Relational evangelism may have the key to successful youth ministries in the 1990s, but today apologetics is gaining new traction.
Kids struggle to explain their beliefs today more than they did two decades ago, said Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Religion at the University of Notre Dame. One of the center’s 2005 reports indicates that 12 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they are “unsure” of their religious beliefs, and 41 percent of Protestant teens agree that morals are relative.
“[Their] faith is more about meeting emotional needs than an ideology,” said Smith. This is the product of “an overwhelmingly relativistic and privatized cultural climate,” he said, as well as “youth leaders who have not challenged that climate.”
Challenging the cultural climate is a major component of the new apologetics, said Sean McDowell, head of Worldview Ministries. “The apologetics resurgence has been sparked ultimately by teens who are asking more questions about why people believe the things they do,” he said. “Those who thought that kids in a postmodern world don’t want an ideology were wrong.”
Greg Stier, founder of Dare 2 Share Ministries, agrees. “[Teens] are aware of the latent apologetic conversations in culture—Harry Potter, for example—and want to react,” he said.
McDowell says it’s possible to overstate truth claims. He’s heard too many youth pastors and parents claim that the evidence of the Resurrection is overwhelming. But then students encounter good counter-arguments on the internet or from a professor, “and the youth leaders suddenly lose credibility.”
To prevent this, McDowell does what all good apologists do: share the other side. In fact, he finds that’s what students ask him: “What book or what website would you recommend that runs in opposition to the Christian view?” He says that being honest with them “helps demonstrate, as Paul puts it in Colossians 4, that our conversation is ‘full of grace, seasoned with salt,’ and that we’ve found a balance.”
The apologetics surge doesn’t mean the end of relational youth ministry, said Chap Clark, founder of ParenTeen. Identity development has become more difficult for today’s teens, he says. So it is more important than ever that youth leaders address their emotional needs.
“Help them develop social capital before [you] attempt to establish an ideology,” he said. “Kids aren’t receptive to explicit faith arguments when their emotional needs aren’t met.”
Ginny Olson, a Minneapolis-based youth ministry consultant, said youth leaders are increasingly aware that neither relational evangelism nor apologetics alone are effective vehicles for truth. “Kids need relationships and they need clear gospel presentations—it’s not either/or.”