For the Kid Who Doesn’t Feel God: Objective Faith

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Our youth group meeting had ended and I was chatting with students who lingered with various questions or just wanting to talk a bit.  One student pulled me aside saying they needed to talk. I could sense from the facial expression that I was about to hear of a personal struggle.

“I don’t feel very close to God anymore and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

I had heard that statement from students far more often than I care to admit. Initially, I wondered what I was doing wrong.  Was I in some way failing the youth group if some regularly struggled to feel God’s presence? Was this an unintended consequence of the way I was leading our ministry? At some point I took stock of all that I’d done in youth ministry over the years to help students feel God’s presence.

 In my own life, I can point to times that were powerful experiences of God’s presence. I felt something different in those moments. Where did I experience this? In youth group meetings, a few church services, conventions, a camp, and several youth events. They were pretty much everywhere, yet rarely in my time alone with the Lord. I wanted students to experience God in powerful ways so I took my groups to places or events that I hoped they would feel it. It was not difficult to find them.

 Most large youth ministry events are geared towards students having an experience of the presence of God. Knowing these were mountain top experiences, I would regularly warn my group that life back home would not feel the same. Experience had taught me that apart from such a warning, some would stop coming to youth group when they did not feel the things they experienced on a retreat or at a conference.

At a conference a few years ago, Sean McDowell spoke of two categories that shape our worldview.  He labeled these ‘truth’ and ‘preference,’ or ‘that which is objectively true’ and ‘that which is subjective.’  To say that 4+3=7 is an objective truth statement, while saying that 7 is the luckiest number is subjective because it is a preference. He then showed how most students place matters of faith in the category of subjective or preference rather than truth.  When matters of faith enter the subjective realm, a matter of preference, then it is fair to say that their faith is driven by feelings because preferences are associated with feelings.

 Sean’s insights both resonated with me and rattled me. I had been pushing students faith into the subjective realm.  My approach to ministry was built on providing felt experiences of God. These days, it’s not difficult to make a case that experience itself guides people’s perceptions of reality. A subjective faith revolves around preferences based on feelings and experiences rather than objective truth.

In youth ministry, it is very easy to perpetuate an emotionally driven faith.  Worship music is a prime example.  Consider how many feelings-driven songs are sung with students, some lyrics even craving a desire for stronger feelings.  Emotionalism is a camp and conference standard in many places and adolescents naturally gravitate to it. I’m not suggesting that we do away entirely with songs that express emotion. If we did that, we would have to alter our understanding of the Psalms. Yet if we compare some modern worship songs with the Psalms, we should notice the stronger presence of objective truth in the Psalms. Maintaining a balance of objective and subjective expressions in worship is incredibly difficult in a world driven by feelings.

One might question what is wrong with a faith, driven by feelings.  If I am regularly experiencing the presence of God through highly emotional songs, is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.  However, there are no risks or effort involved in choosing to simply feel something because we prefer the emotion to an objective reality.

Students can immerse themselves in places where they experience feelings of God without facing the objective truth about God or themselves. In the subjective, choosing is expressing a preference. I would prefer not to deal with my sin because it feels so icky. If I allow my feelings to drive my faith, I’ll never experience the joy of God’s grace because we cannot know His grace apart from facing our sin. Will such a subjective faith grapple with the sovereignty of God?  Or the omniscience of God? Will it face the reality of suffering for the gospel?

How can we help students who seemingly struggle with not experiencing God like their peers? Perhaps the deeper struggle is that they are not feeling sanctified. Is God really working in my life if I don’t feel his presence? A feelings driven faith does not value objective truth as much as subjective experience.

 The truth of God needs to be the basis for faith. Youth ministries should strive to promote a balanced faith. We need to create places for emotional experience in a thoughtful manner. More importantly, we must emphasize the reality of the objective truth about God found in his word.

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