One of my greatest joys as a pastor and church planter is the privilege of teaching the youth of my church. Ours is still a small church, a couple dozen households and maybe 70 or so in average attendance, and so as the only pastor on staff I quarterback the youth ministry alongside other responsibilities.
What is “Stump the Pastor”?
Recently, our youth group held a “Stump the Pastor” evening, an activity we do about three times a year. I got the idea from my dear friend and twice-copastor Terry Stauffer, who served in Cochrane with me for six months last year, and who had done this game himself with youth groups in the past. It’s become one of the most popular activities our youth group does.
Teenagers are, in a way, like cats: keenly observant, relentlessly inquisitive, and enthusiastically curious—even while being prone sometimes to mischief and mood swings (and occasionally wrecking the furniture!). Yet it’s precisely that energetic interest in understanding the world around them that makes working with young people so exhilarating. And “Stump the Pastor” has really crystallized for me the curiosity and intelligence of youth in a local church.
The concept is simple: they bring the hardest questions they can think of, and I bring chocolate bars! If I get “stumped,” the youth who posed the question gets chocolate. Of course, there has to be ground rules—the questions have to be of the sort a pastor can answer (so, no physics problems or sports trivia!), and they have to be a reasonable “common-sense” question (so, “gotcha” questions like “what’s the fifth word in chapter 2 of Amos” are out). I’ve found it useful to have one of our adult volunteers act as a “referee” to deem certain questions “out of bounds,” but after doing it a few times the youth have grasped the concept and it’s become less common for that to happen!
What do the Youth ask?
I get a wide range of questions on these nights. Some are light (there’s quite a few jokes and puns—let them have a laugh!) but most would probably surprise many outside observers for their thoughtfulness and depth. Here’s a semi-representative sampling of some of the questions I’ve been asked, with some commentary:
“The song ‘Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me’ says: ‘What gift of grace is Jesus my Redeemer/there is no more for heaven now to give.’ But the Holy Spirit was given afterward! Is that song lyric correct?” (Very insightful question! It demands a strong grasp of theology proper, especially concepts like divine simplicity, perichoresis, and the divine missions)
“At creation God made all things good, including angels like Lucifer. How could he fall, then?” (This one gave a great opportunity to teach a bit about theodicy—the problem of evil. And it gives an opportunity to explain how God can use even evil for a greater good, such as his glory in his divine mercy and compassion and forgiveness and wrath—things that would not be clearly, if at all, displayed in a world without evil).
“Before Boaz met Ruth, what was he?” (I didn’t get this one. Apparently the answer is ‘Ruthless’)
“What is ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and do you agree with it?” (This let me get into a bit of church history and political theology! Since ours is a Baptist youth group, the correct answer is “no.” Depending on your theological tradition, YMMV)
“Are angels male or female? If not, why do angels like Gabriel and Michael have male names? Do they have babies?” (One fun part about “Stump the Pastor” is that one question will often prompt more questions in response, as the subject captures the kids’ interest! This one gave a neat opportunity to talk about the distinction between immaterial and material beings, embodiment, gender, and the like—and the chance to explain that gender is not a category that applies to God, but that there is nevertheless a reason he reveals himself to us as Father and Son and in masculine pronouns)
“Will we know more in Heaven than we do now—like, will we be able to understand things like the Trinity?” (Here was a great chance to talk about the effects of sin on our intellect and about human finitude both now and in eternity; I even got to quote the old maxim, “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite”)
“Will there be activities in Heaven—will we eat, will we need to eat, will we play sports, etc.?” (This gave the chance to connect the Lord’s Supper to the promise of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb and to clarify misconceptions about heaven—no, we’re not going to be angels sitting on clouds strumming harps)
“In First Samuel, Goliath is hit by David’s stone. Which way does he fall, and is there anything else in that same book that connects to the way he fell?” (I loved this question—and I’ll confess I missed this one! This one is all about a biblical author using repetitive imagery in making a theological point. And the answer is found in 1 Samuel 5, BTW)
“What about those in distant lands who never get to hear the Gospel? Do they go to Heaven, or hell, or something like purgatory?” (Not only did this allow me to explain to our group—several of whom attend a Catholic high school—that purgatory has absolutely no support in Scripture, it also gave me the chance to explain that some theological questions seem hard not because the answer isn’t straightforward, but rather because part of us doesn’t like the answers. And it gave me the chance to talk about original sin, what general revelation can and can’t teach us, and the need for missions)
“Where do we go when we die, before the resurrection and the final judgment and all that?” (This one about the “intermediate state” led us into a discussion of Sheol and what Jesus accomplished on Holy Saturday, in his descent to the dead)
“Will there be skate parks in Heaven?” (I may have lost a chocolate bar here)
“Can animals sense things we can’t, spiritually?” (Not only did this take us straight to Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22, it turned into an opportunity to warn the youth about spiritual blindness and to press the Gospel as the answer)
Why Stuff like this Matters?
Doing these events has been really good for me as a pastor. It’s stretched me theologically. It’s compelled me to admit my own limitations and ignorance at times. And it’s really helped me get a sense of the issues that individual youth are working through.
But I think it’s been even better for the youth. Our youth are hungry for truth and transcendence. They are surrounded and bombarded by a cacophony of lies every day, in the classroom, on social media, in movies. They are being tempted to question who and even what they are and to place their confidence and hope in things that can never bear such weight. They see the hopelessness and confusion among their peers and in the world around them. And many of them are deeply curious about tough, deep theological questions.
Our youth group is very simple; perhaps for some, it’s too simple! Our little congregation can’t replicate the polished, high-octane youth nights that some other churches are blessed to be able to offer. And yet, I’ve been told by some of our young people who have attended such events that while they’re fun and it’s great to meet fellow Christians, there was often something lacking.
The youth at our church may not get to do all the fun stuff that youth in other churches get to do. But one thing they do have is a safe, open environment in which they can wrestle with challenges to the Christian faith. They know they can ask the hard questions and they’ll get honest responses.
My primary aim in sharing here about our “Stump the Pastor” evenings is to put that curiosity on display, and to exhort churches to satisfy it. To give the kids the chance to ask the really, really hard questions they’re wrestling with.
So, pastors, maybe buy some chocolate bars and sit down in the firing line. You might be surprised how much fun you wind up having. I can pretty much guarantee they’ll enjoy it!