Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

Top-10 Things Your Youth Pastor Would Like to Say

Shingles. Anxiety. Sleepless nights. High blood pressure. Gun-shy decision-making. Significant loss in self-esteem & confidence. Unhealthy eating habits. Depression. A meager spiritual life.

I’d experienced all of these by my 5th year in youth ministry.

Now, I know many people think youth ministry is just organizing a fun game of dodgeball or sardines. I mean, how hard can it be? But it turns out, it’s pretty tough not just physically or mentally, but on the soul.

Consider the all the roles your youth pastor is expected to be completely proficient in:

– creative event/party planner,
– engaging, funny, and deep teacher/communicator,
– successful publicist,
– charismatic personality,
– bible-knowledge expert,
– teen-culture expert,
– consistent parent liaison,
– media and technology guru,
– data-entry and records keeping professional,
– team-manager and volunteer director,
– student mentor and leadership developer,
– social-media master,
– spiritual and family relationship counselor,
– conflict negotiator in teenage relationship struggles,
– and janitor (cause lets face it, we all know who gets to clean up that messy game from last Wednesday).

Add to these expectations (and more) the countless hours spent hanging-out with students at football games, Starbucks, Denny’s, musicals, and coaching girl’s basketball and you’ve got a pretty full schedule. And while many youth pastors have the ability to delegate some of these responsibilities, most will tell you that they are under-resourced with personal capability, adult personnel, and money to make many of these roles successful.

The expectations are high. The desire is authentic. The reality is slim.

Any given Sunday, there are a bunch of youth pastors on the verge of mental and spiritual breakdown.

Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve personally found healthier ways to deal with the difficulties of the job, and healthier contexts to do it in.  But today there are many young youth pastors who find themselves where I was a few years ago.  If you aren’t involved in career ministry, it might come as a surprise that the spiritual leaders that care for your students at church are struggling in this way.  And maybe it’s worth a look into the thoughts I’ve heard youth pastors say to each other but rarely to anyone else.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that are being kept inside. These might not all apply to all youth leaders, but chances are they’ve all thought them at some point or another. And it’s worth a look into the real struggles of these committed leaders.

The TOP-10 things your youth pastor would like to say but is usually too scared to:


1) “I’m a normal person, please treat me like one.”

I know I’m the leader of an important ministry, but I’m also a person. When I get a vicious email or nasty criticism, it hurts. Many times I feel like the criticism comes from strangers rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, I’m often amazed at the harsh criticism I receive from people I don’t really know. If you’ve got concerns, could you please let me know while remembering I’m a real person with real feelings.

2) “I’m doing the best I can, please cut me some slack.”

I’m overworked and have a lot of students and their problems on my mind. There are lots of things I’d like to get done in better organization of our group, but the tyranny of what has to get done today and the sudden crisis that pop up in students’ lives rob me of time to deal with it all. I’m doing my best. Please give me some grace. I’ll get the parent newsletter out as soon as I can.

3) “I don’t know all the answers, and neither do you.”

Maybe I didn’t teach something last week that covered everything you’d like. Maybe I asked too many questions and didn’t give enough answers. But, I don’t always know what is going to get through to students. I have to try things. I’m trying to earn their trust and break through their apathy. And most likely, you don’t know what will work either or you’d be doing it yourself instead of expecting me to do it.  Please work with me to find out what works and what doesn’t.

4) “I’m not responsible for your student’s spiritual growth, I’m responsible for mine.”

I know you think that it’s your job to drop your kid off at our program and my job to make sure they grow up “Christian,” but the truth is I’m only responsible for my own spiritual growth. I can encourage, equip and inspire your student to follow Jesus, but parents have more influence in how that practically works out and ultimately it is something each student must choose for himself/herself. If you want more depth for your student, dig deeper with them. Don’t just expect me to do it.

5) “I need more help, not more criticism.”

I realize that youth ministry will always be a lightning rod for criticism. We play messy games, ask disturbing questions and employ controversial strategies all in an effort to reach students for Jesus. And I know you don’t like them all, but you should know that sharp criticism makes me want to engage in these activities more not less. I know I’m not doing everything right, but it’s hard for me to hear “disengaged criticism.” Get involved and start fighting in the trenches with me and I’ll be much more inclined to hear your “suggestive correction.”

6) “I invest in a lot of relationships, but very few invest in me.”

My life is a constant out-pouring of time and energy into people around me. I invite them to coffee, I go to their performances or do any number of other things that aren’t what I’d prefer to do at the moment. Many times I have to risk awkwardness and rejection to try and build relationships. But, almost no one does this for me. I’ve been invited over for lunch or dinner (without an agenda) only a few times. And rarely does anyone check-in on how I’m doing spiritually. I’m constantly giving of myself and very rarely receiving anything back. I feel very alone. I need someone to befriend me and pour into me.

7) “If I really had freedom, I’d probably do this ministry totally different.”

You probably don’t know this, but most of how we do youth ministry today is from the 1950’s and I’m not married to it. In fact, if it was totally up to me, I’d probably blow the whole thing up and re-dream it entirely to fit a new generation. But you have to understand I’m under a lot of pressure from leaders above me to keep a status quo and not “rock the boat too much.” I understand this thing isn’t doing all we hope it will do, but I’m making the most of what I’ve been commissioned to do.

8) “My family is making a huge sacrifice for me to do this, please honor them.”

This job is not for bankers. I don’t work 9-to-5 on Monday through Friday. I work almost every day of the week, doing things you might not consider “hard work” but which nevertheless take me away from my family. A youth retreat is not a vacation for me. It’s a 100-hour work weekend away from my family. Please help me take care of my family. Offer to babysit. Send my wife and I on marriage renewal weekends. Or just check in on my family while I’m gone and see if they need anything. They pay a big price for my interaction with students, so honor them for it.

9) “I’m not a ‘real-pastor’ in training, what I do is already important.”

My job is not a senior-pastor-in-training position. In fact, as hard as this is to believe, I might not ever want to be a senior-pastor. I do what I do because I value students. I’m not trying to climb a corporate church ladder. I care about the teenagers I see each week and I desperately want them to see the reality of the kingdom of God that exists around them. This job is the job I want when I grow up. I just hope I don’t grow up, so I can do this job forever.

10) “I’m the least-paid in my field, with possibly the toughest assignment.”

It’s no surprise that youth pastors are among the least paid on a church staff. I probably get paid half of what your senior-pastor makes, but you should know that it’s one of the most difficult tasks in church. Trust me, no senior-pastor or executive-pastor (as tough as their job is) wants to figure out how to simultaneously entertain, teach and emotionally grab a room full of 16-year-olds. In fact, most are scared to death just thinking about it. It’s a tough job, and we lose more good youth pastors every year because we don’t value what they do enough and they need more to live on.

Is that a tough glimpse into what many youth pastors are feeling? Possibly. But I think it articulates what many have communicated to me or in certain cases what I myself have experienced.

Of course, youth pastors will be quick to tell you, there are a bunch of great benefits to working within the body of Christ. Seeing young people make decisions that change their life, watching leaders grow and become all they can be, and living in the middle of human brokenness and seeing God bring healing is incredibly rewarding.  And most of them find the drawbacks worth the incredible joy of working with students; I know I do.

But giving these hidden struggles a voice is good.  Too many young, good leaders are drowning in them because they don’t want to sound “whiny” or “ungrateful” or “incapable” of doing their job.  And while we care for young people, we should also care about the people-caring-about-young-people.

So next time you see your youth pastor in the church hall, give her a hug or take him to dinner. I promise you that most of them can identify with many of the statements above. And they might be better off if they know you do too.