One sure-fire way to provoke a lively discussion with young people is to ask, “What is an adult?” Among the reactions, you’ll hear several that prompt a more productive but difficult question: “What does it take to be an adult?” Be ready for an open-ended session with assorted responses, both cynical and constructive, but no firm conclusions. (A video night with Tom Hanks’ old movie, Big, or the more recent Freaky Friday with Jamie Lee Curtis could be a good setting for this discussion, but beware the sub-topic about the occult.)
Peter’s first epistle is largely a letter about Christian maturity, answering the question, “What does it take to move from being newborn babes and children in faith (1 Peter 1:14, 2:2) to capable witnesses for Christ (1 Peter 2:4-10)?” Peter addresses our identity in Christ in his first paragraphs and then develops key characteristics through the rest of the letter. Among those characteristics is a prompt for us about what it takes to develop Christian youth into capable Christian adults: “Always be prepared to make a defense (Greek, apologia) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope (Greek, logos) that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). If we want to develop our young people into Christian adults with something to say about their Christian identity and their reasons for Christian hope, then instruction in apologetics is one way to do that.
Apologetics is the study and practice of providing credible explanations for why Christians believe what they believe. Instructing youth in apologetics is doable, but it requires preparation. I’ve taught several courses and series in apologetics to older high school youth and college freshmen. Before reviewing some resources, let’s consider why youth apologetics is worth our effort.
First, youth want answers. In a spiritually diverse world, youth are confronted with many spiritual claims and authorities. Beyond the question of what to believe, they also wonder, “Why should I believe anything at all?” (Which is the title of a good apologetics book by James Sire.) A foundation in apologetics will help them develop a stronger structure for their Christian worldview and belief system.
As youth emerge from childhood, they tend to hang on to the simple black-and-white, either-or thinking of childhood. Learning about apologetics can help refine their views on difficult topics such as the problem of suffering, the puzzle of evil, and questions about God’s will. Apologetics can give them a more nuanced understanding of their own faith and a more sympathetic understanding of others’ faith or absence of faith.
A study of the apologetics issues will also nudge them further into Scripture. By asking and developing answers to the usual questions, young people will gain a greater knowledge and versatility in accessing God’s Word. And by this further examination of God’s Word, they will acquire a better grasp of the Gospel, the very reason for “the hope that is in you.”
Notice also Peter’s last phrase in 3:15: “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” As young people develop cognitive abilities, they sometimes tend to become argumentative. While this annoys their parents, it is an important part of their spiritual formation. It means they are learning to think critically so that they can “test the spirits (1 John 4:1). Instruction in apologetics can smooth some of the rough edges of their discussion, making them more effective in sharing God’s promises. Their aim changes from being right to being helpful as they learn from Paul, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Their goal changes from winning arguments to comforting and encouraging souls.
We might find another reason for youth apologetics by looking (sympathetically) at our congregation’s boards and committees. Do our members actually know their Bibles, or do they rely on the Bible stories they learned as children? Peter desired that the Christians to whom he wrote (all adult converts in the early church) would move from their initially uninformed faith to Christian maturity. Part of our ministry is to help the young person retain that childlike faith but also become that “workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)–lest their childlike faith become a childish faith.
What’s more, by prepping instruction in apologetics, you will grow in your own knowledge of Scripture and God’s promises. Your study of the well-catalogued questions and responses about the credibility of the Christian faith will better equip you for all aspects of your own ministry. Early in your ministry, it was okay to answer a question with, “I don’t know.” But given the resources available, that answer becomes less acceptable as your years in ministry increase.
Many books and Web sites of varying quality offer styles, strategies, and content in apologetics. Examine them with care. Some are shoddy, combative, or both. Most of the material in circulation is generally oriented to Reformed theology and much is of high quality, but read it with your good Lutheran doctrine in mind. Sometimes, apologetics is divided into the categories of practical and philosophical. For example, Josh McDowell’s books are practical while the popular works of C. S. Lewis are more philosophical in perspective. Some books, such as those of J. P. Moreland, are highbrow works in philosophy. Some sub-categories in apologetics are devoted to how the Christian faith relates to specific problems such as concerns in science, the problem of evil and suffering, and evangelism. The following books are generally helpful. They can be used to design some instruction for young people becoming adults who can explain their faith in God and their trust in Jesus as Friend and Savior.
One place to start is with Five Views on Apologetics, Steven B. Cowan, general editor. This book provides good background for the Christian educator on several different approaches to practical apologetics. In addition, young people find discussing the pros and cons of these styles interesting. (Note that lifestyle evangelism is not addressed.)
Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God, by C. Stephen Evans, is a brief, easy-to-read book that I have used as a text. It effectively explains real-life reasons for faith, addresses the usual challenges to Christian belief, and uses no technical language. Those looking for an introductory discussion starter will find it useful.
Familiar reading in apologetics now includes Lee Strobel’s books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Though he fudges the case a bit by interviewing only supportive experts, he selects informed, respected representatives for each of his topics. The chapters are well written though a bit long for some readers. Consider the abbreviated versions for teens.
Two books by Cliffe Knechtle are worth examining. His first is Give Me an Answer That Satisfies My Heart and My Mind: answers to your toughest questions about Christianity in which he models answers to the usual apologetics questions. He reprises this 1986 book and updates the questions and answers in Help Me Believe: direct answers to real questions.
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tecelli are Roman Catholic theologians who wrote the Handbook for Christian Apologetics. And that is just what this 400-page book is: A rigorous, yet readable, catalogue of all the major apologetics topics. The authors rely on a wide variety of sources in historic Christianity and have written a helpful book for all of us. The contents can be read in any order. An abridged pocket version is also available.
Christianity has a history of apologetics dating back to the earliest church fathers (and some would even include the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Lutherans have sometimes been cautious about apologetics, concerned that it may become a front for decision theology and substitute human reason for the faith-producing work of the Holy Spirit. And some apologetics materials make this mistake. But in the hands of a competent Lutheran educator, the sources listed here (and others) can be put to good use. Our young people have a lot of questions. They also have a lot of gumption. We can capitalize on these two characteristics and help them become adults with much to say about that hope and Christian joy that lives within them.
First published on youthESource in March 2005.
Dr. Russ Moulds is assistant professor of psychology for Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska.