Sinking Roots for Youth Ministry in an Age of Advanced Skepticism
In 2004, the Fuller Youth Institute, at the time called the Center for Youth and Family Ministry, launched a series of longitudinal studies to follow young people raised in church through high-school graduation and into college. Most of the youth came from intact, well-functioning families. They were considered the churches' most promising youth, and the question at the heart of the study was this: Given the epidemic of young people abandoning faith, how can we best minister in ways that help our youth transition through college and into adulthood with their faith intact? Afterward, the researchers produced a family of resources under the umbrella catchphrase "Sticky Faith," the common theme being to help churches instill a faith that "sticks."
They discovered that many of the youth had wrestled silently with tough questions and doubts, some from as early as their preteen years. Furthermore, of those who did voice their questions, many felt ignored by their parents or pastors rather than taken seriously and engaged thoughtfully. So, the Sticky Faith researchers did what good researchers do. They asked them, What doubts or questions did you have? The answers distilled into four questions:
1. Does God exist?
2. Does God love me?
3. Am I living the life God wants?
4. Is Christianity true or the only way to God?
Look again at that first question, because this should come as a stunning revelation. Churches rightly want to train up their own to be Christians, but a large number of their young people aren't even sure that God is real. Engaging with this question, then, should take top priority, not only because it came in first in the tally but also because it's first in logical priority. It should be obvious that, if the answer to Does God exist? is no, then questions 2-4 are irrelevant.
Sadly, the Sticky Faith researchers completely missed this. Their flagship book, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids, notes that their "research shows that airing these questions in a safe, loving, affirming environment helps develop Sticky Faith," but it never addresses actually engaging withanyone over question #1—or with #4, which follows it in hierarchical importance. Instead, the book centers on three things: fostering emotional connections within the church, doing those things that Christians are expected to do (Bible reading, church attendance, moral living, etc.), and having conversations about faith. The 10-lesson teen curriculum and supplemental book, Can I Ask That? 8 Hard Questions about God & Faith are scarcely better.
Not that those aren't fine things to do. Of course they are. But the totality of the program, including the ideas about having faith conversations, already assumes the "correct" faith-based answer to these questions. In other words, just like the disappointing parents and pastors, the Sticky Faith researchers ignored the young people's questions, rather than take them seriously. It was as if they didn't even hear them.
Millennials are the first generation of Americans to grow up in a culture where skepticism is the default setting. Their parents may have accepted "because my church says so," but they're not buying that. And really, why should they?
Instead of aiming for "sticky faith" then, what parents and leaders need to work toward is a grounded faith. And in an environment of default skepticism, this will require beginning at the beginning: Does God exist?
Stephen Meyer poses it this way: What is the prime reality, the thing from which everything else comes? In secularized, Western culture, the two main candidates for the answer to that question are (1) God, and (2) matter/energy. In other words, either (1) God is the prime, self-existing reality, and all of the universe is contingent (i.e., theism is true), or (2) the universe is the prime, self-existing reality, and all notions of God or gods arose somehow out of matter and energy (i.e., materialism is true).
Salvo has consistently provided articles reasoning from science and other disciplines that the Judeo-Christian understanding of God is the best, most evidentially supported answer to that question. But telling people "Science says," in place of "Our church says," merely substitutes one appeal to authority with another. Millennials are skeptical of authorities, sometimes with good reason, and we should be, too.
To help them sink in roots for an authentic faith, then, we will have to work on our own root systems. This means learning to sift through competing truth claims for ourselves and thinking critically about them. The good news is that this is not only doable, but it can also turn out to be liberatingly faith-affirming.
So, church leaders and parents, here are some recommended resources for you to get for your libraries and become familiar with.
Does God Exist?
Debating Christian Theism (2013): This book takes up twenty questions related to Christian theism and addresses each by means of paired essays, one written by a Christian, the other by a skeptic. The first ten questions address the existence of God, the very question youths most asked. So, for example, an essay presenting the cosmological, ontological, or moral argument for theism is paired with an argument for the contrary position. The second ten questions are about specific Christian beliefs, such as the possibility of miracles, the Trinity, the Resurrection, the atonement, and eternal punishment. The book is edited by Christians, but the essays arguing for non-Christian positions are written by prominent proponents of those viewpoints.
Debating Christian Theism is an outstanding resource for both exposing believers to the best arguments against belief and for encouraging everyone to think more critically about the disputed truth claims of Christianity. I've used it with high-school and college students, and found it to be faith-building. This kind of material will start faith conversations around the questions being asked today.
What About Science?
Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science (2016): Since skeptics have been allowed to make hay over the myth that science is "fact" while religion is "superstition," it is incumbent on Christians to become conversant with common science. Despite the title's reference to being "definitive," this is not to be taken as an authoritative science text; rather it presents the broad outlines of Christian thought on topics related to science.
With entries for more than 450 key terms, people, and significant debates written by more than 140 scholars in their fields, this book, too, will serve as a springboard for critical thinking. Here's a sampling from the A's to give you an idea of the topics covered: Adam and Eve; Alchemy; Angels and Demons; Aristotle; and Artificial Intelligence. For many subjects, multiple viewpoints are presented so that you can become familiar with the various positions and the supportive reasoning for each one. The Age of the Universe and Earth section, for example, spans several pages because thoughtful Christians hold different viewpoints.
Worldview: The Art and Science of Integrated Understanding
Rounding out the "must have" list is the Summit Worldview Library, a monumental trilogy that the Truth Project's Del Tackett says should be in every high school, college, and seminary.
As a college student during the Cold War, David Noebel heard a chapel speaker mention that communism was persuasive and growing because it was religious. It gave answers to life's big questions, inspired ardor and devotion, and gave meaning to people's lives with its vision of worldwide transformation. Noebel was struck by this image of the battle of ideas, especially ideas that are compelling because they are religious. As a Christian preparing for ministry, he realized that Christians needed to understand the world of ideas in order to avoid being "taken captive by deceptive philosophies," as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae.
In 1962, then, Noebel founded Summit Ministries to help ground young Christians in the faith through worldview training. In 1991, he published Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today's Competing Worldviews, a comprehensive analysis of five prevailing worldviews—Islam, Secular Humanism, Marxism, New Age Spirituality, and Postmodernism—in comparison to Christianity, which he presented as the integrated belief system that explained life and world transformation more accurately than any other. Understanding the Times compared and contrasted the teachings and logical implications of each competing system with respect to ten major subject areas, including theology, ethics, psychology, economics, and history. In 2015, Noebel and Jeff Myers, who succeeded him as president of Summit, updated and revised the original book into Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews.
In 2016, Myers published Understanding the Faith: A Survey of Christian Apologetics, an apologetics handbook of biblical Christianity, which addresses such matters as the nature of truth, the reliability of the Bible, and how, when properly understood, the Bible provides the most accurate map of reality by which one can navigate a confusing world.
In 2017, Myers completed the trilogy with Understanding the Culture: A Survey of Social Engagement, which took up the question, If the biblical worldview really is true, then what next? What role should we as Christians try to fill in our culture? How did Christians in the past think, speak, and work for change in their cultures? And how should we engage with the big issues of our day?
Although these three books bear Myers's name, they're actually the result of collaboration by more than fifty experts, and together they contain more than 5,000 footnotes.
First Things First
Returning to the Sticky Faith project, young adults were also asked what advice they had for youth leaders going forward. The top answer by far was that leaders should better prepare high-school seniors for what they would face after graduation. And high-school seniors, when asked what they wanted in a youth group, ranked "time for deep conversations" as number one ("games" came in thirteenth).
Church leaders, we have got to hear what they're telling us. These young people need help wrestling with the foundational truth claims of Christianity. If we will rise to this challenge, "stickiness" to church will become superfluous as the roots of young souls find their grounding in the reality of Christ.
"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it," said French philosopher Joseph Joubert. In my experience, the average churchgoer shrivels up at the prospect of an unsettling discussion. But as we have seen, our youth no longer accept as "settled" the basic tenets of the faith. Though they are only a start, reference guides like these will help all of us wrestle, for ourselves and together with our young people, with the monumentally significant questions of our time. If we ignore their questions, we effectively ignore them. And in so doing, we surrender them to the skeptics, whom we can fairly well count on to sweep them in, no questions asked.Terrell Clemmons
has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #44, Spring 2018 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo44/grounded-faith