Youth Ministry Should Be Unapologetically Apologetic

The faith journeys of young adults have been a hot topic in Canada over the past two years since the Hemorrhaging Faith research study was released.

The study, subtitled Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church, examines why young adults fall into various categories, including “engagers, fence sitters, wanderers or rejecters.” But there is almost no mention of apologetics.

Of course there is no role for apologetics in keeping youth engaged with church, you might say. You can’t argue people into the Kingdom of God! If young people want a spirituality that is experiential and relational, why focus on one that is intellectual? Apologetics was for an older generation.

This skepticism toward apologetics is based on a misunderstanding of what apologetics should be. Yes, apologetics can be ineffective and even hurtful when done badly. There are those who enjoy the argument more than they value the person. Some pre-packaged apologetic presentations bypass any engagement with the actual questions of the audience. Simplistic answers are sometimes offered for complex questions.

However, we should not reject apologetics based on bad examples any more than we should reject the family unit, which is so often dysfunctional.

Apologetics is not a barrage of arguments aimed at inducing intellectual assent. Think about something you value. Think about your favourite hobby or your first grandchild or the small town that you grew up in. Now tell someone why you value that and give the reasons for your strong feelings. You just did apologetics.

The term apologetics comes from 1 Peter 3:15, which says “Always be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have.” Often this answer is in the form of demonstrating that Christian claims are reliable and intellectually defensible. But apologetics is not limited to this. Canadian-born scholar Ronald Sider argues in Good News and Good Works for a holistic apologetics that includes social justice as a defense against secular humanist attacks on the Church’s past failures.

Before looking at the practical ways of using apologetics in relation to the Hemorrhaging Faith study, we also need to acknowledge that many people today are suspicious of sources of authority. Many young adults will not accept a truth claim based solely on an appeal to the authority of a pastor, church or even the Bible.

Why are people so suspicious? Partly because so much evidence has come to light about ways that authorities of all kinds, including religious authorities, have used coercion. One major school of thought that emphasizes such issues is postmodernism. Hemorrhaging Faith explains: “Some of the cynical outcomes of postmodernism are that the assertion of truth is reduced to an attempt to coerce, and religion – with its comprehensive doctrine of truth – is reduced to organized coercion.”

But none of this means young adults are not interested in truth. For example, how do they respond to a controversial post on Facebook? Rather than simply accepting it or ignoring it, many will conduct a quick Google search for more facts and background information.

What has changed is that truth is embraced not by authoritarian command but by individual discovery. If the Church does not adapt to this, it will continue to be seen as attempting to hold on to power through appeals to authority.

This context can help us when we consider how young people relate to church today. Two of the key factors that affect that relationship, as identified by the Hemorrhaging Faith study, are experiences of God and having space to ask hard questions. (The study also tackles two more factors – community and the role of parents – which we’ll leave aside to keep this short.)

There is no doubt that many young adults would rather an experience with God than an intellectual understanding of religion. However, this either/or choice is a false one because Christianity is both a heart and mind faith.

In a dating relationship, romantic feelings are something a couple enjoys. At the same time, the couple asks each other questions to learn more about each other, to develop a framework for the emotions they feel.

Experiencing God is a noble goal, and it should be encouraged. However, experience alone can lead to unfortunate results. What happens when a Mormon missionary asks a young adult to pray after reading the Book of Mormon, and they experience the “burning in the bosom”? What happens when a prosperity preacher tells a young adult that God always heals, and they are not healed?

An apologetics that is sensitive to the need to experience God can be helpful to provide a healthy framework on which to understand experiences.

In terms of allowing opportunities to ask hard questions, apologetics can be very useful. Some of us may fear that apologetics will be used to silence questions and end discussions with authoritative interpretations. However, the apologetics described in 1 Peter 3:15 assumes the asking of questions.

And young adults “are desperate to have their questions taken seriously,” as Andy Bannister, director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Canada, said recently.

A healthy apologetic culture will encourage people to express their doubts and ask their questions. The Hemorrhaging Faith study summarized: “Young adults are in a life stage where they have many questions. They are wrestling to make their faith their own. They often seek out as many opportunities as possible to ask their toughest questions and engage in dialogue. Many times, they’re not even looking to have all of their toughest questions answered on the spot. They simply want to know that their questions will be listened to and taken seriously.”

Churches need to do more than give young adults the opportunity to ask questions, they need to provide a safe place. There needs to be an acknowledgment that all people are on a spiritual journey and that questions may reveal they are not as far as you had hoped. The other part of 1 Peter 3:15 that is not often quoted is that the answers we give are to be with “gentleness and respect.”

Churches need to provide a safe place for young adults and for the rest of the congregation to work through their own questions. Sometimes harsh answers are not the result of a mean spirit but of one’s own insecurity. You do not need to know all the answers, but you should wrestle enough that you are not shocked when a hard question is asked.

Asking a full range of questions takes time and space. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Defending the faith requires defining the faith in its biblical context. The most successful apologetic will present a Christianity that balances orthodox theology, spiritual disciplines, healthy relationships, social action and evangelism.

The section in the Hemorrhaging Faith study about questioning teaching and beliefs brought home to me the need for a deeper understanding of the gospel. How many of those who have left the Church have a deep understanding of the gospel and have left based on an informed decision? Young adults may reject religion, church, their parents’ traditions and many other things, but most people do not have enough understanding of the gospel to be able to reject it.

To sum up: Apologetics is not about polemical attacks on other faith groups. Apologetics includes at its core a deeper understanding of the gospel. The only way to demonstrate Christianity is true is to know what it is about. This requires both proper theology and the ability to see what the true gospel looks like in real life as it transforms individuals and communities.

The Hemorrhaging Faith study has provided important information about young adults in the Church. Important needs have been revealed, and it is up to the Church to respond. As the Church responds, one of its tools should be apologetics that is sensitive to the context of young people.

Stephen Bedard is an associate editor at Faith Today.