Michael Kruger: Answering Teens’ Tough Questions
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Michael KrugerMichael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a leading scholar on the origins and development of the New Testament canon. He blogs regularly at michaeljkruger.com.
Not sure how to answer tough questions kids ask? Michael Kruger, author of Surviving Religion 101, offers answers for teens’ vital questions.
Michael Kruger: Answering Teens’ Tough Questions
Dave: A term that’s probably been around a long time, but I’ve just heard it articulated in the last four to five years: “deconstruction.”
Dave: Some people that I’ve known of—are sort of celebrities and Christians—are walking away from the faith. It’s called: they’re deconstructing what they had previously constructed. I don’t know if it’s a new term or not, but I’ve seen it more and more. It feels like a lot of people are deconstructing.
Ann: I think, for parents, that’s really scary; because I’m talking to so many parents, who have adult children, who are in college or beyond; they have stopped going to church. I think we don’t know what to do as parents, and we want to help our kids; we’re not sure how.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We’ve got Dr. Michael Kruger back in the studio. We had a great conversation about kids, really, walking away from the faith yesterday. Welcome back for Day Two.
Michael: Well, thank you; great to be here again.
Dave: I mean, when you hear that term, “deconstruction,”—we’ve got your book sitting here: Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College—we talked yesterday, you know, about you writing letters to your own daughter.
Dave: It’s obviously broader—to college students—about this topic, really: deconstruction.
Michael: It is; yes.
Dave: Is that a new term? I mean,—
Michael: I don’t know if I use the term in the book. I may have used it once or twice; but certainly, the book is about this whole idea of leaving the faith behind as some are tempted to do—or what might be called de-converting—is another term out there.
But no, the term, “deconstruction,” is not new. Historically, it’s been used by philosophers for generations. Jacques Derrida is probably the most famous person who coined the term—or, at least, utilized the term—and he didn’t use it positively as it pertains to Christianity. He used it as a way of saying that, when you deconstruct something, you break it down to its most constituent parts so that you can expose its flaws and see what’s wrong with it.
A lot of people—who use the term, “deconstruction,” today—that’s exactly what they’re doing. We can talk about very famous deconstruction stories; right?—where someone seemed to be a very famous Christian thinker, author, pastor—deconstructs their faith and realizes: “I don’t believe any of this anymore.” Deconstruction is all around us, and it seems like there’s a whole industry built on it now. If you leave the faith, you can become sort of famous for now not believing. Now, in theological parlance, there’s a word for that—that we don’t use very often, but it captures it—it’s called “apostacy”; right?—to be someone, who is an apostate is someone, who was once in and now is out; once “inside the fold,” so to speak, and now has left and repudiates all that they used to believe.
Now, to be fair, some people use the term, “deconstruction,” differently; and we should observe that. There are some that use the term, “deconstruction,” in, I might argue, a positive way. What that means is: some say, when you deconstruct your faith, you’re looking to strip away accretions to the faith that aren’t from the Bible. To deconstruct your faith is to say: “What sort of things have I sort of let seep into my Christian thinking that are just cultural, or external, or man-made?” and “I’m going to strip those away so that what I’m left with is purely a biblical faith.” Now, if you’re going to use the term that way, I think we’re all going to say, “Well, that’s good.”
Michael: We want the Christianity to be as biblical as possible and to strip away these bad things. So yes, the term is used in different ways; but I think, generally speaking, it’s used negatively; and it’s used as a synonym for basically leaving Christianity behind.
Dave: So as the president of a seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, are you seeing that prevalent where you’re working?
Michael: Yes, we are. I mean, I don’t have any hard stats for it; but I think everybody in ministry today feels this sense that people are kind of hanging by a thread, and that they’re thinking in ways they’ve never thought before in terms of: “Well, they’re done with this Christianity thing.” Pastors report to me that they have people leaving their churches in unprecedented numbers.
You certainly have the high-profile deconstruction stories. It’s hard to know if they’re more numerous now or just that we know more about them because of social media. I don’t know the answer to that. I do think the last two years of COVID haven’t helped. People already sort of have a rough go of it, then you put it in the tough phase of COVID, and everyone’s looking to rethink their life from top to bottom! But yes, this is a category of ministry that we just don’t talk about.
And this is part of the reason I wrote my book, Surviving Religion 101; I think the church needs to start adjusting to the challenge of deconstruction—and the other word we haven’t mentioned yet—is just the challenge of people’s doubts. “How do we handle those doubts of people, who are tempted to deconstruct their faith? Are we taking the right steps?” I just think that’s a thing that we don’t want to talk about, like the crazy uncle in the attic. [Laughter] You just pretend he’s not there; you know? “This doesn’t happen. I know you’re hearing thumps and noises up there; no, there’s nobody up there! It’s okay; all is perfect.”
I’m like: “No! It’s not all perfect. Let’s be honest: talk about the problem.”
Ann: It’s interesting; we have a son, who was in ministry, and was at our church. He came in young—in his 20s—and he had this list of: “These are the things my generation wants to talk about! Please address these topics, because everybody else is addressing it. We need to know what the Bible says about it.”
Ann: And there was some push-back.
Dave: Yes; honestly, his idea was—and he was a co-pastor with me, so he was teaching on weekends—he said, “Could we just do a series on ‘The Big Questions’?”
Dave: That, if you go on Facebook®, or you go on Instagram®, Twitter®, there are battles, back and forth.
Ann: They’re in your book!—
Michael: Yes, yes.
Ann: —the chapters.
Dave: I mean, literally/I was just going to say, “They are what you wrote about.”
Dave: And there was push-back from our leadership, like, “You know, it’s going to get dicey. People are going to be mad that we’re taking a stand on any one of these issues,”—rather than—“Let’s have a conversation.” And he was like, “Yes! They want to know:—
Dave: —“What does God say about this?” It was really interesting that our leadership was like: “Let’s not do it.”
Michael: Yes; that’s fascinating.
Dave: And he was saying—Michael, you agree—he was saying: “My generation’s not coming if you’re not willing to talk about what we’re wanting to talk about.”
Michael: There’s another way to say that; which is, “The church needs to make sure that it’s not ducking the hard questions that people have.” Honestly, people feel like it does! People feel like, when you go to church, you get, sometimes, pat answers—you get tidied up, boxed up answers to your questions—and it’s just the questions they’re willing to answer, not the ones you really have. And the whole thing seems a little overly manufactured to people, like it’s not really real.
And I think the church needs to rethink that. I think there needs to be a sense, in which we’re like: “Look! Come one; come all with your questions. Let’s get them on the table; let’s have an open, frank conversation about it. We’re not going to pretend they’re not there. We’re not going to duck the hard stuff. We’re going to tackle it, head on. Maybe our answer won’t be satisfying to you; maybe we won’t even have an answer to some of your questions; but at least, we’re honest that there are real questions, and that we do recognize that you’re not wrestling with myths and mysterious things that don’t matter. These things matter, and we need to wrestle with them.”
Why that posture isn’t there?—boy, that would be an interesting conversation to have! You know, what is going on with the defensiveness of the church, or the insecurity—or this goes back to our prior episode about the “bubble mentality” of the church; okay, fair enough—but I hope we can get to a point, where we can just get those doubts on the table. I would encourage churches, who are listening to this: “Look; find a space in your church to do this. It doesn’t need to be from the pulpit, necessarily, but it’s fine if it can be that. Give your people a chance to ask hard questions. Don’t act like you are afraid of it!”
Dave: Well, you write about—and you’ve already mentioned it—doubts.
Dave: I grew up, you know, with a single mom, sort of dragging me to church when I was a kid; but one thing I do remember is: you weren’t allowed to doubt. Doubt was lack of faith.
Dave: Doubt was almost equated to sin.
Ann: That was really hard for you too.
Dave: That was a struggle; because I had questions that I felt like I could ask outside the church, but I couldn’t ask them with Christian people.
Let’s talk; you know, help us understand:—
Dave: —"Is doubt okay?—is it good?—is it bad?”
Michael: You know, one of the things I’m seeing out there are two extreme versions of approaching the doubt question, both of which are mistaken. I’ll just tell you what they are. One extreme version that’s mistaken is what I call “doubt shaming.” Doubt shaming is what you just described, apparently in your own life.
Michael: And by the way, when I talk about this in churches—I was given a Sunday school class at a church just recently—and I mentioned the whole concept of doubt shaming, like: “You’re not allowed to have questions; we won’t take hard questions here. You’ll just have to swallow it and pretend you don’t have those things in your head,”—you know—“We’re going to put this rosy face on as if none of those things exist.”
When I started talking about that, you could see everyone in the congregation sort of pick their head up, like: “Yes! That’s the church I grew up in! I grew up in the doubt-shaming church, where someone would wag their finger at you, and make you sound like you were on the verge of being apostate for having a question; like that you are a half-Christian; or that you should be embarrassed.”
I think that’s fundamentally flawed; I think the Bible shows it is. God is extremely patient with our doubts. The Bible shows, time and time again, how gracious and compassionate God is toward doubters. Jesus worked with—even the most obvious story of Thomas—with the: “Come here and put your hand in My side,” He didn’t shame Thomas; He didn’t rebuke him as though: “Well, you’re just a second-class Christian”; He was just patient with him. God is extremely patient with doubters.
And by the way, the other thing to note there is: “It’s very common to doubt. It’s a very normal thing in the history of the church.” Anyone who knows the history of the church knows that very famous people doubted.
The other side of the coin, though, that I think needs to be acknowledged is, not just the doubt-shamers; the other extreme mistake is the doubt celebrators. This is those who think that doubt now is the greatest Christian virtue that you can have. They’re going to make you doubt more; and they’re going to say that, if you’re certain about anything, the problem is your certainty! There was a book that came out a couple years ago called The Sin of Certainty. They made you feel guilty, as a Christian, if you thought you were certain about something. [Laughter] So the doubt celebrators are equally problematic.
Part of what I want to do with this book is say: “Neither of those are the right options”:
- Doubt: you should not think you’re a bad Christian; it’s very normal; God’s patient.
- At the same time, you want to fight doubt and work your way towards assurance about what you believe.
Ann: Have you ever asked your kids at the dinner table—or maybe anywhere/even going to bed—“Do you guys ever doubt?” I think sometimes, as parents, we would be afraid to ask that.
Michael: Yes; oh, that’s interesting; isn’t it? I don’t know if I ever asked it that way, in a direct sense; but my kids have come to me with their doubts/questions: “Why doesn’t God do something about this problem?” or “Why is the world this way? Does that mean God isn’t really in control?”
I’ve had other family members come to me with significant doubts; they’ll call me up at certain hours of the night, struggling with what they believe.
Ann: —which says a lot about you, that they feel safe enough—
Michael: I hope so.
Ann: —that they could ask.
Ann: And even in our first episode, you talked about Emma calling you from college, with all of her friends listening,—
Ann: —wanting to know those answers.
Michael: Well, I think, you know, that’s something that Christian leaders and churches can ask themselves: “Have we created a culture, where people feel that comfort to come and ask the questions?” You know, there’s another conversation about how you create a culture like that.
Dave: Well, how do you?—because I’m thinking of a parent, when their son or daughter—it could be the teenage years; or it could even be middle school; but definitely teenage, college, high school—starting to doubt/starting to voice, either saying it out loud, if they feel the freedom to do it; or just showing, by their actions, they’re not really believing what you’ve taught them your whole life. How does a parent respond?
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Dr. Michael Kruger on FamilyLife Today. Don’t miss his response in just a second.
But first, let’s talk about life—it can feel isolating; right?—doing all the things in such a connected world, but we still feel so distant from one another. What do we do about it? One of our past guests, Jennie Allen, was on a mission to search for that same answer and wrote all her insights in a new book called Find Your People. When you give today, at FamilyLife, we’ll send you a copy of Jennie’s book asour “Thank you.”You can give online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Michael Kruger and how you can respond when your child starts to doubt God and His Word.
Michael: Part of it, I think, would be helpful for kids to see, in their parents, is their own honesty about their own doubts. I think we feel obligated, as parents, to put up a front of Christian almost-perfection, so that we think that’s the best way to model Christ to our kids: “I’m a good Christian, young man or young woman. Don’t think there’s anything wrong with me!”
Michael: And we put up this front, and then they think that Christianity is this impossible ideal: “Mom and Dad never doubt.” Well, what if mom and dad did doubt? What if you were honest about that? And what if you were honest, not only about your doubts, but about how you resolve them? And then you gave them safe space to recognize that: “Oh, if Mom and Dad can feel that way, then it’s okay. I shouldn’t feel ashamed to feel that way. Maybe I could bring my doubts to the table.” I think that’s one way.
Here’s another way I think parents and churches can create a culture, where doubt is not shamed is: to rethink the levels of certainty they have about things. Let me explain what I mean by that. Sometimes, when we talk about the certainty of the faith, we blur two things together that we shouldn’t blur. When we talk about the certainty of the faith, we’re talking about the core doctrines of the faith; right?—that Jesus is God; that He rose from the dead; that the Bible is true; that there’s a gospel of grace and salvation. Can we be sure about those things?—absolutely bulletproof-sure about those things! We can go to our grave with those things.
But realize, being sure about the core truths of the faith doesn’t mean that you should be equally sure about every doctrine you hold. And if you act like every doctrine you hold is equally sure as every other, your kid’s going to see right through that; because not every doctrine is as clear in the Bible as every other! So what if you drilled your kid over how you thought a certain mode of baptism had to be the right mode, and you were like, “If you don’t believe that, then there’s something wrong with you.”
Then, your child’s like, “Okay”; but then they realize there’s this weird sense that you’re putting emphasis on something that doesn’t deserve it. That can make them actually doubt in ways you may not expect. In other words, our assurance needs to be on the core things; and we need to have grace and more flexibility around some of these non-core things. That can really help create a culture, where kids can bring that to the table.
Dave: It’s interesting, Mike, when you say that—you know, we wrote a book called No Perfect Parents—we asked our three sons, who are adults and married now: “Hey, we’d love for you to write something in there.” Our oldest son—
Ann: —of things that we did right, or things we could have done better.
Dave: Right/right or wrong.
Michael: Yes, yes.
Dave: We figured parents will read what they say before they even read what we wrote. Our oldest son has been a questioner/engineering brain. I think he was seven or eight years old when he asked—
Ann: He was four!
Dave: —he was four when he said, “So the Ten Commandments say, ‘Do not murder,’ and David murdered people.”
Ann: “David cut off Goliath’s head; how do you reconcile that?”
Dave: He just, right away, a four-year-old!—he was like, “So how’s that okay?”
Michael: “I’m no biblical scholar here, but how are we going to resolve that?”—yes.
Dave: Ann remembers; she goes, “Answer that one!”—she ran it to me.
But the only reason I bring up CJ is—you know, we don’t tell them what to write in this book—“Write whatever you want.” One of the things he wrote, which ended up being so beautiful—exactly what he said/he said—“I’m so glad that Mom and Dad let me question and find my faith on my own.” And he adds this comment: “If they would have forced me to believe the earth is young, not old, I would have been out.”
Dave: I was like, “Of all the things that came to his mind…” I remember that discussion when he was in college—or high school; I don’t remember—I just remember going, “Oh, there are different opinions on that. I’m not going to land on one or the other; I do have a strong opinion—you don’t have to buy that—but here’s the ones that are core…”—the ones you said.
Dave: But it’s just what you are saying.
Michael: Oh, it’s so important for the health of the church—
Michael: —this ability to rank different doctrines—so that you don’t go to war over every disagreement. If every doctrine in your system is equally important as every other doctrine, that means the slightest disagreement with you is nuclear war, because you just call—I’ll just use an analogy from the 1980s: you pick up the red phone and call in the nukes; right?—[Laughter]—“Because you just disagreed with something in my system.”
But what if that something in your system is actually not really a core part of the system, but a peripheral thing? Are you calling in the nukes for that? What happens, in the Christian world, is that we’re so concerned with truth—and we should be—that we don’t pause to think about those distinctions, so we end up just fighting with everybody over everything.
Ann: Do we tend to do that more when we’re younger?
Michael: I think we do when we’re younger.
Ann: Because I did!
Michael: We don’t have the maturity to distinguish between those things.
Michael: And when we demonstrate that maturity to our kids, and they realize, “Oh, so I can embrace Christianity, even if I don’t agree with Mom and Dad over some of these smaller things…”—or “…my neighbor…”—or “…my friend at college…”
Can you imagine sending a kid off to college, convincing him that every doctrine he holds is as equally certain as every other? Then he’s just going to fight with all his college buddies, all the time, over everything, even if it’s not core essential. And you realize: “That’s not what we’re training you to do.” I think that’s a really healthy way to show the maturity of a Christian: to make those distinctions.
Dave: Yes, and you mentioned, earlier, that high school is the new college.
Dave: So are these questions starting earlier?
Michael: Yes; I think anybody listening to this will know—particularly if their kids are in public schools—that high school is the new college. What I’m seeing happen in public schools now in the high school years is what I faced in college. The things I was introduced to in college—you know, when I was 19 to 22ish/in that range—now, kids are getting at 14-17 or 14-18, and even younger.
Ann: Is that in school curriculum? Where are they getting that? Why are they questioning?
Michael: Yes, I think it’s an issue of school curriculum; I think it’s an issue of access to information in unprecedented ways, younger, which includes social media and the internet. And everybody just seems to deal with heavier questions at younger ages, and that’s a real concern. When I say high school’s the new college—if we’re already behind in preparing kids for college, we’re probably really behind in preparing them for high school—so we need to really start thinking through that.
Look, I’m not going to tell parents whether public or private school is the right decision. Every parent has to make that decision on their own; but the reality is, these questions cannot wait until they’re 18. We’ve got to deal with them when they’re younger.
Dave: Yes; and I think a lot of parents would hear what you just said, and think, “Well, you did answer the question for me. I’m not sending my kid to a secular school.”
Michael: Yes, fair enough; that’s a fair option.
Dave: Although, it could be—you’ve said, earlier, also—“Look, it could be something that would be really beneficial if you’re willing to partner with them and walk beside them”; right?
Michael: Absolutely! So this is where every parent needs to look at their child—and assess their maturity and assess what they can handle—some children can handle being in the throes of battle in a difficult situation; some can’t handle it. And honestly, what you can handle at 14 is very different from what you can handle at 18. The younger you go, I would tell parents: “To be more cautious, because their child is going to be more immature,” and “The older you go, I think you can start letting out the reins a little bit more.”
But here’s the point: “Regardless of when it’s right for your family to do that, it needs to be done. You can’t protect your child forever from the challenges of the world. Eventually, you’ve got to get them exposed to these things and getting answers in their head.”
Ann: Mike, how would you start? If there’s a parent listening, and they’re thinking, “We have never had this conversation. Our kids go to church.” You know, the average now is usually twice a month:—
Ann: —“We’ll get to church. They’re not really talking about that in the church.
Ann: “So we haven’t done anything. Where do we start?”
Michael: Part of it, I think, we’ve sort of unpacked a little bit of already; which is, “Start by creating a culture in your home, where your child feels safe to come with their questions. Part of that we discussed, in terms of making sure the child knows that you’ve got questions. You invite their questions, and you tell them it’s okay to have questions.”
A second step I think you can do is to: “Make sure you’re beginning to think through what tools you can use to get those questions answered for your child.”
Dave: Gee whiz; I know a good one! [Laughter]
Michael: Yes, yes—so not to state the obvious, but circling back around—my book was written for college students, obviously; but I really think high school students could read it and benefit. One idea, if you have a high school student, is you could just go through, chapter by chapter, through my book with your high school student and begin the conversation.
Michael: I think if you go much younger than high school, it’s probably not going to be as helpful; but there are other sources, though, for younger kids. I don’t have a list, off the top of my head here; but I know that a parent, who’s eager to get answers to that, can find those sources. I’m sure their pastor could help.
Dave: Yes; and in some ways, part of me wants to look through the microphone to a dad or a mom and say, “Have the courage,” because I know it’s scary.
Michael: It is scary.
Dave: But it’s like it’s a faith step, I think, for us, as parents, to say, “You know what? I’m going to have the courage to step into my son or daughter’s journey”—especially, where we started; if I’m sensing that they’re starting to deconstruct—which you said, Mike: “…could be the thing that brings them to a solid faith. Maybe it wasn’t really solid until they started to pull it apart,—
Dave: —and look at the studs behind the wall, and go: “What’s real? What’s not real?” That happened to me my first year in ministry!
Dave: You know, I woke up one morning—Ann knows this—and said, “Did we just fall for a lie?”
Ann: He has his—
Dave: —like: “How do we even know any of it’s true?”
Ann: —he has his Bible on his lap. You know, we’re getting ready to go to the campus, sharing our faith. I’m like, “Are you ready?” He goes, “I don’t even know if any of this is true.”
Michael: We all have a moment like that.
Michael: That’s definitely/we all have a moment like that.
Ann: And I was like, “Oh, no!” But I was glad that he said it.
Ann: I was scared that he said it.
Michael: What I think the point is—is that when you’re willing to be honest about that with yourself and with your kids—that is when people grow. They now have a chance to seriously ask: “Why am I believing this?” That’s when I think you see exponential growth. You don’t see exponential growth by pretending those things aren’t there—covering it up and convincing yourself everything’s fine—and then having it all explode your sophomore year in college.
Michael: No, have those conversations now.
Ann: And I’m telling you: kids want to have these conversations!
Michael: They do.
Ann: And our kids talked more, even when their friends were over.
Ann: You bring up the topic; and I’m telling you: it’s like wildfire.
Ann: Because they want to talk about it; they’re all talking about it anyway. If we’re in the room, it could be a small group that could be started; you know?—of like: “Hey, we’re going to talk about this stuff. You guys want to talk about it at our house?” You don’t call it a “small group”—you just say—“Let’s get together and talk about it.” What a great way to start!
Dave: Call it a “Doubters’ Forum.” [Laughter]
Michael: There’s a lot of great curricula out there for doubters. When I was in the UK in Edenborough, we did a thing called “Open to Questions”—was the title of it. That’s exactly what you’re describing: “Forum for Doubters” or “Open to Questions—call it what you want—but just the title alone gives this invitation that: “Hey, this can be asked; come ask it.”
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Michael Kruger on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Surviving Religion 101, and you can get a copy at
FamilyLifeToday.com. You can listen in on an extended conversation with Michael Kruger on dealing with more sensitive topics; you can get the link at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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