I have been looking at the problem of christians losing faith and turning away from following Jesus (see Making disciples is a new game these days, Why do some christians give up belief?, and Do christians believe for irrational reasons?).
So what should we do about it?
How do we help young christians to be prepared for attacks on their faith, to be able to grow through doubt and questioning, and after all, to stand (Ephesians 6:13)?
The way it used to be
I can remember as a young christian, my discipleship training consisted of:
- encouragement to read the Bible and pray every day, and
- do’s and don’ts of christian living.
There was nothing I can remember on how to be sure our belief is true, how to sustain faith under attack, or how to live as a christian in difficult environments. I think the assumption was that if we maintained a disciplined devotional life, kept attending church, and avoided a bunch of temptations, we would be OK.
I don’t recall much emphasis, either in evangelism, or in discipleship training, on reasons to believe. Again, I think the assumption was that faith was a work of the Holy Spirit, and people would believe because of the Spirit’s work, or they would choose to resist the Spirit.
Training to stand
I believe it needs to be different today, if we want to help people maintain their faith and obedience.
- Just doing Bible teaching through sermons and small group studies is too theoretical, and gives little practical wisdom. Young christians need training, through mentoring, opportunities to learn from role models, experience and encouragement. We don’t have to follow secular trends, but we would be foolish to fail to learn from what educators have discovered about training – it needs to be active (participative), practical (related to life) and relevant to needs.
- A good parent doesn’t send their child off to school for the first time without preparation, prayer and encouragement, and a soldier doesn’t go off to war without having done training in the use of arms and exercises simulating battle conditions, to prepare them. We need to avoid sending young christian ‘soldiers’ out into a tough world insufficiently prepared.
- Training in apologetics should start, in a very simple way, during evangelism – people should be told why christianity is true, not just asked to believe it. And it should continue in discipleship training, so that christians are familiar with some of the main ways their faith will be attacked intellectually, and not shocked by the vehemence of the arguments against them.
- This training need only be at a simple level for most people, but there will be some who want or need to go further, and they should be encouraged and helped to find books and websites which can help them honestly think through the issues. And it is important that apologetics be honest and based on good information – much christian apologetics is embarrassingly weak and easily answered.
- Those who don’t find apologetics relevant should be encouraged to understand the reasons why they believe (e.g. their relationship with God), and also to be able to point critics to good apologetic material.
- Discipleship training needs to be realistic – busy people will not always find time for a 30 minute ‘quiet time’ every day, and evangelism at work isn’t as simple as some christian leaders seem to infer. Young christians need to be prepared for the busyness that may creep up on them when that start full time work, get married or start a family. Older christians can share ways to get through these times and learn to pray in a less structured way.
- Church services, sermons, small groups, etc need to be more relevant to the daily lives of christians – and unfortunately, pastors and ministers who went straight from school or university to Bible college to be trained in Bible exegesis may be the very worst people to help here because in many cases they are talking theory.
- We need to cultivate a culture of honesty, open-ness and flexibility. Christians need to feel free to discuss doubts without being looked down on, and to question doctrines and practices that may be time-honoured but may not be helpful any longer, without being pedantically pulled into line. Christians need to be committed to the truths of their faith and their life with God, and this requires us all to work things out for ourselves, to some degree at least.
- And of course we need to pray for our children – our own children even when they are adults, and the children, teens and adults in our churches – that they will continue to grow in faith, knowledge and understanding.
I can’t help thinking this new antagonism to christianity, and the pressures on christians from our culture, are being used by God to lead us into new understandings of truth and the world, new ways of training and equipping and preparing, and new ways of engaging with the world. Let’s get the message!
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.
UnkleE, this is good. Here in the States, we are not at this place of attack against our faith yet, but the writing is on the wall. We will do well to learn from this and to be prepared.
Felicity, I think it may only be true that the culture in the US is still more “christian” than not (I use inverted commas because I don’t think a christian culture necessarily entails following Jesus). But I think is part of the problem.
In Australia, while our main heritage is British and christian, we have many other heritages and our culture is secular. Our present Prime Minister is an atheist, our previous one is a christian, many of their colleagues are not interested either way, and the voters don’t care a hoot. Contrast that to the US where, at least publicly, a politician generally has to be nominally christian to get voted in.
But this just puts pressure on unbelievers, who often (perhaps with some exaggeration) feel like second class citizens. This tends to make them more militant when they do “come out”. At the same time it means there are many kids who grow up in a nominally christian culture but don’t know if they believe or not.
I have “met” on the internet dozens (probably more) of people who say they were once christians but have finally seen the light. There are many former pastors, bible college lecturers, former evangelists as well as “normal people” among them. When they deconvert they are all the more militant, and are more likely to put pressure on young believers or apparent believers than I think would occur here in Australia, and they read and write books and websites which have a wide influence.
I honestly think the church in the US is in for an enormous shake-up – mostly because it has become so triumphalistic, tied to conservatism and capitalism, often promoting hatred, built on a wrong “presidential” leadership model and too cut off from the teachings of Jesus, but also because it is not preparing its young from the threats like what I mention here. That may sound extreme, but it is my observation, and we will see how it pans out.
These are some of the reasons why the work you are doing is so important.
It’s an important element, but I’m not sure how to interest youngsters in apologetics. A lot of it can be pretty dry philosophy or cosmology for a teenager who’s not interested in those fields.
I wouldn’t try all that hard. I think some people believe things for intuitive reasons, some after lots of investigation, some on the basis of a trusted authority, and most on a bit of everything. I suggest this is true whether they are theists or atheists. So only some will be very interested in apologetics.
So if we are involved in teaching people, my suggestion would be to simply mention that there are good arguments for certain conclusions and briefly (one or two sentences) outline them or their basis. Those who are interested can then follow through, those who will accept authority can choose to trust what we have said, and others will ignore.
For example, when teaching on believing in Jesus, most christian teachers just outline the gospel stories as if they can be clearly trusted. But a better way would be to simply mention that there are arguments about what we can believe, but scholars treating the Gospels just like any other history mostly conclude we can know quite a lot about Jesus’ ministry. On that basis it is reasonable to trust the writers’ stories. Something like that.
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