Engage, Encourage, Equip: Helping Students to Ask Good Questions
By Billy Hutchinson
Great teachers and students have one thing in common: they ask many good questions. And as I have spent time in classrooms, I have found that teachers and students alike will ask many questions in science, history, math, and language arts classes, but in some cases, students are seemingly hesitant to ask questions in Bible classes. This observation has led me to ask two questions. First, why is this the case? And secondly, what can be done about it?
Concerning the first question, “Why is this the case?” many students have adopted (either consciously or unconsciously) a secular epistemology, the notion that religion cannot give us any knowledge about reality, that Francis Schaeffer described in his book The God Who Is There, where he addresses changes in the culture, and how people define and access truth, published in 1968. He states, “The tragedy of our situation today is that men and women are being fundamentally affected by a new way of looking at truth, and yet they have never even analyzed the drift that has taken place”(Schaeffer, 25) Later in the book, Schaeffer describes this drift by explaining the “line of despair” as the point by which individuals began to reject the notions of the existence of absolutes and the related implication of antithesis (Schaeffer, 27). They took it for granted that if anything was true, the opposite was false (Schaeffer, 26). This new shift in truth, combined with the rise of the scientific method, inevitably led to a fractured epistemology. People came to view truth as no longer objective and absolute but personal and subjective. This resulted in “religious truths” being moved to the upper story while “non-religious truths” remained in the lower story. Or, to put it another way, anything religious is someone’s opinion, and anything non-religious in nature can, and should be, investigated to see if it is true or false. This led students to view the content of their Bible classes as the teacher’s or school’s opinion. As such, they may not be as quick to ask questions to consider if what is being taught is accurate as they would if the content was “non-religious.” This divided epistemology is inconsistent with the Christian worldview, which holds there is no division in truth, but all truth is God’s truth.
This leads us to the second question, “What can be done about it?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question is complex and will vary depending on the school’s culture. However, I hope to offer three approaches that can be applied regardless of the cultural context.
Engage students by developing strong mentoring relationships.
One of the most significant advantages of our private Christian schools is the ability, and hopefully, the expectation, to develop strong mentoring relationships with our students. How are you intentionally constructing a relational culture within your school? Are you strategically creating spaces for faculty and staff members to mentor students? Unfortunately, this is too often simplified to discipleship groups or Bible studies. However, students must develop richer relationships by spending more time with faculty and staff. Here again, I think of Francis Schaeffer’s relational approach. Consider the work he and his wife Edith did at L’Abri. The Schaeffers opened their home to anyone desiring to come and ask questions of the Christian faith. And as people came, the Schaeffers spent time developing relational capital with them. As teachers, we all know that the stronger our relationships are with our students, the more we can engage them. These relationships will require us to be transparent and vulnerable with the students and the students to us as well. As a result, these deeper relationships will lead to deeper engagement with content across all disciplines.
Encourage students to ask good questions across all disciplines.
You don’t have to spend much time on social media, especially in evangelical circles, before you read accounts of individuals in various stages of deconstructing their faith. As pastors, scholars, and philosophers have studied this phenomenon, they have noticed some common themes running through these narratives, including the lack of encouragement for individuals to ask questions during their formative years. In his essay, “Doubt Your Way Back To Truth,” Trevin Wax notes individuals typically have two categories of questions when it comes to the Christian faith, “Is it true?” and “Is it good?” (Wax, 11). We know our students have these questions because we have these questions. But the issue is not the existence of these questions but the expression of these questions. Here again, I have found the approach of Francis Schaeffer to be helpful. Bryan Follis emphasizes, “Schaeffer believed that loving a person involved being willing to give honest answers to honest questions” (Follis, 138). Considering the current cultural maelstrom we find ourselves in, one of the most significant ways we can love our students is to encourage them to ask these tough questions. If we develop strong mentoring relationships with our students, then we should be able to embolden them to ask these questions without fear or reservation. Sadly, if we don’t encourage them to ask such questions, it is not that these questions will not be answered, but they will be answered in a way that is not aligned with the Christian worldview, which at its very heart is relational. So, when we seek to engage students relationally, we not only build necessary relational capital, we are showing students the very essence and distinctiveness of the Christian worldview.
Equip stakeholders to think and answer questions from a Christian worldview.
We can initiate great mentoring relationships and a school culture that promotes honest questions, but we must equip our stakeholders to answer these questions to ensure our students succeed. The discipleship process in a Christian school should be a partnership between the families, the staff, and the church. Are we developing our stakeholders, not with the expectation that they can answer every question, but to identify the essential question(s) that may lie beneath those questions and point students to trusted resources to answer those questions? Does our school culture model a love for the pursuit of wisdom? Do we think from a Christian worldview, or have we unknowingly adopted the secular shift in truth that Schaeffer warned us of almost 60 years ago that would have severe implications for how we live and educate future generations?
In all, to love our students well, we must teach them to love God as Jesus commanded, with all their hearts, souls, mind, and strength. We can do this by encouraging them to ask honest questions while we seek to provide honest answers.
Schaeffer, Francis, The God Who Is There: 30th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
Wax, Trevin, “Doubt Your Way Back to Truth,” in Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, ed. Ivan Mesa (Austin: The Gospel Coalition, 2021)
Follis, Brian A. Truth With Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006)
Editor’s Note: Join Billy Hutchinson at ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Institute (FSi), where he will be speaking on the flourishing construct of Questioning. The next FSi will be in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 20-22, 2023. Register your team today!
About the Author
Billy Hutchinson serves as the Dean of Academics at Hickory Grove Christian School in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he has taught courses in philosophy, worldview, and apologetics. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a BA in History and completed his M.Div in Christian Apologetics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also works with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview as a content creator for their Colson Educators platform.