Absolute certainty is a difficult game for anyone: scientists, archeologists, historians, philosophers, physicians, and beyond. What our disciplines provide for us (science, theology, history, contextual criticism, archeology, etc.) is a framework to make reasonable truth claims to build a worldview. So whether it is on a popular level (Strobel, McDowell, etc.) or on a more robust level (N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, etc.), we can provide children and students ample knowledge and a reasonable framework to understand origin/creation, the reliability of the Bible, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have far more information, research and knowledge available than most students may realize. Far too many students are turning to Google and making life-changing decisions in short periods of time when these are long, slow conversations that have been debated, researched and studied over hundreds of years. If students know what resources are available to them, and they have trusted, loving relationships in their faith community, there will be no better place than your church to process through their doubts.
3). Hurt and Pain Motivate: Early on in Rhett’s story, he expresses frustration with the sheer number of people who believe in a young earth and ignore evidence that may communicate otherwise. Later he shared additional frustration with people who position themselves as “Christian thinkers” but who publish books that lack a deeper level of rigor. Referring to the emotional difficulty of this process, he says, “I didn’t want to believe this…I didn’t want to leave this thing. This was my life.” Then, near the end of the episode, while discussing some of the more difficult challenges of the Bible and the Christian faith, Rhett says, “If I don’t have to believe [the hard encounters contained in the Bible] then why would I?” Then, “Why believe in that God if I don’t have to?”
Link discussed his frustrations with growing up in a legalistic and fear-based local church. Link ends episode 227 with hurt and frustration over his desire to support LGBTQ marriage and relationships in conflict with the orthodox Christian view of human sexuality as defined in the Bible. As one listens to their stories, the hurt, pain, anger, fear, anxiety and emotional discomfort are evident. So what does this mean for us in children and student ministry? It becomes clear that oftentimes people leave faith not for rational reasons, but for volitional or emotional reasons. Sometimes this may be because the church has hurt them (e.g. legalism, fear-based tactics, etc.), or it may be because they are uncomfortable with the reality of a biblical worldview (e.g. human sexuality, sanctity of all human life, etc.). A hurt person may look for “evidence” to support a faith deconstruction or even use “absolute certainty” as a way out of their confusion. But a highly relational church has the opportunity to relationally pursue and love young people, invite them into conversation to equip them with knowledge, and to close the gap on pain.
4). Alarming Responses Highlight Needed Conversation: When I read through the comments on Rhett’s faith deconstruction, I found them to be chilling. The comments, coming from a relatively young audience, represented nearly complete affirmation. And don’t forget, many of these responders are current and former church kids. The greater context of the cultural challenge we face is this:
- A Barna group study in 2018 showed that only 68 percent of protestant youth pastors were comfortable talking about the origins of the Bible and historical evidence. Only 48 percent felt comfortable talking about science and the Bible.
- Unfortunately, many adults are fearful of this type of experience with children and youth. In the Barna Group’s research on Gen Z, they say, “It’s important for pastors, leaders and parents to be prepared to discuss the real issues of the Christian faith, historical evidence, origins of the Bible, science, and inter-faith dialogue. This is the “acid-test” for real belief in the next generation.”
- In Kara Powell and Chap Clark’s Sticky Faith research, they discovered that only about 12 percent of youth have regular dialogue with their parents on spiritual issues.
A Different Kind of Disciple-Making
A few decades ago, if a youth pastor could be an engaging Bible teacher and throw a good pizza party, he was at the top of his game. Today, in a world with increased access to information and the onslaught of secularism, children and youth leaders not only need to be Bible teachers, but also must lead a team that can help guide students and families through issues relating to science, human sexuality, textual criticism, the digital disruption, apologetics and beyond.
We need a new kind of discipleship: One that intentionally elevates belonging, relationships and much needed conversation. Navigating these shifting landscapes is difficult for the most seasoned of Christ-followers—even much more so for today’s children and students. So how long will we continue to do children and youth ministry as if nothing has changed?
As child and youth disciple-makers, we have to make sure we are not parked in intellectual neutral as we engage young people relationally. For the student who needs popular level intellectual engagement, we have to be on our toes and ready to walk beside them to unpack the works of Christian thought leaders like Lee Strobel, Sean McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, Rosaria Butterfield or Nabeel Qureshi. For those needing to dig deeper, there are thinkers like N.T. Wright, Francis Collins, Nancy Pearcey or William Lane Craig. Our young people deserve to be introduced to robust thinkers who will help them process through some of the most challenging questions they will ever face. If we don’t engage them in this process, where will they turn? You have the influence and capacity to walk beside them as someone who loves them and cares for them. The combination of your relationship and robust thinking may be the difference maker.
Let’s move to a model of increased belonging. A model where it’s not about entertaining, but about being a relational disciple-maker who helps kids navigate a changing world. These children and students will lead the culture and church of 2050 where the church will likely be increasingly marginalized. Will they be adequately prepared?