During the wee hours of our summer mission trip, I realized one of my student leaders was in the midst of a spiritual crisis.
Just before the trip, her atheist friend asked her, “Why do you believe in God?” In that moment, she realized she didn't have an answer to this question so she responded, “I just do.”
Her answer – or lack thereof – catapulted this student leader into a crisis of faith.
A few weeks later, when my student leaders brainstormed the topics they wanted to discuss this fall, I wasn't surprised when this particular student suggested we discuss the question, “Does God exist?”
I was, however, surprised by how many other student leaders agreed this question was important for us to wrestle with. I was even more surprised when this particular student volunteered to lead this discussion.
I'll admit, I had to work hard to suppress my initial, gut reaction, which cried out, “You don't even know why God exists! How could I possibly let you lead this discussion?”
Before long, however, I realized it made perfect sense for this particular student to want to lead this discussion. For her, this question was not just an abstract, theoretical exercise. It was real, personal and of the utmost importance. Because this question was hers, she was motivated to search out the answers to it.
Truth be told, I've found that's often the case: Students are far more likely to find answers to questions like these when they're leading (and not just consuming) a discussion or talk. So I handed her some background reading material and walked her through the process of preparing this discussion.
When the time came, she led the discussion well. Students engaged with the material and even more importantly, as a result of the preparation she did to get ready for this discussion, this student left confident in her own answer to her atheist friend's question, “Why do you believe in God?”
Interestingly, this student's discussion ended up being the first in a lengthy series on apologetics. This series includes not only typical apologetics questions like “Does God exist?” but also other questions my students are asking, like
- Is God always there?
- If God knows everything, do we really have free will?
- In light of science, does faith really make sense?
- Does the church matter?
- Who goes to heaven?
I know that doing an apologetics series has raised some eyebrows in my Lutheran context. That makes sense since historically, apologetics has been known as the branch of theology concerned with the defense and rational justification of Christianity. In other words, apologetics have traditionally been used to equip people to share their faith with others, a feat that makes some people (especially those in mainline traditions) queasy. To this end, many people have even written about the dangers of apologetics, most of which I actually agree with.
Even so, the longer I've been in youth ministry, the more I've come to appreciate the important role apologetics plays in the faith formation of young people.
As it turns out, the rational arguments that are inherently a part of apologetics are useful for far more than equipping people to share their faith with others. They're also useful for equipping people (especially teens) to know what they believe and why.
In an era in which more and more research is suggesting the rapid exodus of young people from the church, perhaps we need apologetics now more than ever.
After all, in order to take ownership of your faith, you've got to know what you believe and why. In order to live out your faith in your everyday life, you've got to know what you believe and why.
That's why, regardless of how queasy apologetics makes certain people, I'll continue to teach apologetics to my youth.
As it turns out, being able to answer the question, “Why do you believe in God?” matters not only to the person asking the question, but to the person answering it as well.