Just before Christmas, I was leading my sixth grade guys’ small group in a conversation about the incarnation. My hope was to remind them this season was about more than presents and a break from school. Pretty straightforward stuff, right?
So I was a little caught off guard when Chris interrupted whatever brilliance I was in the midst of explaining to say, “How do we even know this is true?”
My compassionate and well-honed response was: “What?”
“I mean, I know the story of baby Jesus and all, and I know the stuff about Him being God, Mary being a virgin and how Jesus was God in a man and all that,” said Chris, “but I just don’t understand how we’re so sure about it all.”
One of the other guys piped in—loudly—with, “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that!”
After 30 years of working with sixth-graders, one thing I know is they are concrete thinkers. They haven’t passed through puberty or had their brains rewired for the kind of abstract thinking that can produce doubts.
It’s a very rare sixth grader who asks questions as Chris did, so I assumed this was an aberrant blip on the radar. I affirmed Chris for asking the question, quelled any judgmentalism in the room and quickly moved on to my planned lesson for the evening.
Three months passed. I don’t even remember what topic I had prepared for when we got to Chris’ Questions Revisited. I’m sure it was going to be good, and I know I had something prepared. All I remember was that we had just started reading a Bible passage when Chris interrupted again, “No one will answer my questions!”
Me again: “Huh?” (That’s the kind of deep and inquisitive questioning you’ll get to with lots and lots of experience.)
“I asked my parents, and they told me it was great that I was asking questions,” said Chris. “I asked you and you said the same thing. You gave me this book (he pointed to a book I had written for young teens!), and it basically said the same thing; but you didn’t answer a single question for me.”
He was desperate, and it was clearly time to set aside my finely tuned plan for our small group time.
“OK,” I said, “let’s do it now. Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. However, I need to warn you, Chris, that my answers might not be good enough for you because, ultimately, you’re going to have to choose whether you’ll have faith. Most of the answers won’t completely remove your questions.”
Chris started asking questions such as:
• How do we know the Bible is true?
• How do we know God is who we say He is?
• What if we’re wrong about all of this?
• How do we really know there’s a heaven?
He wasn’t giving me a chance to respond! Meanwhile, other guys started jumping in. One of my favorite questions (worded as only a young teen could word it) was, “What if we get to heaven and find out it’s the wrong God?”
My co-leader and I spent the next 30 or 40 minutes attempting to explain why we believe what we believe. Throughout that time, I continually tried to normalize their experience by affirming the asking and restating the role of faith.
It might have been the best night of the year, and afterward two things were extremely clear:
1. We never would have gotten to that good stuff if I hadn’t had something prepared. If I’d been winging it, the context wouldn’t have been there for the questions to arise.
2. We never would have gotten to that good stuff if I’d stayed true to what I’d prepared.
That’s the secret sauce of middle school ministry: Be prepared, but be flexible.