“3 out of 4 Christian teens walk away from the church after they leave home,” the website loudly proclaims. Why? “[M]ainly because they are not equipped to examine the skepticism and atheism they encounter after leaving home, often coming from their college professors.” The answer? A new wave of Christian Apologetics, of course, complete with plenty of rhetoric, and tried and true arguments that have been in freshman philosophy textbooks for ages.
Before starting, I think it’s only fair to say that I’m a stakeholder in this debate on multiple levels. I’m a Christian, but more than that I’ve been actively involved in university ministry for over 10 years. In that time I’ve dealt with close to 1,500 students as a speaker, class teacher, and counselor. I’m as concerned about the exodus of teens as much as anyone else, but unlike the New Apologists, I have a very different perspective on why it is occurring, and consequently what the solution should be. I think it’s also important to say that I recognize that the men who are crisscrossing the country on speaking tours do genuinely believe they are doing good, that their work is a “ministry”, and that ultimately they are doing God’s work, saving people from the evils of liberalism. Unfortunately, my own experience suggests that Christian Apologetics – specifically Christian Apologetics as it is currently practiced – misses the mark in several important areas, and indeed causes more harm than good.
The New Christian Apologists read the absence of the 18-35 demographic in our churches to be a symptom of good, biblically based, young Christians from strong families meeting activist, staunchly atheist, liberal professors in their university classrooms, who pervert the truth of God and lie to our children. The problem, then, is one of information – if we can supply our children (and specifically those in college and those about to be in college) with “good” information about how they can counter the “bad” information they are receiving or are about to receive, then we can really make a difference in the problem of our teens leaving the church in droves. There are a wide variety of takes on what this information should look like, and my purpose here is not to debate any of them head on. I agree, in general, that we could and should do a much better job of inviting our youth into meaningful discussions about faith, and that we should try to get them to engage in the philosophical dialog with the world that Christianity has been involved in since the time of Paul. Where I disagree, however, is in the fundamental premise that this lack of information is the real cause of students rejecting Christianity. There are a lot of kids who leave the church, to be sure, but there is something else – something much more major – going on here, I suggest.
I’ve been doing this for a while, and the students I know personally who’ve walked away from churches numbers probably in the tens-of-dozens. In that total number of cases, I can think of only a handful – four, perhaps – who cited traditional apologetic questions (“I don’t really believe there is a God / How can there be evil in the world if God is all good and all powerful, etc”) as even a contributing factor in their decision to walk away. Furthermore those who have talked about apologetic questions as reasons of their rejection of the prototypical Evangelical Christian lifestyle tend to be very well read on the subject – people who’ve done a fairly extensive amount of searching on their own in both Christian and non-Christian apologetic literature, and ultimately find more doubt than faith. This in itself is a powerful topic, and one that I might tackle later, but is somewhat tangential for the purposes of the immediate discussion. I submit that the evidence, at least gathered from an informal survey of people who actually *are* leaving the church, suggests that apologetic questions (and by extension militantly godless, atheist professors) are not really the major reason the college students I’ve talked to are rejecting faith.
Fundamentally I think there are a number of reasons why those in the New Apologetics movement make this mistake, but I’ll take a quick shot at three of them. First, when you hold a really good hammer, it’s easy to see every problem as a nail. A dozen years ago, decent apologetic literature was genuinely difficult to find, and in general I applaud the apologetic community for a much needed refresh of presentation in the past decade. Today, however, there exists a wealth of apologetic literature, classes, books, cd’s, tapes, videos, and radio shows, all of which have a vested commercial interest in trying to cast apologetics as the solution to as many problems as possible. As a result, the New Apologetics movement seems to be, as we like to say in the engineering trade, a “solution in search of a problem”, and when you are a solution in search of a problem, almost any problem will do. I feel like in some ways I’m being a little unfair, so let me pause and say that Apologetics does actually do a lot to help some very real problems, and I think that in some sort of academic sense it’s important that it continues. The issue, I think, is when the apologetic movement tries to create problems that don’t really exist, especially when doing so seems to serve its own economic interest.
Second, the majority of people who actually participate in driving the movement are travelling speakers and authors, as opposed to ministers. It’s not terribly difficult to imagine why this is, given that ministers generally have more than enough on their plates without spending time writing apologetic literature. Where this gets us into trouble, I suggest, is that the people who write the literature and give the speeches and drive the movement in general have become disconnected from a day-to-day ministry context in a single place. I take it to be a simple fact of life is that ministry looks very different day in, day out on the ground than it does at 30,000 feet flying over Wichita, KS on the way to your next speaking engagement. This is not to say that speaking engagements can’t be an important part of ministries in a local context, but it is to say that you can never truly understand what the particular problems in a particular ministry in a particular place (say, Wichita) are unless you actually spend time there, and a good bit of time at that. In the same way, to actually understand the needs and problems of campus and youth pastors, in a very real sense you have to be one, rather than just interacting with them. This disconnect shows up most strongly in that apologists spend most of their time talking *to* students and pastors instead of listening to and dialoging with them. I’m certain that every apologist worth his or her salt can of course come up with students who they’ve touched, and people who they “listen to” to help change and guide their ministry – and I’m not at all suggesting these people don’t exist. What I am suggesting is that the majority of contact those on the professional speaking circuit have listening to actual students and ministers is self-selecting at best, and causes them to seriously overstate the prevalence of students rejecting faith due to a lack of apologetic information. This isn’t a criticism of apologetics, per-se, as much as it is the crusader type of Christian ministry that has been prevalent ever since the Great Awakening. Revivals and crusades may draw really large crowds and look really good on paper, but they often leave a lot of wreckage in their wake that pastors on the ground have to deal with months and years after they’re gone. Regardless of their message, whether these revivals and crusades on balance are a greater source of harm or good is certainly up for debate in many circles, and with good reason.
Finally, the new apologetic movement has invested itself heavily in support of a particular, and in my mind problematic soteriology – namely that salvation hinges primarily on the intellectual acceptance of a few key propositions. In other words, salvation itself is primarily a problem of not having good information, and as a result good apologetics equates to good evangelism, and vice versa. There are a lot of things we could say about this, but I think we’ll save them for a later post. Suffice it to say that this brand of soteriology causes a lot of practical problems when you try to apply it, which lead to some of the disconnects we’ll talk about later on.
So all of that being said, if the apologists really have missed the boat and there really is something else going on here, what is it? After all, it’s not just enough to say that kids aren’t leaving for apologetic reasons unless you can provide a decent alternative that explains why they’re headed for the door in ever increasing numbers.
For my money, the single factor that I can point to in about 75% of cases when students reject faith is the cognitive dissonance they’ve felt for 18 or more years between the outward message they hear preached at church and the actions of church members, most importantly their parents and youth pastors. From the time kids are young, they’re told that God should be the most important thing in their lives, but the see their parents place money, work, kids, family, church – almost everything above God. In Bible class they are taught about the fruits of the Spirit, and that a life where Jesus is Lord will have certain characteristics, but they observe the lives of “Christians” around them and note that instead of peace there is worry, instead of patience there is anger, instead of kindness there is bitterness, instead of gentleness there is callousness, and the list goes on. By the time they are entering college and having to make their own decisions about what they want to do with their lives, they’ve been given so many conflicting messages about what it is supposed to mean to be a Christian and what it seems to mean in actual practice that they’re done with the whole thing, and ready to try something – anything else. The problem, in other words, is not bad apologetics, but bad praxis. It’s easy to find a good book on Christian apologetics, but it’s much harder to find a person in churches today who lives a just, merciful, humble, Christ-centered life – and at the end of the day the problem most college students have with Christianity is the lack of the second, rather than the lack of the first.
I’ve raised a lot of issues in this post that probably merit further discussion, and it’s already extremely long as is, but let me close for now with a final critique. The apologetic movement does try to draw people in and expose them to a brand of Christianity that is, at least on the surface, less anti-intellectual than Evangelical Christianity writ large. However, in practice it often suggests a very simplistic, almost black-and-white approach to answering what are, almost always, very nuanced questions. It doesn’t really seem honest, either in an intellectual or theological context, to provide half-page or 15 minute answers to something as serious and layered as the problem of evil in the world. Indeed, the presentation of such answers seems to represent a clear and present danger to honest discussion. As a result, I think it is absolutely critical to distinguish here between the idea of apologetics practiced well, and the actuality of apologetics practiced poorly – a distinction we will probably get into in subsequent posts.