The labyrinth is a fitting symbol for the faith and doubt journey.

Anselm of Canterbury said, “Faith seeks understanding.” This suggests a natural cycle of questioning and discovery in our lives. Instead of being surprised by doubt, let’s view it as a companion on our faith journey. Doubts and questions can open doors to new perspectives and do not have to be roadblocks to further belief. How can a parish leader serve others in the reality of the faith and doubt journey?

Creating a Welcoming Space

I’ve been thinking about how to engage positively with faith and doubt. In my sermon series, “Figuring Out Faith,” I talked about how our faith can evolve and how questions help it grow. Life challenges us to expand our beliefs, and true faith involves going beyond our comfort zones. Like Peter, there are times we must cast the net elsewhere.

As a minister, I believe it’s important to offer a welcoming space for people to explore their unique spiritual journeys. These open conversations are life-giving for me and it is a way I honor my Creator.

Faith and doubt - often there are no lines.

1. Why Doubt is Okay

On Sundays, I see the faces of my congregants, each having their own story. Everyone, from the teenager fresh out of confirmation to lifelong believers, experiences cycles of faith and doubt. When I acknowledge doubt, I’m validating a real part of their life. When I say, “God loves you,” I am reminding them that God loves even those parts of us that are confusing or confounding. I hope to convey, “It’s okay to be here and to have doubts.”

Recently, during a conversation, I asked someone what helped them during a time of struggle. They surprised me by mentioning a simple welcome we offer at the beginning of our worship service: “No matter who you are or where you are in your journey, you are welcome here.” They explained that no other church offered such an open and accepting atmosphere. This person had many questions but felt they couldn’t bring them up elsewhere.

In the 929 chapters of the Protestant Bible, there are approximately 3,294 questions! Though an ancient book, the questions are just as fitting today. The psalmist asked about:

  • suffering and doubt (Why do the wicked prosper? Why are they at ease? 73:3)
  • whether there is justice on the earth (Will you destroy the righteous and the wicked together? 58:2)
  • why life is so short (Why do you cut him down in midlife and shatter his plans? 102:24)
  • pondered the existential questions that puzzle us all (What is a human that you are mindful of us, a child that you care? 8:4)

As we see, questions and doubts are not just a part of life, they are a fundamental part of our worship and relationship with God. Anselm was right, there is a natural occurrence of seeking to understand.

2. Questions Lead to a Deeper, Authentic Faith

Doubt can be a catalyst for a more mature and personal faith. A faith that is never questioned is a faith never deeply owned. When we examine why we believe what we believe, our understanding strengthens. Through questioning, we can emerge with a more authentic faith because it is our own. 

Doubt is not an absence of faith; it’s faith trying to understand. As Brian McClaren states in Faith after Doubt, “Doubt can be a doorway.”

As my friend Taylor Holbrook told a group, Thomas was called “doubting” because he told the disciples, “I won’t believe until I touch Christ’s wounds.” After Christ appeared to Thomas and he was able to touch the wounds, Thomas said, “My Lord and MY GOD.” For a Jewish person to declare someone to be God was unheard of, yet Thomas’ profound doubt led him to a profound profession.

3. Doubt Can Broaden Our Perspective

The story of Peter in Acts 10 is a good example. Peter was initially resistant to welcoming Gentiles, but after learning more, he obeyed. This pattern repeats itself:

  • a comfortable status quo is challenged by a new idea
  • Confusion arises from the challenge.
  • The person either embraces or rejects the new idea.
  • If they embrace it, there is new learning, action, and reflection.
  • A new, expanded belief emerges

We all start with foundational beliefs, often presented in simple terms. These basics are important, but as life gets more complex, we realize there’s more to each topic we study. We see the limitations of what we were first taught and understand that there’s a lot of space between the black and white. Whereas we used to hear, “The Bible clearly says . . .,” we read the Bible and realize that the bible can be quite confusing.

Over time we can understand that our group doesn’t have to be perfect or the only home of our answer. Other groups and traditions hold wisdom and worth. We can grow our faith and include teachings from multiple sources.

In the case of Peter, he understands that his exclusion of others was misguided and not in step with the Spirit. He was willing to be confronted, taught, and confused. He was also willing to put the new idea into practice. Peter shows us that we can transcend our dearly held beliefs and become more faithful not less.

4. Talking About Faith and Doubt Strengthens Us

Just like we prepare congregants to deal with temptation or grief before they arise, talking about living with doubt can prepare us for the road ahead. Some may worry that talking about doubt will plant the seed of doubt in others. But similar to how discussing how poor relationships can be mended does not threaten relationships in general, talking about doubt does diminish faith.

When ministers address the complexities of faith and doubt, they provide comfort and guidance to those who are struggling or have struggled. They let people know they are not alone, and this, in itself, is a vital Christian ministry.

By openly discussing faith and doubt, we equip congregants with the tools to have compassionate conversations with others. Authentic and educated conversations about important topics earn the respect of the public and show that the church is a place for real experiences, not just religious cliches.

5. Living Faith in a Changing World

When we are open with our faith journey and entertain the questions within, we can create new answers. Our lives are always changing, our perspectives shifting, and doubt or questioning helps us stay aware of this. These answers are better aligned with or values, thus increasing our integrity.

The Goal is to Lead with Love.

The core of Christian leadership is meeting people where they are and helping them grow in their faith, but leadership is a two-way street. As my friends Geraldine Laybourne and Julie Riess of Day One Early Learning Community say, “Change happens at the speed of trust.” Providing an atmosphere of openness, safety, and security is key to our successful leadership.

It all starts with how we lead from the pulpit.

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