The Importance of Preparing Young Christians for Doubt and Dissonance
Cognitive Dissonance can be a natural part of the journey of faith, and the Church should prepare young people for it.
Early in the summer of 2014, at age 67, I was in the midst of a struggle, searching for that “next right thing.” My professional life had been rewarding, and now, after two years of semi-retirement, I sorely missed the challenges and intellectual stimulation it had provided. Blessed with good health, a rich experience base, and a passion to remain active and engaged, I was eager to ply my determination into something with significance. For me, that meant impacting the lives of others, be it in some small way, with the message that Christ’s love was trustworthy and real.
Throughout my adult years, I have been active in my local church, usually through teaching in married adult Bible study classes. As I look back, there are experiences that signpost a path that led me to where I am today. In the 1978-81 period, I led a class of adults, ages 18 to 88. I was impressed with the power of the intergenerational dynamics in the class. The wisdom of the older members complemented the enthusiasm and passion of the younger ones, as together they built a vibrant, supportive, Christian community. In the early 2000’s, I started leading a small cluster of young single adults in my church. It was quite a revelation to discover how different their lifestyles were and how unaware my church was of their sense of isolation and their desires to be more involved within their larger church community. It was disappointing to see such a significant group of people be nearly invisible to the church. It is, perhaps, here that my burden of reaching the next generations began to germinate.
In 2008, I was still in search of how to be better equipped to address what was becoming a growing passion about defending the truths of the Christian message. I enrolled in Harvard School for Theological Studies in Houston, an extension of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and completed a systematic theology course. My instructor introduced me to BioLogos and an expanded discussion of science and Christian faith—one that had never been broached in any of the churches I had attended. The experience raised troubling issues of intellectual honesty and humility. If my pastors were not equipped or willing to address questions raised by science, like human origins, in an honest, open way, then how could young adults find answers to questions that arise between what they are taught in the classroom and what they hear proclaimed from the pulpit? My fellow church members seemed fairly content with the situation; however, I was not.
I felt a burden to use my education and experiences to help stem the tide of young people from our churches. In June 2014, with the encouragement of my wife, I started my application for admission to the University of Edinburgh’s Science and Religion Masters Program. This was an uncharacteristically bold step for me. I grappled with how I would cover the significant costs involved, the logistics of selling our home, and the distance from family. I completed the application in August never expecting to be accepted to their program—perhaps even hoping that all my concerns would be solved if I was not accepted. I pressed the submit button on the electronic application and held my breath.
The next week, my previous employer sought me for consultancy work on a large science and engineering proposal. In October, I received notice that I was accepted by the University of Edinburgh. By January 2015, my consultancy work was concluded; the unexpected work completely provided for tuition, transportation, and other fees. We sold our house in Texas, put all our possessions in storage, moved into a temporary residence, and readied ourselves for the move to Scotland. Now, we needed to find a place to live in Edinburgh. My wife led the search. Her prayers were specific and included a three bedroom flat close to where I would attend classes. We found a perfect option on Ramsay Lane, the exact street name of our former house in Texas, and next door to the School of Divinity. We were looking for whether or not God was truly involved in our step of faith, and we saw these events as confirmations, not coincidences.
We flew to Scotland on 29 August 2015, and started school in September. My small cohort of eight science and religion masters students contained four Millennials, three from the U.S. Most weeks the class would meet informally at our flat across the street from school, share a meal, discuss the week’s lectures, and follow up on in-class differences that may have arisen. These interactions further encouraged me to focus my research on the Millennial generation.
The Millennials, roughly defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, number more than 83 million and are now the largest population group in America. They are also America’s most unchurched generation. They are leaving their churches at “five to six times the historic rate.”1 The reasons for this are complex, but I suggested in my dissertation that the theory of “cognitive dissonance” can help us understand this trend and better serve this generation. Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human behavior that tries to explain how people respond when behaviors are inconsistent with beliefs, when two beliefs are inconsistent, or when new information is confronted that contradicts existing beliefs.
The Church can address cognitive dissonance by being open to the sincere questions of young adults, especially about matters of science, and to provide an accepting and safe place where tough questions can be asked–even if definitive answers are not always available. If Millennials are not trusting enough or brave enough to share their questions and doubts, or if home and institutional structures do not encourage questions and create a safe and accepting environment for it, then there is the danger that unresolved dissonance can lead to abandoning Christian belief or diluting it to a point where it no longer motivates Christian action. Yet, dissonance can be positive when it leads to the diligent search for truth and its consistent application. Dissonance can be a natural part of the journey of faith, and the Church should prepare young people for it and undergird them with Christian love as they develop, test, and refine their beliefs.
Science can be a valuable ally in this effort. Science influences almost every facet of our modern lives. It also can produce difficult and significant challenges to our theology and its practical applications. Many in my Evangelical faith see the intersection of science and faith as a persistent area of conflict, especially in such foundational areas as human origins and the formation of our universe. These are critical questions that should not be ignored and where open and honest disagreements should be handled with Christian love. It is important that individuals are equipped to know not only what their Christian beliefs are, but also why they have those beliefs. Perhaps this is why God encouraged us to love Him with all of our minds as well as with our hearts and souls. Failure to help our young people with this process has led to a credibility problem for American churches, particularly with our Millennials.
I hope that my story inspires other folks from older generations to take an active interest in the next generations, listening carefully to them and supporting them with love. If my life shows anything, it’s that you can never predict how God may use you.
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