Have you ever read the book of Judges? It’s one of the gloomiest books in the Bible. The prelude says: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel”. (Judges 2:10) Not to sound alarmist, but the last part of that verse sounds a lot like Generation Z, at least according to many polls.
Today, incoming college freshmen, when surveyed before they enter college, are three times more likely to report that they are religiously unaffiliated than freshmen who entered college in the 80’s. It’s said that 50-70% of Christian youth will abandon their faith once they leave for college. Research says that the percentage of teens who identify as atheists is twice as high in comparison with the general population. (pp. 30-32)
If you’re a believer, these trends ought to bother you. Parents, pastors, and youth ministers shouldn’t be discouraged by this, but it ought to be a wake-up call. Thankfully, there are answers.
In their newest book, So the Next Generation Will Know, distinguished Christian defenders Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace provide a practical guide to assist in righting the ship in what is swiftly becoming a secularized generation.
While Wallace (Cold Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene) and McDowell (New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, co-authored with his father Josh McDowell) are top notch apologists, they’re both uniquely situated to speak on these topics.
Wallace not only is a cold-case homicide detective, but he also served as a youth pastor for several years. Sadly he witnessed the majority of his first youth group lose their faith after they left for college, and it dramatically changed the way he did ministry going forward.
Now a professor at Biola University, McDowell also has served in youth ministry for many years. He had doubts about his own faith growing up as a teen, but his dad served as a model that propelled his life in the right direction.
WHAT LOVE DOES – IT’S ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
The main emphasis of this book is what love does. Love responds, understands, relates, equips, ignites, trains, explores, and engages. While the authors emphasize the need for preparing our kids for spiritual battle in a secular world, it all comes back to love. And love requires building relationships.
Generation Z has not lived without a smartphone or tablet. The writers note sociological and psychological studies that show that Gen Z is isolated. So much of their social interaction doesn’t happen in person. And one of the pitfalls of social media is comparing yourselves with others, which leads to depression. (P 63) There’s also cyberbullying, porn, and other spiritual hazards.
I appreciated them dishing out some good practical advice for kids and myself included. And that means putting down the smartphone and eating a family dinner. Or participating in my kid’s favorite activities, or just having some good old fashioned conversation. (68-73)
With kids, we have a tendency to focus on behavior. But behaviors are formed from values, values are a product of worldviews. And worldviews are primarily formed by relationships, not just our doctrine. (80) The old adage is true: “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I loved that Sean pointed out how his dad Josh modeled this for him. You’d maybe expect the son of the author of More Than a Carpenter wouldn’t have experienced doubts as a youth, but I love how Sean spotlighted that his dad first offered unconditional love no matter what happened with Sean as he wrestled with his faith. Could I model that kind of love to my own kids?
TRAIN UP A CHILD IN THE WAY THEY SHOULD GO…
While the relational aspect is strong throughout the book, the writers show that’s only a part of the battle. The writers show that this preparation includes furnishing the students to answer three big questions:
- What is true?
- Why is it true?
- Why does it matter for me?
To be able to answer these questions, we need to raise the bar. So much of youth ministry revolves around lock-ins, pizza parties, games and moralizing 30-minute sermons. Maybe throw in the occasional ski trip. McDowell and Wallace write:
“young people can play games, hang out, and eat better pizza somewhere else. If that’s all we are offering — if our expectations are that low — why would we be surprised when our students eventually seek other alternatives?” (110)
If students can handle Calculus, Trigonometry, Spanish, English, and Biology, surely we can stretch their minds further when it comes to theology and apologetics. They propose some heavy-duty disciple making stuff in a program they call TRAIN. (p. 117):
- T — Test: Challenge your students to expose their weaknesses
- R — Require: Expect more than we think students can handle
- A — Arm: Teach students the truth so they can defend it
- I — Involve: Deploy students into the battlefield of ideas
- N — Nurture: Tend to the wounds students may suffer
Sounds nifty, but how does it actually work? This is where it gets heavy: They take their youth on mission trips to UC-Berkeley. Or Salt Lake City. You know, places where the Christian worldview is going to be faced with the heaviest of opposition or be most distorted the most.
These trips aren’t haphazard, there’s serious training that the students have to commit to prior to the trip. The training goes on for several weeks and includes lectures, reading, discussion and role play. Then they spend a week at in places hostile to the Christian faith and conduct spiritual surveys, witness and have discussions with local atheist groups.
Instead of isolating their youth they inoculate them, showing them that unbelieving objections are nothing to be afraid of. It’s OK for the students to be rattled at times because at the end of the day they work through the problems together.
This beats pizza, video games, and a sermonette any day. I’d be excited about putting my kids in that environment knowing they’d come out stronger than many adult Christians. Churches and youth groups can find ways in their own local area to train and implement such types of mission trips, and the book provides resources to get started. Sheltering these days isn’t gonna cut it, as they will be exposed to objections at some point in their life regardless. It’s better to be in a nurturing environment than on their own. As Wallace and McDowell write:
“Here is a principle we hope you will adopt: start the conversation with your kids before they are confronted with the issues elsewhere.” (160)
SO THE NEXT GENERATION WILL KNOW: EQUIPPING GEN Z TO LOVE GOD WITH ALL THEIR HEART AND MIND
As a parent and someone who has worked in both youth and children’s ministry, this book is chock-full of practical strategies and sound advice. My wife and I run a business out of our home and we homeschool. Too often the lines between work-time and rest-time can get blurred. This book encouraged me to adjust the way I spend time with my kids and make sure those quality bonding times actually happen.
It also helped me recognize that my oldest can is probably ready to be given a heavier does of worldview and theology training than I’ve provided thus far. (He’s 12 and headed into our church’s youth group this fall.)
If you’re a parent, pastor or youth-worker, get this book. We need another Joshua generation, not a Judges generation. As a bonus, if you preorder the book at this link, they’ll send you additional resources to help you train your students. These resources include all sorts of goodies, including PDF youth training articles and podcasts that specifically address the strategies addressed in the book.
To give you a taste of Sean and J. Warner’s style, here’s more:
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.