Friday, February 21, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Five Questions About the Next Generation

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’re getting older. We’re not done yet, Lord willing, but more and more I’m realizing that nearly all the really knowledgeable Bible teachers and leaders I knew as a teenager have gone to be with the Lord and even the very average pulpit-fillers of the seventies and eighties have mostly given up their responsibilities to younger men. The missionaries we used to pray for have died on the mission field or come home to retire, and I don’t recognize many of the names I see replacing them. Even the average, decent pew-sitting Christian of my day seems to be getting longer in the tooth and less able to do the things he or she used to do in the local church. Some independent local churches I knew have now hired pastors and others have affiliated themselves with denominations. The local church of today is in many ways less and less recognizable to me.

Tom: To top it off, Immanuel Can, I’m not sure I identify much with the coming generation. They are so different from the young people of my own day. I’m not sure I can picture what the average local church may look like in twenty or thirty years. And yet we have an obligation to those who seek to follow Christ in the days to come. What IS the right strategy to prepare Christian young people to take on the world?

Immanuel Can: Big picture? The biblical way is by example, not by command. It’s unreasonable to suppose that children will be any more committed to their faith than they see their parents — or at least admirable adults — being. So we need to get the focus off what we say, and put it where it belongs … on how consistently committed we are personally being. We need to furnish ourselves as examples.

Tom: That’s fair. The most significant influences on my life and choices as a Christian were (and are) primarily exemplars rather than big talkers.

IC: Let me break that down a bit: Should we train them in methods of evangelism? Should we set up a program in apologetics for them? Should we all subscribe to Creation magazine and leave it lying on the coffee table? Should we hope our Sunday Schools will take care of all that? Should we keep the kids at home, protect them from the controversies and fill them with scripture on the supposition that if they have enough of the good stuff they will be ready to defeat all the bad stuff?

Where do we go here?

 Methods of Evangelism

Tom: I think that’s kind of obligatory, don’t you? Evangelism is hardly optional.

IC: Well, yes: but it’s not a matter of teaching a mere technique, like some kind of a sales-pitch how-to session. It’s first and foremost a matter of deepening the understanding that young Christians themselves have with Christ and improving their own relationship with him until they are able to speak honestly and intelligently about what they have actually experienced. That is the basis of testimony: you cannot credibly, unhypocritically and sincerely advocate for something you simply have not experienced yourself. (Of course, I know you agree with that, so I’m preaching to the choir here.)

Tom: Which, I suspect, starts with being credible witnesses ourselves. So you’d say it’s less about specific methods and more about being real.

I remember having pancakes one morning with a gifted evangelist, and he reeled in the restaurant owner with a couple of stories and then, prior to putting him on the spot, pulled me into it as well by asking me a personal question right out of the blue. I can’t remember what I came up with, but I came up with something. And it definitely wasn’t a five point salvation presentation memorized by rote. It was my own experience. I was sweating bullets.

But that kind of impromptu one-on-one mentoring is invaluable.

IC: Excellent point. Mentoring is a great help. But more than that, young people need to see that up ahead on the road from them are older, more experienced, more committed, more mature and more fulfilled Christians, Christians they can aspire to become.

I’m not even really against teaching in a how-to kind of way — that can be helpful, as a starting point — but it’s not the substance of what we want to do. What we want to do is have deep, rich spiritual lives ourselves, then speak honestly about what we’ve really experienced. There’s no formula for that: just a reality that’s there, or not.

So what’s next, Tom?

 A Program in Apologetics

Tom: I’ll lob this one to you, IC. You may remember about a month ago I started to write a piece on Norman Geisler’s Twelve Points that Prove the Christian Faith and ended up not running it. The reason was something like this: I agree that it is necessary to be able to give an account for the things we believe to the extent that explaining the hope we have in Christ should be possible for every Christian. I just don’t think you can “prove” the existence of God and therefore the validity of our faith through a series of logical syllogisms. So I don’t disagree with what Geisler is doing necessarily, but for me, I cannot see the value.

You have considerably more experience talking to the highly educated, so I’m curious what you think: what is the value of apologetics, and how much of it do we need to teach, if any?

IC: Okay, I’d say this: not everybody needs to be a trained apologist. There are debates we can leave to the specialists. In the final analysis, it depends on what the Lord puts upon each to do, through the interest and circumstances he allows.

Yet everybody does need to know enough to satisfy themselves about whatever difficult questions are bugging them in particular, when such come up. And everybody does need to be able to give rational explanations to those who ask you to give account for your faith, even if they are skeptics; and we need how to do it wisely, gently and with respect. Apologetics can be very helpful with some aspects of that, for some people.

But we don’t all necessarily need to do more than that.

What are your reservations about apologetics, Tom?

Tom: Primarily the idea of trying to logically prove aspects of the Christian faith to people who don’t accept the same terms of reference. Again, it’s very much down to the individual, and being real.

IC: I don’t see it as a way of getting people converted by rational persuasion. Of course, we know that only the Spirit of God can convict the soul, and that the world by its wisdom does not come into salvation.

However, a rational defense of the faith has other desirable aspects perhaps you’ve passed over. One is that it can massively strengthen and underline the rationality of the faith that a Christian already has, and can give him or her additional confidence; and secondly, it certainly dismays the enemies of God that our faith has logic and clear-headedness behind it, instead of what they hope — mere superstition and wishful thinking. If apologetics makes Christians more bold and the enemies of God more timid, then I say it’s a fine, fine thing … but again, that does not mean it’s a hobby for everyone. It’s challenging to do well.

Good to know that it can be done, though.

 The Creation Magazine Subscription

Tom: Okay, what about the idea of leaving Creation magazine around for people to find? I realize you’re being facetious there, but I’ve seen two kinds of articles in Creation over the years: the kind where you say “I wish everyone could see this,” and the kind where you say, “I’m terrified that unbelievers might come across this.”

Both types of things exist in Christendom, not just in Creation magazine, but all over the internet. What do we do when our fellow believers make us cringe?

IC: Ha. I know what you mean. I wish I didn’t.

Yes, I was being facetious: I was using it as a metaphor for the way parents may try to get their kids to develop a level of seriousness about these questions that they themselves have never exhibited. That seems futile.

Tom: I think we can certainly have our ears and eyes open around younger believers to try to pick up on the areas of the Christian life in which they are struggling or the topics that interest them so that we can drop some good material on them now and again. That may be the creation issue, or it may be something else entirely. But that may involve doing some research. I’m not sure today’s generation is going to wade through Chesterton or Lewis (though I wish they would). They might watch a lot of halfway decent YouTube videos though, if we have taken the time to find ones that speak to the things that interest them.

 How Much Should We Rely on Sunday School?

You also mention Sunday School. It’s been a long time for me. I think it can be helpful if you have the right sort of teacher, but it can also be a pretty big turn-off.

IC: As always, much depends on the teacher, and a little on whatever material he or she is using to teach. Most are untrained, inexperienced volunteers with more goodwill than knowledge. It’s unrealistic to suppose that if there is not an active spiritual life being manifest in the parents at home that twenty minutes, once a week, with a stranger is going to do much. And if the teacher isn’t really good, it can just be a massive turn-off. However, there are times when a particular Sunday school teacher just happens to connect with a kid, and sometimes that can be memorable and encouraging. It’s not ideal, though; and by itself, it’s generally not much.

Tom: Yes, unless there’s been some real oversight in laying out a program of teaching over a period of years, we can’t really be confident of whether Sunday School has provided the next generation with anything more than passing familiarity with a few Bible stories and concepts. There are exceptions: Bernie took a teen class through a multi-week overview of scripture so they’d have some kind of idea what’s in every book of the Bible and why. That sort of thing may be useful, and you wouldn’t hear it from the platform generally.

Let’s talk a bit about your last, rather loaded question ...

 Should we keep the kids at home, protect them from the controversies and fill them with scripture on the supposition that if they have enough of the good stuff they will be ready to defeat all the bad stuff?

IC: Right. It’s loaded. And why? Because I see parents making this mistake every day. They think that their only job is protecting their child. They fail to realize their job is letting go. They focus on the goal of making their children safe, not of making them independent … even when those children are near to the age of college, university or the world of work. Then suddenly they find they have to let go, all at once; and what have they created? A hot-house plant: something that can grow in the protective conditions of home, but that withers and dies immediately when exposed to the cold winds and toxins of the real world. That’s dangerous.

Tom: I’m good with the part about filling them with scripture. That’s never a bad thing. But the sheltering part is a common problem with Christian families I know. The internet is full of stories about twenty-something atheists who were home-schooled, well-behaved “Christian” teenagers that got knocked off their pins by their first year at university. They’re going to have to deal with the world at some point anyway, so they need to start engaging with it while they’re still young so that it can be done in a controlled way rather that overwhelming them later on.

There is nothing that has helped my faith more than looking at the world squarely and finding, to my astonishment originally, that there’s no substance to its blather.

IC: I’ve found exactly the same, but in the realm of advanced academics. We have no need at all to apologize for what we believe. To be honest, at least in the fields I know best (ethics, moral philosophy, education), Christianity has everything going for it and secular theory is just embarrassingly inadequate by every rational measure. But a young Christian who has neither experienced that nor been taught about it might well fall for the absurd bluster of the secularists, and be derailed thereby. That would be a tragedy.

Tom: Where the controversies exist, is it possible to have an answer ready to every question that may arise in the minds of a university-aged Christian? Is it even desirable?

IC: No, and no, I think.

It’s not possible, in the first place, because there are so many different questions that can be asked about everything the universe. But secondly, it’s not desirable, for the basic reason that people just don’t need a complete set of answers, but only answers to those perplexities that they actually find themselves facing. When that happens, we do need answers; but the key then, I think, is method. We all need a good method for responding to uncertainty and a strategy for acquiring new information. If we have a good method, then it will work for whatever we may encounter.

Tom: In summing up then, I think maybe example comes in here too. The Christian life is a life of faith. It is founded on solid evidence, but like everything we encounter in life, that evidence is incomplete. Some level of trust in the character of the God who has revealed himself to us is still required. As examples, it would seem unproductive — not to mention more than a little hypocritical — to pretend we have answers to the things we ourselves are still working through as adults. Does that seem reasonable?

IC: Oh, absolutely. Faith is something that kicks in when we don’t happen to know an answer to something at the present moment. But faith doesn’t mean blindly believing, believing indefinitely, or believing contrary to evidence. Faith, if it’s real, has to be accompanied by the confidence that answers actually do exist, and that God can supply them. So it means that when we encounter uncertainty, we immediately respond with patience, prayer, and a diligent search for further insight and better evidence. It also means that in the long haul, if we find out our old views have been wrong, we change our minds. But not quickly, not impulsively, not irrationally.

Tom: Agreed.

IC: Contrary to the slanders foisted upon us by today’s pop atheists, faith does not resist things like logic, evidence and inquiry; rather, it waits, thinks, and changes its mind in a measured, mature way. But at the same time, it does not throw over its existing confidences at the first sign of trouble. Ultimately, our faith is not in propositions, but in a Person — in his character, his word, and the goodness of his intentions toward us.

Children don’t get stronger in the faith merely by having more information: they become stronger by additional experience that the Lord is trustworthy in the face of new information.


  1. Just a couple of things that come to mind regarding these particular concerns. One thing that wasn't mentioned or stressed it seems is prayer targeted to help a young person stay on the straight and narrow.

    The other point is to live and teach young persons that in today's times you must learn to simply turn the actual and metaphorical channel selector knob. Tune out what is offensive, blatantly biased, against common sense and Christian values. Realize that your attention is craved by frequently the wrong people, groups and organizations. Tune them out by not giving them your time or money and tune in those that support what is healthy, has good moral standards, is smart and contributes to personal growth. Be selective about what and who you support in the public sphere with your attention and your money. In other words, boycott whatever does not meet your standards and let it be known what you expect from the world regarding your standards.

  2. Can't argue with much of that, Q. Thanks.