When then-junior Ava Perez Erickson’s faith hit “its lowest point,” she could have given up. She could have accepted that up to this point she had been a “circumstantial Christian,” that is, a Christian simply because the dice were rolled and she ended up in a Christian family attending a Christian school and surrounded by Christian ideals.
“I saw a world filled with multiple religions, each claiming to be the way,” she says, looking back on this season. “I watched people consciously attack their neighbors and fill the world with suffering...I no longer had complete trust or confidence in God; in fact, I was no longer sure if I had ever felt his presence.”
Ava’s questions nibbled away at her childhood faith, eventually leaving behind what felt like a shaky framework of ideals that couldn’t hold the weight of her doubt.
Ava's struggle mirrors that of many across the nation.
Roughly 50% of church-going, graduating seniors walk out of their school doors that last time and away from their faith journeys.
Some wrestle with similar questions to the ones Ava faced. Others struggle with the tension between faith and science. Some don’t see faith as relevant to their busy lives.
But this statistic leaves us with a question: What about the other 50%? Why did some face the questions and realities of an imperfect world and somehow continue the faith walk?
A few years back Fuller Seminary researcher, Kara Powell, came to Minnehaha Academy to discuss what she and research partner Chap Clark call “Sticky Faith,” that is, faith that sticks with individuals through the challenges and changes of life.
Drs. Powell and Clark point out that while parents hold the most important role in their child’s faith development, the wider community must also come alongside students’ growth—and struggles—in order to nurture a vibrant faith that actually grows instead of shrivels in the face of questions.
While each student must take ownership for their own faith journey, we as a community have a responsibility to provide scaffolding for that journey. Following are just a few of the areas of "Sticky Faith" that MA integrates into our community.
Understand the Core
Sticky Faith starts with understanding the core of what it means to walk with Christ, as opposed to simply affirming certain beliefs.
Powell and Clark say that young people (and their elders) often equate faith with “spiritual disciplines, ‘good works,’ and living as an example of Christianity that would please God.”
You might reread that last line and wonder, is that really so off?
But this lifestyle of external faith—dos and don’ts, if you will—doesn’t sustain Sticky Faith; at the end of the day, it misses the point of our faith.
From their earliest years at Minnehaha, students engage with the Bible. The awesome parts, the beautiful parts, the confusing parts, and the disturbing ones.
“We’re with the Israelites right now, and things aren’t going well,” laughs first grade teacher Britt Guild. ‘’They keep making mistakes and worshipping idols.” But this, she points out, is an opportunity to ask, what is God trying to tell us?
And what is he saying? What is the point of faith, if not to be a good person and do things that please God?
“At the heart of Sticky Faith is a faith that trusts in God and that understands that obedience is a response to that trust, in everything,” explain Powell and Clark.
When, during advisory or a class discussion, students engage in difficult discussions about race, family culture, or differing beliefs, this is an opportunity to trust. We call them to speak with respect and to listen well not because “it’s what nice people do,” but because we know that God calls us to act in love. We trust that when we relate in ways that honor God and his principles he will bring greater good in those conversations than we could make happen on our own.
Wrestle Openly With Doubt
Doubt, explains Powell, "is most toxic when it goes unexpressed."
For Ava, doubt had been building slowly but deeply. Unspoken doubt tends to overwhelm our vision, keeping us stuck in the questions. This is the place so many leave their faith.
“When asked about my faith, I said what I was supposed to say rather than truthfully admitting my anger towards a God who did not pay attention to me, despite my constant pleas for direction and assurance [in my faith],” Ava admits.
There is, however, great hope in the face of doubt.
Research shows that when their community allows students to express and openly struggle with their doubt, those students are actually more likely to develop a rich, deeply rooted spiritual life that flourishes.
We want students to know that hard questions and difficult discussions are honored and even welcomed here.
This spring during advisory time, Middle School students explored Lee Strobel’s work The Case for Christ. While Strobel’s book is a journalistic look at the evidence for Christ from the fields of science, philosophy, and history, faculty didn’t push students to ignore any lingering doubts.
Instead, they offered time to be open about and wrestle honestly with their uncertainty. For some, Strobel’s work offered many helpful answers. For others, new questions arose which allowed for deeper discussion.
At the Upper School, Dr. Jeffrey Crafton’s Senior Capstone gives students an opportunity to discuss and even challenge the foundational beliefs of Christianity. From the existence of God to the problem of evil, Dr. Crafton gives an overview of the topic and then opens the floor for discussion.
“The thing I loved most about his class is that not everyone had to have the same viewpoint,” says 2015 grad Alexander Ramos. “That stirred up so much conversation, and that was completely okay.”
Dr. Crafton explains that the class “is designed to help students make the transition from ‘this is what I’ve been told to believe’ to ‘these are decisions I’m making for myself about what I believe.’”
This, says ‘01 grad Stephanie Williams O’Brien, helped prepare her when she faced her own crisis of faith just a few years after graduation. “I felt equipped to wrestle through it because of my experience at MA and the ways that Dr. Crafton would push us to ask these questions and not just settle for lame answers.”
Take Part in the 5:1 Ratio
On that fateful day in January, when Ava felt the crushing weight of her many questions, she climbed the steps to Mr. Hoffner’s room. “Mr. Hoffner," she said, "I need your help."
By seeking out David Hoffner, her New Testament teacher, Ava was actually taking one of the most important steps for those who develop a faith that sticks: connecting with older mentors.
Powell’s work suggests that students flourish when they have at least five adult, non-parent mentors who can provide a listening ear as well as engage in faith and life discussions.
Faculty members, like Middle School math teacher Andrew Beach, look for open doors to share pieces of their own faith journeys with students, both the victories and the disappointments. Because of this openness, students are more likely to feel safe sharing their questions and struggles, as well as asking for prayer.
“I am truly impressed," Beach says, when noting his students' willingness to be vulnerable about these things, "because they seem to have a trust of our advisory class. And then to hear the responses of the students! I think that’s been the neatest part—to hear the students respond respectfully and then to come alongside and encourage, especially when someone is struggling with something that's deeper.”
At Peace with the Process
Sticky Faith develops when we help students recognize that the faith walk is a process. You don’t suddenly “arrive” one day, with every question answered.
That day Mr. Hoffner didn’t pluck all of the stones from Ava’s path to make it question-free. He didn’t offer her the three-step plan to demolish doubt or an apologetic to help her feel God’s presence again.
Instead he entered into the place of doubt alongside her, allowing her to process her questions and acknowledging that there were some things he couldn’t answer.
“Mr. Hoffner told me that questions allow us to delve deeper into faith because they require us to search out answers through prayer or reading the Bible,” Ava shares. He also warned her that she wouldn’t find answers to every single question: if we understood all things completely, faith—that is, trust—would be unnecessary.
“My questions have taught me to never stop seeking answers,” Ava shared in her graduation Baccalaureate speech. “By seeking answers we grow in faith.” The very process forces us to come face to face with the God who is, as opposed to the incomplete and weak images of God passed down by culture or influenced by our own biases.
Today Ava studies Biomedical Sciences at Liberty University. Instead of being afraid of the questions that her studies might stir up, she has learned to lean into them and ask, what is God trying to tell us?
Instead of crushing her faith, Ava's season of doubt, combined with a community willing to give her space to process, birthed a deeper trust and a more integrated faith walk.