This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Generation Z — the 70 million kids born between 1999 and 2015 — is another testament to our culture’s alarming slide into secularism. This emerging generation is twice as likely as adults to be atheists, they’re twice as likely to identify as LGBT, they’re committed moral relativists, and only one in eleven can be considered an “engaged Christian.”1 Couple this with the fact that many sectors of American culture no longer are friendly to Christianity — not merely neutral but hostile to Christian ideas and values. Clearly, Gen Z is a post-Christian generation, and the church has a major uphill battle on its hands.
It’s time for Christian parents and leaders to wake up! Our families and churches are hemorrhaging students. We all know numerous students who spent the first eighteen years of their lives growing up in Christian homes and in the church but who have now walked away. So isn’t it time to consider that much of what we’ve been doing to disciple our kids for last twenty to thirty years is not working?
We need some major paradigm shifts in discipleship. Apologetic and worldview training for our students is no longer optional; rather, it’s essential to their discipleship under Jesus in the twenty-first century.
While it’s important and necessary to examine where Gen Z is at, how they got there, and what we the church have been doing in our discipleship of youth for the last few decades, I’m not going to spend time on that kind of analysis. Instead, I want to get very practical because taking action is vital. And no matter what age demographic, generational trends, or cultural context we’re talking about, making a defense of the faith is a crosscultural and crossgenerational biblical imperative (1 Pet. 3:15). Therefore, I want to suggest six practical steps we can take now to incorporate apologetics and worldview training into the discipleship of our young people.
(1) Stop calling your students “teenagers.” Let me explain. When I tell people that I work with teenagers, the response is often along the lines of a sarcastic “Sorry to hear that.” Or, if I say that I have two teenagers under my own roof, I’ll get a well-meaning, but only half-joking “I’ll pray for you.” Here’s the point: the terms we use often are fraught with cultural baggage. Today, identifying a young person as a “teenager” carries with it corresponding low expectations. When we say, “They’re just a teenager,” we buy into the culture’s categorization of and assumptions about our youth. They’re not capable of much. We shouldn’t expect too much from them. We should let them off the hook. Often, we bring those same low cultural expectations for kids right into the church.
My larger point is that we need to elevate our expectations of young people and what they can handle. When I was a middle school pastor in Southern California, I regularly taught apologetics to my seventh and eighth graders. However, I would routinely get pushback from parents who questioned whether students were ready for the depth of training I was trying to provide. I remember teaching my middle schoolers the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. One well-intentioned parent brought me the handout I had provided for this particular lesson and claimed I was going over the students’ heads. Naturally, as a young youth pastor, I began second-guessing my teaching. But one night after youth group, I got into a conversation with Cody, one of our squirrely seventh grade boys. He started to tell me about a conversation he had with a friend at school who claimed to be an atheist and who challenged Cody’s faith.
“What did you say to him?” I eagerly asked, thinking Cody’s faith may have been shaken by the encounter. Without missing a beat, Cody said, “I explained to him the Kalam cosmological argument.” I almost passed out. “What—Well, how did you explain it?” I stammered. Cody proceeded to give me his seventh-grade version of the argument. And he nailed it, in his own junior high kind-of-way. Far from being shaken in his faith, Cody was strengthened. My resolve to maintain high expectations for my junior highers was strengthened, too.
Often, we maintain high expectations for our kids’ academic achievement, regardless if their teachers at school are interesting, inspiring, or entertaining. We expect them to sit through hours and hours of classroom instruction. We hold high expectations for their athletic achievement, too, pushing them to discipline themselves, practice every day, and play through pain. Let’s also raise the bar of expectations when it comes to their knowledge of the Christian faith, realizing they’re capable of grasping core doctrines and apologetic arguments.
(2) Our apologetic training must begin with hope — not doom and gloom. The study of apologetics is a tremendous tool to awaken our critical thinking skills. It helps us discard bad ideas and critique the culture. However, a potential pitfall of apologetics is that we always critique and always talk about what we’re against. Many Gen Zers already view Christianity as negative and judgmental, and when our apologetic is marked by doom and gloom, we play right into those misconceptions and turn students off to the very training they so desperately need.
What are we defending? The apologist’s theme verse, 1 Peter 3:15, says you are to give a “reason for the hope that you have.”2 Apologetics should point people to our hope, Jesus Himself. Thus, our apologetic should be marked by promise and possibility, not pessimism and despair. Don’t just talk to students about the false ideas we’re against but also the true ideas that we’re for and how the truth brings about goodness and beauty. True apologetics is hopeful, and hopeful apologetics is attractive to an emerging generation.
(3) Start where they’re at and gradually take them to the next level. When I saw the new updated and expanded 798-page Evidence That Demands a Verdict apologetic tome that was released this year, it sent chills through my body. I was itching to get my hands on it. However, when my high school daughter saw the book, she trembled with fear, thinking it might be her next Bible class textbook!
Now, do I want my daughter to know the arguments in that book? Of course. Is she ready for that level of apologetic training? Not yet. We’ve got to know where our kids are at and begin there. If your students don’t know the meaning of the word apologetics, don’t start with an 800-page book on the subject. Instead, start with a three- or four-minute video on YouTube3 and then discuss it. Ask them about their top three questions or doubts about the faith, and then find relevant short apologetic articles you can read together. Start by giving them bite-sized apologetic training, and as they grow in their ability to think and reason, you can feed them more substantial work gradually over time.
(4) Start with questions, not answers. We tend to think that apologetics is all about answering questions. Certainly answers are vital, but just as important is learning how to ask the right kind of questions, thinking rightly, and discovering answers for yourself. We learn much more effectively when we’re not merely spoon-fed apologetics but are forced to question, wrestle with, and search for answers ourselves.
Instead of laying out answers, start with questions. Challenge your students with common objections to the Christian faith, and let the unanswered questions hang in the air for a bit. It’s OK for them to experience the discomfort that comes when their lack of reasonable answers is exposed. Indeed, the unease of not knowing how to answer a question helps make the real need we all have for apologetic answers also become a felt need. And felt needs can create internal motivation in your students to care about and learn apologetics.
(5) Get apologetics out of the classroom and into real life. Too much of our time is spent behind the four walls of the church. If we confine our apologetic training to the classroom, it can become merely academic. While teaching is necessary, our students also want a faith that is active and lived-out, so we must help them see how apologetics plays out in the classroom of real life.
I’ve seen firsthand how this kind of apologetic training can fire up a student’s faith. At MAVEN, we have an Immersive Experiences program that provides worldview training, culminating in a week-long apologetics experience. We take high school and college students to Berkeley, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and are also developing trips on the East Coast. During these unique apologetics mission experiences, we design opportunities for students to engage people from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. They have conversations with atheists, skeptics, Mormons, Unitarians, LGBT folks, university students, and more. Through real-life interaction, students get to grapple with honest questions, they learn apologetic arguments more effectively, and they grow in confidence that Christianity is objectively true.
As a youth pastor, I would teach my students about world religions and then take them on a field trip to the local Buddhist temple or Islamic mosque. Their interactions with adherents of competing worldviews would bring the classroom material to life, and their passion to know their own faith would grow exponentially.
In my own home, I never turn down an opportunity to have conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries who come knocking.4 We invite them in to sit down with our entire family, and I encourage my kids to join in on the conversations. Afterward, once the missionaries have left, we debrief as a family, review the arguments, and spend time praying for our guests by name.
Best of all, we get to model apologetics done with truth and grace. Our kids get to see us treat unbelievers with the dignity and respect all image-bearers deserve. They see that there is no conflict between loving people and telling them the truth about Christ.
(6) In our churches, we must abandon the entertainment model of youth ministry. It’s time to discard the entertain them-into-the-kingdom approach. Often, our youth group programs are designed to attract kids with pizza, games, cool bands, or fun events, but these methods do little to disciple them deeply. There’s already precious little time spent with students in our typical youth programs each week, so we shouldn’t use it up with entertainment. Plus, we’ll never out-entertain an entertainment-oriented culture that spends countless billions of dollars to do so.
Instead, let’s get a little radical and dump the fun approach, replacing it with a deep approach. Besides, don’t we have something so much deeper and richer and satisfying than anything the culture can ever offer? We have the Way, the Truth, and the Life: Jesus Himself. If I could do my youth ministry days over again, every message I taught would focus on Scripture, theology, and apologetics, and every youth event would incorporate that content somehow.
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Don’t expect any one of these practical steps to transform your student into a passionate apologist overnight. Creating a culture of clear thinking and love for the truth takes a whole lot of time and effort. For this article, I asked my own kids what has helped them the most in learning apologetics. My fifteen year- old daughter Paige said, “Being exposed to it for so long. The more I hear mom or you talk about these things, the more I learn it and can talk to others about it.” So, start when your kids are young — don’t wait until they’re in junior high or high school — talk about apologetics often, and stay in it for the long haul. With our kids, like with most things, slow and steady wins the race.
Brett Kunkle is founder and president of MAVEN (maventruth. com). He also was an associate editor for the Apologetics Study Bible for Students (B and H, 2010) and coauthor of A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World (David C. Cook, 2017).
- Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs, and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation, published January 23, 2018, by The Barna Group in partnership with Impact 360 Institute. You can purchase this landmark study on Gen Z here: https://www.barna.com/product/gen-z/.
- All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.
- Begin with William Lane Craig’s short and well-done animated videos on apologetics. You can find them by doing a search on YouTube for “Reasonable Faith animated videos.”
- If Mormon missionaries haven’t knocked on your door lately, then here is your homework: visit www.mormon.org, fill out the contact information, wait for Mormon representatives to contact you, and set up an appointment with some missionaries!