I sometimes get asked about the relevance of apologetics in student ministry. In decades past, college students learned how to “defend their faith” by reciting information that was designed to break down the arguments and presumably the defenses of non-Christians so that they would be intellectually convinced to become Christians.
With a few notable exceptions, I am not sure that logical argumentation ever really converted anyone to faith in Christ. As the old cliché goes, “if someone can talk you into something, then someone else can talk you out of it.” Don’t get me wrong. I am a person who likes, as Josh McDowell famously put it, “evidence that demands a verdict” in that I think analytically and carefully about decisions that I make. The biblical record was convincing to me, but only because it appealed to both my mind and my emotion.
According to Lee Strobel in an interview on ChristianityToday.com, apologetics has grown into an organic blend of fact presentation and storytelling. Strobel cites none other than Josh McDowell as representative of the change:
How have evangelism and apologetics changed? They have become more relational, more story-driven. Josh McDowell would go on college campuses and describe why to trust the Bible. And people would come to faith in droves. Then they stopped coming to faith in so many numbers, and he didn't know why. And now he takes a story approach. "You know," he says, "I was the son of the town drunk. This is how it affected my life and my relationship with [my dad]. This is what prompted me to seek spiritually. This is the evidence I found. This is how my life was changed. This is how I reconciled with my father." So it becomes a story.
That's what my [Strobel] ministry is about. I tell my story: I was an atheist. I scoffed. My wife became a Christian. It prompted me to investigate. Here's the evidence I found, how I received Christ, the difference it's made. It's a story. And I found that in postmodern America, people often are willing to engage on the level of story.
In my view, this is amazingly healthy. My definition of apologetics is “confident conversations about things that matter.” Confidence comes as students are exposed to biblical truth in relational settings (both family and youth ministry) in such a way that they “launch” with a Christian worldview. Conversations happen when students are living their faith and telling their story. Confident conversations blend experience and truth so that (hopefully), as Paul wrote to the Colossians,
. . .we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. (Colossians 1:28, NASB).
That is where apologetics meets spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is a description of all of the processes that are aimed at helping a person mature in their faith. In the book “Care of Mind, Care of Spirit,” Gerald May describes spiritual formation as, "referring to all attempts, means, instructions and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth.” In other words, everything that is done to help a student to grow spiritually is spiritual formation.
Ideally, parents partner with youth ministry to guide students to the point where, when they leave home, they are prepared and motivated to continue to grow spiritually, connect with a community of faith in whatever place they end up and, if the opportunity arises, they would be confident in sharing with someone else how to become a follower of Christ.
Dr. Allen Jackson became a follower of Christ as a result of a bus ministry in Richardson, Texas. He has been a youth minister or a professor of youth ministry for more than 30 years. Judi is his wife and Sarah and Aaron are his children. Allen has been at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary since 1994.