With many Liberty students experiencing spiritual growth at the school, where do those with doubt go?
After spending most of his life in the Southern Baptist church, Mike McHargue found himself struggling to find truth in what he had always been taught about Christianity.
This questioning led to a faith transition that resulted in emotional turmoil and the loss of his community. He has continued to use the knowledge he gained through his situation to help people find community and comfort in navigating their own spiritual journeys.
“When you go to college, you leave a familiar social environment,” McHargue said. “Now you form new identity in conjunction with new community. That means it’s a time of asking a lot of questions.”
Young college age adults are in a time of substantial change — whether social, spiritual or otherwise. An expectation of spiritual growth while at Liberty University, though often valid, has the potential to be damaging to students who do not experience it.
McHargue is an author, speaker and podcast host. His book Finding God in the Waves and podcasts The Liturgists and Ask Science Mike offer comfort and wisdom for people going through a faith transition.
“About 44 percent of people will go through a faith transition at least once in their life,” McHargue said. “I think the college years are a common time for people to begin a faith transition. College students make up a large portion of my audience, and I’d say Liberty’s probably overrepresented.”
Even if someone does not have a complete change of faith, many college students step back to reconsider what they have been taught to be true about religion. One of these people is Liberty alum James Hobson who is now a professor in Liberty’s School of Divinity and a pastor at Hill City Community Church.
“For six months (during college) I searched my heart and faith and other faiths,” Hobson said.“If I’m just believing in Christianity because my mother told me so, that’s not a good enough reason to continue in this religious faith.”
The deconstruction of faith that Hobson went through years ago is similar to what many young people experience today.
Taylor Craig, a sophomore at Liberty, has witnessed doubts and changes in faith in her own life and in the lives of her peers.
“I know people who have come here strong believers and have left not believing the same things that they did coming in,” Craig said. “I have had friends who have gone through deconstruction of their religion here, and being surrounded by a Christian community helped them still believe what they believe in today — Christianity.”
Hobson said students reconsidering their long-held beliefs in Christianity are not alone.
Though the college years are a time when so many young people begin to question what they have been taught about the world, the environment of Liberty has the potential to make students wary of voicing these doubts, even if unintentionally.
“The biggest lie I believed for so long was that it wasn’t okay to have questions,” Craig said.
Going through a faith transition can be a significant emotional and mental struggle. When someone is having significant doubts about all they have been taught to be true, it can become a heavy burden if they feel it is unsafe to discuss their questions.
“(For) people who are going through a faith transition, that’s a period of tremendous vulnerability, emotional upheaval, grief,” McHargue said. “We understand that people in faith transitions have an elevated risk of depression. They have an elevated risk of suicidal ideation. ”
According to Hobson, the best way to help people navigating religious doubt is to create an environment open to addressing any questions thought of as too controversial to openly discuss.
“Talking about doubts is dangerous,” Hobson said. “It shouldn’t be. Though I started to backpedal in my faith, it was one of the best things that could happen. It was real thoughts and real questions I had about my faith that I didn’t need to brush under the rug.”
With so many people coming to McHargue in their time of spiritual turmoil, he has found the best thing to do is to affirm their friendship and validate their questions rather than immediately attempt to correct their theology.
“If someone was a Christian and is starting to question that, if you want to help them, the best way is to give them a hug and support them,” McHargue said.
Though faith transition and deconstruction can become an isolating time in one’s life, it has the potential to become a period of tremendous growth.
During a religious re-evaluation, McHargue encourages people to seek out a community and to face doubt with the knowledge that there will always be people who support and love them regardless of what they believe in the end.
“It’s going to be okay,” McHargue said. “As a person of faith, as a person who believes in God — indeed, as a person who even believes that Jesus was the son of God — I challenge you to go on an adventure. Don’t fear doubt; embrace it. Allow it to test what you know and allow it to teach you something new.”