What is the Holy Spirit doing among youth and young ministries? One example seems especially clear to me. The Spirit is helping to restore God-confidence through the ministry and practice of “Christian apologetics”! Perhaps we might think this an unexpected move. On the other hand, since when has the Spirit’s movement conformed to the niceties of our expectations? In this article, I briefly offer one “local” and one “global” example of this phenomena and suggest how and why Vineyard youth leaders can cooperate with what the Spirit is doing in this culturally-relevant area. First, a local example.
Apologetics in the Local Church
Wes Watkins is the Director of college-age ministry at Vineyard Anaheim. A sharp and caring leader in his mid-20s, Wes shepherds his flock through that delicate, transitional phase from being a senior in high school to a freshman in college.
Wes rightly wonders how his seniors will survive. Will they survive? Will the pressures of secularism in college, or the overwhelming pluralism of competing worldviews, zap them of confidence in God? Wes is not waiting around to get a “body count.”
What is Wes doing to deal with this problem? Clearly stirred by the Spirit, this year Wes is endeavoring to educate and help enculturate his ten seniors and their leaders in a strategic way. How? Well, for one thing, he is having them study and discuss Dallas Willard’s award-winning book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (Dallas came to the Vineyard Anaheim in April 2010 and did a conference around this theme). Wes told me that Dallas’ book “has been important because these young minds are about to be surrounded by secularism and skepticism when they enter the university” and the book knows how to speak directly to these challenging issues.
To help his seniors become directly acquainted with some of the pressures of a non-Christian college and university setting, Wes has strategically brought in a Christian professor who teaches in a non-Christian environment to come and help his seniors get a feel for the worldview challenges in that setting. William (Bill) Jeynes teaches at California State University-Long Beach and is a member of our church. He is an accessible communicator that helps students realize how to articulate public reasons for their worldview beliefs.
Finally, Wes is helping his seniors learn to interact with the various arguments from “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, by exposing them to some interviews with Dawkins in order to show how passionate atheists might argue.
“I believe the experience has been both challenging and rewarding for both me and the students,” observes Wes. “The reading is heavy and at times must be explained … but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and found it most rewarding.”
Wes gets it. He sees first-hand how the Spirit is “on” this learning endeavor. “Apologetics is important because it addresses what the students are experiencing,” Wes tells me. “Students are constantly told that their beliefs are not and cannot be based on knowledge and they are constantly told how many ‘good’ reasons there are to not hold those beliefs.” But here is how apologetics is serving his seniors: “Apologetics addresses the youth where they are at,” Wes notes. How? “It helps make sense of a worldview that they know to be true, but are told it cannot be.”
But is apologetics just about heady ideas?
How Apologetics is Practical
“Apologetics” (from the Greek word, apologia) is the semi-technical term that refers to the ancient Christian practice of articulating answers to questions that concern “the faith” (you can see this at play when Jesus answers some of his questioners or when Paul addresses non-Christians on “Mars Hill” in Acts 17). Different people and different generations have asked different questions. So, apologetics is a life-long, question-answering kind of ministry. Always a demand (especially if people are permitted to be open and honest with their concerns), yet always a disproportionate amount of laborers to serve.
One can likely date the origin of the practice of Christian apologetics to the writing of the New Testament, perhaps especially to Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15 or in Jude 3, if not also an allusion back to the Old Testament practice of “bearing witness” to the name, words and deeds of Yahweh. Indeed, apologetics is a form of witness; it is helping others come to know what you know to be true, as Dallas Willard would say.
The first job of a “Christian apologist” is to be a good listener. Here is where practicing spiritual direction, another ancient Christian practice, deliberately precedes teaching or counseling someone with what we know to be true. Sometimes old questions get resurfaced in new ways. We have to listen with the “long-view” in mind as we pay attention to people’s hearts and minds. Sometimes people ask “big questions” (e.g., “what are the reasons and evidences for thinking that God exists?”) or more personally-needy questions (“Due to suffering from my illness, how can I know that God is near and will care for me?”). Both types of questions are in the interest and purview of apologetics. Discernment of the question, and its place in a person’s heart, is indispensable to this ministry.
Apologetics and Discipleship to Jesus
If understood properly, Christian apologetics is integral to discipleship. How? Well, if discipleship to Jesus aims at helping people gain greater confidence and trust in Jesus’ authority to lead to their lives and thus their willingness to obey Him, then apologetics can uniquely serve in two fundamental ways:
First, apologetics is, as Dallas Willard has said, a “doubt-lifting” ministry. What does that mean? It means that this ministry seeks to remove the doubts that “stand between” a person’s interactive relationship with God and his authority in their life. A doubt is a way of distrusting what is the case; it very often can distract and redirect the heart (sometimes through the mind or the desires of our heart) to question what is true and what is known to be true. In fact, doubts can often manifest in the form of questions-as-objections (notice that not all questions or all questioning are examples of doubts).
Doubts come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are “intellectual doubts” and sometimes they are “emotional doubts” or even “spiritual doubts.” Quite often a person’s doubts about God and His trustworthiness are eclectic in nature; a combination of any or all of the above. Perhaps they are “existential doubts.” A doubt often has a felt need associated with it (e.g., a feeling of wanting to be accepted). Thus, when someone raises questions-as-objections there is often a non-articulated felt need that accompanies it. Leaders must learn to treat the need with the objection. Regardless of the classification, doubts are real and they appear in both the heart and mind of non-Christians and self-identified Christians.
So, how can apologetics lift away doubts? It can do so by offering counter-reasons and evidences to help defeat a doubt. For example, perhaps someone questions whether God sees and cares for them. Maybe He seems distant. If it is the case that such a person is willing to open-up themselves to have their doubts identified and examined, then someone could utilize the resources of apologetics to offer reasons for them to doubt their doubts (e.g., evidence for how God has, in the past, made himself known to such a person; how feelings are not an adequate guide to lead our lives; how God cares for us and administers His grace through other people, etc). But perhaps the same doubt is rooted deeply in a person’s outlook. If that is the case, maybe the doubt is empowered by the appeal of a particular worldview (e.g., atheism). Apologetics work can also be done here. For example, instead of just dealing with the specific doubt per se, an endeavor should be made to offer reasons to doubt the very viability of the worldview assumptions that might contribute to the doubt.
Second, apologetics is a God-confidence restoring ministry. This is at the heart of the insightful book, In Search of a Confident Faith, written by Vineyard Anaheim authors and Biola University professors J.P Moreland and Klaus Issler. Apologetics is a spiritual discipline that, when routinely practiced, can help to open us up to the Spirit’s work to increase our God-confidence. The Holy Spirit loves to enrich, grow and empower God-confidence, whether through direct or indirect means. The practice of apologetics is an indirect means that God often uses in order to strengthen our faith.
The practice of apologetics can help us articulate our God-experiences and strengthen our confidence by the habitual study of reasons and evidences that we learn from our own experience and other people’s witness. When I encounter God’s presence (perhaps through praising Him, receiving a prophetic word, an answer to prayer, meditating on His scripture, or from receiving power to heal, or when I experience likewise in the company of other disciples), my confidence in God is strengthened; He becomes alive to me in a real and tangible kind of way. These actual experiences are personified evidences to support particular reasons; perhaps they are evidences given for the sake of showing God’s compassionate heart, or they warrant direction from Him about what He desires to do in our gathering, for example. Here’s the point: the practice of apologetics should seek to help people articulate their God-experiences in such a way that they learn how to offer their experiences as reasons and evidences for God being present with us.
With the practice of apologetics, we can regularly seek, pursue and study reasons and evidences for how our beliefs about God and reality can come to be rooted in knowledge of what is real. We don’t have to wait for this to come to our neighborhood. We are to pursue it by going to wisdom’s neighborhood. This intentional seeking-and-finding study can come through a variety of means, including:
- Reading an introductory text on apologetics (e.g., The Reason for God, by Tim Keller; Tactics, by Greg Koukl; On Guard, by William Lane Craig) or learning by reading a creative novel (e.g., The Five Sacred Crossings, by Craig Hazen) or being nurtured by a helpful spiritual autobiography (e.g., The God Question, by J.P. Moreland or Not God’s Type, by Holly Ordway);
- Listening to someone’s personal testimony of God’s activity in their life and looking for any embedded reasons and evidences for God’s activity.
- Growing from listening to a helpful talk on a particular topic by an expert that interests you in order to strengthen your God-confidence.
The means for such growth are virtually endless.
So, how is apologetics related to discipleship? In at least two ways: lifting doubts and restoring God-confidence. But why is apologetics ministry necessary to healthy, Vineyard youth ministry. Well, if apologetics is related to discipleship, and Vineyard youth ministry is about discipleship, how can it not care about apologetics in some significant way? But if apologetics has nothing to do with discipleship, or youth ministry is not about making disciples, then youth leadership should not be “distracted” by either apologetics or discipleship.
Moreover, training in the ministry of Christian apologetics can come about in a variety of ways. One does not need to just settle for doing some talks on apologetics or studying an “apologetics book,” as important as these may be.
Immersion in Apologetics Training Experiences
Brett Kunkle is in his mid-30s and has been ministering to junior high and high school students for the last eighteen years. Eleven of those years were in a local church context and the remaining seven years have been with a Southern California based apologetics ministry, Stand to Reason (STR). He is STR’s “Student Impact Director.” Brett is a smart, discerning, accessible (and highly sought-after!) communicator, and a leader of leaders. Since 2002, I’ve watched him (up-close and from afar) develop other apologetics youth leaders.
Since 2000, Brett has been developing and directing innovative learning and missional trips for local church youth ministries. These are “apologetics missions trips,” which involve taking students and their leaders from a local context and immersing them in either Utah Mormon country or into the secularism of UC Berkeley. For about a week or so, intentional space is created for the students to encounter first-hand non-Christians in these various contexts and to learn in-the-moment how to dialogue, interact and counter their claims. They don’t just talk about apologetics, they do it! They don’t just read about non-Christian worldviews, they directly encounter them and learn how to respond to objections. Currently, over 400 students and leaders from around the U.S. have experienced these trips and by the end of 2011, Brett will have led over 20 trips since its inception.
Before each trip, Brett teaches some theology and apologetics to help equip and familiarize the group with the sort of objections that they will likely encounter. During the trip, he models and experiences with the group live, personal interactions with various non-Christian spokespersons. After the trip, an important de-brief takes place to process what has been learned. These transformational immersion experiences are an opportunity to do apologetics, witness, dialogue, listen, study, learn and grow.
Developing Apologetics Training as a Practice
How can a ministry of apologetics be integrated in a Vineyard youth ministry context? Here are seven major recommendations, which I can only briefly annotate here. Any youth ministry will need to wisely discern how to implement these in a particular context. I write these mainly from the standpoint of a youth leader or director:
- Cultivate safe, grace-filled, and honest spaces for youth to surface their questions, regardless if they are “deep questions” or even seemingly naive and “stupid” questions. This sort of caring environment is right at the heart of many of our Vineyard core values. It also turns out that it is a highly conducive environment for training in apologetics.
- Seek to raise-up youth leaders that are mindful of apologetics. Take the Wes Watkins example seriously. As Mike Safford recently wrote, discipleship to Jesus is, indeed, integral to learning how to raise-up teen leaders. Receive the helpful advice in this area from Kurt Attaway.
- Teach and model the importance of apologetics. Teach, preach, counsel and encourage with a view toward helping to answer questions that a youth community is asking. That means that we must courageously hear the tough questions in our midst. Help to locate those questions within the broader biblical narrative of life in God.
- Help youth learn how to articulate their God-experiences, including the difference that these experiences make in their lives and for their public witness beyond the environment of a church community. Apologetics can help people to bust outside of the “walls of the church” with public, credible witness of their God-experiences.
- Create some intentional, external “immersion” experiences for your youth. Take the Brett Kunkle model seriously. Try some day-long, weekend or week-long intentional trips (e.g., to a local mosque, Buddhist temple, secular university, etc) to be educated and to practice apologetics with your group.
- Foster regular, apologetics learning occasions. Watch a movie with your group and teach them how to discern the various worldview elements of the film. Make this a discussion-starter toward further learning and growth. Do likewise with relevant YouTube clips of various interviews, debates, and lectures communicated by prominent non-Christian spokespersons.
- As a youth leader, develop your own learning, leadership and practice in this area. We are living in the midst of an explosion of resources related to Christian apologetics. It is not hard to find good books, multimedia resources, and events to attend in a particular area. Moreover, there are some excellent “formal” training opportunities for leaders, whether doing a Certificate in Christian Apologetics or by even earning a graduate degree in apologetics. Here’s the point: intentionally and realistically start somewhere and develop a workable plan to support life-long learning that suits your needs, time and energy.
Our creative, living God is at work in His world through His church to invite all peoples to place their confidence and life in Him. One of the ways that the Holy Spirit is tangibly enacting this work today is through the practice of apologetics. He is breathing fresh wind and direction on this ancient, Christian practice among youth and youth leaders. Absent of the existence and texture of the local church, apologetics looks weird. But without the practice of apologetics, the church looks defenseless. My article has attempted to briefly show how and why the Spirit is using the practice of apologetics and that this work matters for your encouragement and leadership.