“Five Ways to Respond When the Youth [and Others] Ask Tough Questions”
In many parts of our worldwide church, we are struggling to retain young people. The urgency of the issue can be seen in the numerous church-sponsored fora and addresses on issues like doubt and faith crisis. Part of this difficulty is related to the global problem of accommodating fast-paced cultural change and generational shifts; part of it is related to the advent of the Information Age; and part of it may have to do with a fondness for certainty and aversion to questions in our local church cultures. Here I suggest that increased willingness to engage tough questions, as well as to be innovative and energetic in our responses, will create a renewed church culture in which young people—and indeed all who wrestle with hard questions—find the power and beauty of our collective church endeavor in today’s world.
- Don’t dismiss them; take them seriously. The youth are the real investigators at church. They deserve thoughtful, respectful, loving answers. Remember, as Dieter F. Uchtdorf pointed out, the whole Church project started with a young person asking hard questions. As he put it, “I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions.” Hard questions open the door to inspiration and divine guidance.
- Be enthusiastic: “That’s a great question! I’m impressed that you asked!” We are trying to raise thoughtful, reflective young people, not robots. Help the youth see that the complexities and contradictions of the gospel can withstand rigorous exploration. We are not the Wizard of Oz. Things that are real and true can bear scrutiny.
- Remember that we are in the Information Age. As Elder Ballard says, “every possible point of view” on the Church, negative and positive, is available to the youth in a few clicks on their phone or computer. Educate yourself about hot-button topics by reading the Gospel Topics Essays, reading Saints, and checking out nuanced but faithful conversations such as the Big Questions Project at the Faith Matters Foundation. If you encounter new information or alternative views that make you uncomfortable, don’t panic. Give yourself time to develop a sense for evaluating which sources are reliable and also to develop empathy for people in their diverse situations. Information leads to knowledge which leads to understanding, though processes of sorting and refining require considerable effort.
- Understand that today’s youth are used to counting and comparing as a way to define equity and fairness. Take, for example, the awesome US women’s soccer team that has won numerous Olympic gold medals and World Cup championships. Everyone knows they rock. Everyone thinks it’s lame that the women are paid less than the men, who don’t win nearly as much. As observant youth sit in your congregation on Sunday and count how long women speak compared to how long men speak, or compare the roles of women and girls to the roles of men and boys within the service, what conclusions will they draw? Are the voices and experiences of Latter-day Saints of color, or LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, present within the congregation?
I didn’t think about things like this when I was growing up. But today, it is hard for young people to un-see cultural manifestations of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice. For example, seeing gender imbalances at church can make it more difficult for young Latter-day Saints to recognize the Spirit at work. There are many things ordinary members can do within the parameters of existing policy to help re-balance our local congregational cultures. One great place to start thinking about this is Bonnie L. Oscarson’s April 2018 call to all ward council members to integrate the Young Women into the central work of the ward.
- Don’t freak out if you don’t have an easy or ready answer. If they ask a question about something for which you don’t have a good answer, validate their concerns. If you are having a hard time understanding why someone would struggle with a particular issue, connect them with someone in the ward or from your networks who can empathize from personal experience. Also remember that sometimes, hard questions are just hard questions. We, the Latter-day Saints, are not perfect. Nothing requiring human participation is perfect. We have made mistakes in the past and will make mistakes in the future. This is why we value the atonement, and why we covenant to work hard for Zion.
The Interview: “Dear Reader,” Melissa Inouye opens her memoir, “I’ve always been fuzzy about deadlines, but in May 2017 when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, everything snapped into focus: ‘Oh shoot!’ I’m going to die.’ Suddenly thinking about the ultimate question of life , the universe, and everything seemed terribly urgent. To be more precise, the project of writing about life and its conundrums seemed terribly urgent, because my children are young. … When one contemplates the possibility of being entirely absent, a few letters do not seem enough. This is why I began to think about writing a book: a literary form of food storage. … a stash of thoughts. …”
In this episode join Laura Harris Hales as she interviews Melissa Inouye about her perspectives on lived religion, the purpose of life, and what she has learned from studying global religious studies.
About Our Guest: Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a professor of Chinese history and religion at the University of Auckland. She is a member of the advisory board of the Neil A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. This article was adapted from her recently released book, Crossings: a bald Asian American Latter-day Saint woman scholar’s ventures through life, death, cancer, and motherhood (not necessarily in that order), jointly published by Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute, available in print, Kindle, and audiobook versions.
This podcast is cross-posted with permission of LDS Perspectives Podcast.