Imagine you are talking to a young man and he tells you he runs a program for middle schoolers and high schoolers. It is an athletic program that aims to prepare young people for the athletic challenges they will face later in life.
“So do you spend a lot of time on intensive training?” you ask.
“Not really. We find that kids don't care for training. So we focus our efforts on relational games and making it fun for them. Otherwise it is really hard to get the kids to show up.”
This shocks you a bit. “Wow. How do you balance the playing with preparing them for the future challenges?”
He thinks for a moment and answers, “Well, we hope that they will just associate our training with fun and later on when times get tough they will at least remember the training as a good time. There are so many interests competing for their time, we just can't afford to lose them to other things they will enjoy more.”
“Does this strategy work?”
He sheepishly shrugs and admits, “Well, when they get in competition we see anywhere from a 60 to 85% failure rate. They abandon athletics altogether though some, maybe as many as half, come back to athletics later in life.”
Stunned you respond, “I don't understand. You say your job is to prepare them for future trials in athletics but your methods fail miserably. You don't even seem to be focused on preparing them for athletics at all. You seem to target pleasing them and having a good time. Although that may be fun in the short term, you admit that the long term benefits of this approach are abysmal. Not only are the kids not succeeding in athletics but they are becoming so disillusioned by defeat that they give up athletics completely!”
If you had this conversation with a coach it would be so clear to you that something was radically wrong with the approach that this guy is taking. And yet, this is exactly the scenario that we see in many church youth groups and exactly the failure rate we see with young men and women abandoning their faith in college. Many youth leaders share with me their frustration as they struggle to inject meaningful lessons into a system that has a main goal of encouraging attendance in uncommitted kids. “We have to make it fun or they won't come,” one youth minister told me. Another said, “If I focused on things like doctrine and apologetics I wouldn't have a youth department.”
At recent events in Tennessee, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Florida parents told me stories about their children going to college and losing their faith. These parents are heartbroken and struggling to find a way to talk to their kids. Certainly some of this is simply the rebellious nature of young people at this age, but there is an underlying intellectual arrogance that these children exhibit towards their parents. Their sons and daughters dismiss their previous beliefs as silly superstitions and the faith of their parents as ignorant. Concerned fathers and mothers repeat this same story over and over again.
What is the answer? How do we respond to this challenge? Do we continue to focus on entertaining kids in our youth groups so that they will feel comfortable and keep coming back, or do we focus on doctrine and apologetics in order to prepare them to stand up to future challenges? How about earnestly trying to do both?
We must minister to the whole person, so we can't discount the importance of social dynamics in reaching kids. It is also important to engage youth with lessons in such a way that - as much as it is possible - they enjoy learning and grasp why what they are learning matters to them. One of my greatest obstacles in talking to youth leaders about apologetics is convincing them that good organizations are aware of their challenges and will work with them to accomplish these goals while equipping young Christians to engage the culture.
Summit Ministries has a rigorous two week program where older high schoolers and college students spend time with some of today's best Christian speakers training them in various topics. In addition, they spend time socializing with other Christian students in a safe environment. Summit provides materials for study beyond their on campus programs to help parents work with their families in communicating the intellectual grounding of the Christian beliefs to the next generation. John Stonestreet and the Summit team work tirelessly to provide the highest quality materials and presentations available.
Stand to Reason's Brett Kunkle helped devise a unique mission trip idea where groups of young Christians are taken to places like Cal Berkeley in order to hear about competing views straight from the source. Students hear from atheist philosophers about how they ground objective moral values without an appeal to God or about the sufficiency of evolution in explaining the full human experience including free will. Rather than shelter kids from intellectual questions, Brett takes them out to engage them and allow the students the chance to process the information and share with Brett and the other leaders what they are thinking.
Jonathan Morrow of Think Christianly has devoted his considerable talents to helping young people and ministers see the importance of “a mature faith, a transformed heart, and a radical love for our world.” To this end he has written multiple books including Welcome to College, a tremendous resource for high schoolers preparing to leave home for life at a university, and Think Christianly, a book I sincerely believe should be read by all people working in ministry today. Jonathan's cultivates a heart for God through a rigorous and intellectually satisfying faith by honestly looking at the challenges in our culture and finding ways to minister to the secular world rather than abandon it outright.
Apologetics and worldview training does not have to be stale or boring. At LTI, it is required by Scott that our speakers be capable of reaching the audience and holding their attention. The number one remark I most often hear when I am done is how much people enjoy the presentations. They say that they obviously learned but they were surprised how exciting the seminar was, and some of these seminars last 2 – 3 hours. People routinely say, “I have to tell my friends what they missed so if you ever come back to this area again they will come.” The biggest obstacle we face is getting the initial invitations to come. Wherever we go, being invited back is the norm. Youth leaders, school administrators, and pastors are excited to see their congregations energized by subjects they feared would bore them to death or – even worse – make them angry. I encourage my audiences by telling them that the reason this former atheist is now dedicated to teaching the value of human life and the truth of the Christian worldview is primarily good arguments by good arguers. Anyone willing to train to engage can make a difference.
These are just a few of the people I know that are working with Christian leaders to teach the next generation what they need to know to face the future. Church leaders can be confident the help these organizations offer will not stupefy their students into slack jawed boredom. It is our job to help you do your job. We can help parents talk to their kids, youth leaders teach their students, and pastors inform their congregations. That is our part in the body of Christ and we are limited in our capacity to do our job until others see the need and value in what we do.