” should move beyond our personal stories to how we can be useful to others. A strong faith shouldn’t be kept to itself.
My hope is that our churches will be places where we can have good, honest conversations about the questions that matter. Let’s learn how to talk about our faith in ways that strengthen those who are struggling.