You’re in for a great conversation on this episode of the Youth Ministry in Motion podcast. My guest Trevor Hamaker makes his case for pushing apologetics to the forefront of the youth ministry agenda.
Be sure to pick up Trevor’s book Considering Christianity: How to Believe in a Secular Age.
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This is an edited down version of our conversation.
We talk about apologetics for adults, but you’re a smart guy. And you can describe, you can articulate, you can do all those things, that all the stuff that you learned, I know that there’s guys that are listening or watching here on YouTube and say, “I went to seminary and I have all this information to share”
Let’s talk about why it’s important to teach apologetics, I mean, isn’t that what Google’s for? So tell me why apologetics is important in the first place, especially for teenagers?
First off, what is apologetics? How I like to describe it is, simply giving reasons for why you think or do what you do. If I was to ask, what’s your favorite quick serve or fast food restaurant? And you might say, Chick-Fila Taco Bell, whatever you might answer. And then if I say, “Hey, tell me why is that your favorite?” You can say, “because I like the sauce or I like the the menu or I think the people are friendly or clean or nice” or whatever.
So, in terms of religious setting, apologetics is about commending the faith to other people. Or it’s about defending the faith from potential attacks from nay-sayers or others. Historically, as long as Christianity has had influence in the popular culture, it was always thought that apologetics was something that you leverage toward outsiders kind of evangelistically like this is how we got to convince people that they’re wrong. And we’re right and perhaps even draw them in.
I came across a book called A Secular Age by a philosopher named Charles Taylor. And this shifted things for me. You know, it’s a term that’s become popular through some Andrew Root’s books, like, A Pastor in a Secular Age, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, etc.
The subtitle for my book is How To Believe in a Secular Age, this term, to me, really opened my eyes to where we’re living right now. And the concept is that faith is now more difficult than unbelief. So believing in God has become more difficult than not believing in God. And that’s a massive shift that has taken place where, throughout centuries and centuries of human existence, belief in God was assumed or taken for granted. Even if you read Genesis one. In the beginning, God created the heavens in the earth. The Bible doesn’t even try to make a case for where God came from, you know.
The Bible simply assumes God’s existence. And that’s been the norm throughout eons of human history. But now in a secular age, you have to actually contend for the existence of God. And it’s actually harder to maintain belief in God than it is to just wash your hands of it all and say there’s probably no god there. So Tao is what all I find to be the distinctive feature of our time, as I’m working with students, high school students, middle school students, college students, that everybody’s plagued with doubt because of a lot of information overload, a proliferation of choices we have access to with Google, I mean, practically every answer that you could possibly want to find, at least at the head level.
So as I think about it, tracing the shift, modernity, which was kind of the modern period, which gave us different technological advances and connectivity, and so forth, modernity gave way to plurality are pluralism. So you can say, modernism, created the space for pluralism to open up. And pluralism is simply an acknowledgement that there’s more than one. So it’s not that Muslims live across the world, they live next door, they live in your neighborhood, it could be that your daughter, you know, goes to college and comes home with with a Hindu or Buddhist boyfriend, or you know, or your son goes away and comes home with a new age, girlfriend, like pluralism is there.
And now because of our proximity and our closeness, it opens the way to relativity. I know my neighbor and they’re not evil, she’s a nice lady or they’re a nice couple, they’ve got a nice family. Who am I to say that they’re wrong, somehow we’re off base. So modernity opens the way to plurality which opened the way to relativity. And that’s where we find ourselves.
The person who suffers most in our current situation, is the Christian student, who now has no clue what to think about God or faith or truth, or Jesus, in the middle of all of that. So the shift that I think has to get made is, rather than thinking about apologetics as being something we leverage and deploy on outsiders, we now have to become the target of our best apologetic arguments.
Well, you’re right and apologetics, from the standpoint of a youth pastor teaching it to their students, is something students need now, but they’re going to need it even more later.
Even if the kids in your youth group are cloistered off, they’re gonna have some friends that are Muslim, depending where you live, right? They’re gonna have some friends that are Jewish and some friends that are atheists.
But the challenge is going to be for later on with, like you said, when they go to college, when they go to the workplace, when they all of those things that are impacting them, those apologetics, those premises and principles of contending for the faith, come into play. So it’s not something we can just put off and say, well, the middle schooler doesn’t need to learn that right now. The middle schooler does need to learn it right now. But it may not become practical, until a certain point in their journey.
I’ll tell you, my son’s in seventh grade, right now, my daughter’s in sixth grade right now. They have friends who aren’t Christian, and who aren’t ashamed about it. You know, My son has a buddy who’s a self proclaimed atheist, I don’t think he that boy has thought through the options, but but that’s what he that’s where he’s at. He’s got another pal, who’s a Jewish gay kid.
This is where modernity gave way to plurality. And, if you’re not careful, plurality is fine, as long as you don’t slip into relativity, because plurality is just simply options on the table, and that’s cool. So, my son is a seventh grader, you know, in a normal school in south of Atlanta. My son is asking me all of these questions as a seventh grader, why, you know, why should we trust the Bible? Why do we think Jesus rose from the dead, all this kind of stuff, and whereas other people don’t? So I’m, so I am a practitioner of this topic, as well as a dad and as a pastor, trying to say, okay, what’s necessary and how deep is too deep.
I don’t want them to think Christianity doesn’t have responses to these issues, or these questions. Christianity has been around for over 2000 years, and we are the first people to encounter people of other persuasions or other faiths, or, or whatever. And there’s been things that make Christianity distinctive, and a thoughtful, well intentioned, faithful Christian people have responded to situations that are similar to ours, for for 2000 years. We’re just now rediscovering it because we are entering a post Christian era where we’ve kind of been able to take this for granted in Christendom.
Well, yeah, no question. So then break that down for them because you’re talking about your middle school. Right. And what apologetics look for middle schoolers as compared to what it looks like to high schoolers?
So I think it’s I think it’s a universal topic that can be shared with both middle school and high school together or if they meet separately, as far as the content of that for for middle schoolers. So in full disclosure, I just gave my son the student edition of The Case for Christ. Because I think that evidential apologetics, which is kind of looking at things, that things that have things that have happened in the natural world, things that we can kind of point to evidence about that. That’s, you know, middle school is very tactile. And so that gets a lot of traction with them.
And so, I think I was telling you that maybe the first apologetics book that I read, I didn’t know what apologetics was. But when I became a Christian, I instinctively knew and granted, I was a senior in high school, but I instinctively knew that I needed to bolster my trust in Christ, okay. And I needed to do that because for me, I was giving up a life. Like for me, I didn’t grow up in church. So I was giving up the life that I had carved out for myself, and I and I was saying, I’m not going to give all that up for something that it’s not believable or true.
So, Josh, Josh McDowell, More Than A Carpenter was the very first book that I ever read on apologetics. And I’ll tell you, man, I thought CASE CLOSED, like it is done. But some of the arguments that he puts forward in there, don’t carry as much weight with me today, as they did then. For example, he says nobody can ever doubt your personal testimony, the work that Jesus has done in your life, right, that sounds great. And honestly, I was like, Case Closed. You can’t argue with that. Jesus changed me. And you don’t believe all this other stuff. Look at my life. Well, that’s true to an extent. But uh, but anybody from any faith who’s experienced any transformation can make that same exact argument. It’s subjective. And that’s always been the knock. I think on evidential type. apologetics is, okay, so we have 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament. So it doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? I mean, it’s true. It just means we have a lot of maybes.
Again, where I was at in the process is the same is the same place, I’m assuming My son is based on questions. He’s asking his, you know, why? Why do we think that we can trust the stories about Jesus? Well, in that case, how many manuscripts we’ve found, and their level of agreement based on where they’ve been found throughout the world can at least point us in a direction and say, what we have in our gospels is a reasonably or generally reliable portrayal of a historical figure named Jesus.
Now, whether you want to trust in that with your life and bank eternity on that that’s a different kind of conversation. That requires a little bit of a different approach. But just in terms of sheer believability, I think those are helpful places to begin.
I’m a Christian. We’re a Christian family. And so he’s, he’s far more aware of Christian claims than maybe somebody who he already knows more about the Bible than I ever knew, you know, as even a high schooler. So his question is a little bit different. He knows about the stories, but his question is, how can I How can I trust that the stories are accurate? That’s a different question than somebody who assumes that God isn’t there anyway. Right.
If I tell a student or an adult or anybody, even a friend of mine down the road, who doesn’t believe any of this, if I say, “Well just believe, just believe like, what do you have to lose?” Just believe because At the end of the day, no person can believe what they believe is unbelievable. In other words, if I believe something is not true, it is impossible for me to believe it. If I think something is illogical or impossible, I cannot believe it.
So that’s why, to me, when a kid or a young person or a college student, or somebody in our adult small group comes in and says, Hey, I’m wrestling with this, I got questions about that, the worst thing we can do is just kind of dismiss those questions or tell them you just need more faith. Because, faith is bolstered by knowledge.
Some of the ways that I think about it, you know, there are different people who might say, First Corinthians 8, where knowledge puffs up, you know, love builds up. And that’s cool like that, that addresses a very particular issue. If you’re an educated, smart person, you really have to be aware that of smashing other people down. And that’s really being intentional.
However, in Romans 10, Paul says that the Jewish people are kind of off track, not because they don’t have zeal, like, dude, their heart is in it. But they have zeal without knowledge, right. And so there’s always this two sides of the same of the same coin to me, where it’s like, there’s love, and there’s knowledge, and the head is the gateway to the heart. So for me, and that’s been my own personal story, and maybe somebody else might have a different one. But when I felt like my faith was on the ropes, um, you know, when I felt like life, jumped up and punched me, and I was on and I was going down, man, that happens for students, when they encounter intellectual, social or experience or challenges, when something like that comes up and pops them, they’ve got to have something true and sturdy, and believable that they can hold on to, or they’re going to bounce they’re going to be out.
And I think you’ve made made such a great point there. Because there is an intellectual process that you have to go through, right, you have to go through an “is this believable?” phase. Is this something I can? Okay, I see the process the wheels are turning. And I think about that I think about the the the heart and talking about, you know, the two men that walk with Jesus after the resurrection, right. And this is do not know what’s going on. It’s like treating Jesus as if he’s a stranger in town, and they begin to share with them all that was occurring in that town. And then Jesus leaves them and then suddenly, he just disappears while they’re having a meal. And they say, didn’t our hearts burn within us while he spoke? Right. So they had information of what was happening. But then they also had the passion within that said, Hey, that was that was a thing that was Jesus.
But that’s right. So how I phrase it is that you, you can have knowledge without love, but you can’t have love without knowledge. And I like to think about it in terms of my relationship with my wife, when I’m married, when I met her for the very first time. I didn’t love her. Right? It was not like, I mean, maybe you could say love at first sight or whatever, I think that’s your Asher. Right? But it’s not love. That’s a poor definition of love.
I didn’t love her because I didn’t know her. So through the dating or courting process, whatever your audience wants to call it, right? What happened is, over time, I learned that I could trust her. And as my trust, my knowledge in her led to, or my knowledge of her, built my trust in her which eventually culminated in our marriage, which is the highest form of commitment to her.
So for me, it’s all based on that bedrock of my knowledge of her, knowledge led to trust which led to commitment. And what I see is when the commitment to God is faltering, then the possibly the trust is faltering, which means that the knowledge is faltering.
If you knew who God was, rightly, if you knew his, his character, His goodness, his will, for you, for your best years, you would follow him with everything you had. So there’s got to be a breakdown somewhere in that process that that reacquainting yourself with precisely who God is.
There are some youth workers that are listening and they’re afraid to teach apologetics. Maybe they’re, “if we start pulling on threads, I don’t have all the answers” or “If I start talking about it, then my kids are gonna have more questions and I don’t feel even equipped to teach something like apologetics.” What should they do?
That’s a real fear. I’ve written a book about apologetics, I read books about apologetics like this is not an optional part of the ministry program to me.
Sure. In, in the relativistic culture that we’re in like, this is part and parcel of what it means to work with students. Like you’ve got to be understanding, you know, what other religions think when they think about God, you’ve got to be thinking through problem, the problem of evil.
You know, you’ve got to be thinking through, “Why isn’t God more obvious?” you’ve got to be thinking through all of these different issues, because that’s what it means to work with students.
To me, it’s just no excuse. You know, the lady who cuts My hair is even required to be to be a part of continuing education to cut hair. When I was teaching, when I was teaching in a school, teachers are required to be part of continuing education, most fields require continuing education. Yeah, if you’re a youth pastor, that to me, it’s built in this is part of what you got going on. This is the current issue that we got to be dealing with, you got to build this into your continuing education, and maybe do a little less fantasy football, a little less Netflix, a little bit, a little bit less water cooler talk, you know.
To eat an elephant, you take it one bite at a time. Correct? And I’m telling you, I did this myself, I’m not telling anybody to do something that I haven’t tried to do or done. Last August, I took a little over 200 high school kids through the content that I created only because I listened to where they were at. So I was working at a Christian school. And the banner on the wall said, “We prepare Christian students to impact the world for Jesus Christ”
So one day, I got a little crazy. And I said, Hey, students, who feels like that’s happening for you. And like, nobody raised their hand. And that was telling. It was telling to me because you got, you know, you got parents spending thousands of dollars, you know, investing in this Christian education for their kids. And they’re one year out from going to college. And they’re like, I don’t think I could impact anybody. And and these are these are church kids, too.
They said, they’ve also been part of a student ministry, where the church has invested, let’s say, hundreds, if not thousands of hours in their Christian formation, and this is what we’ve got. Are you kidding me? Not only that, but they had read some Ravi Zacharias books, they had read some Tim Keller books, they had read these along the way. And, and I was really struck, right, like, What in the world? What’s going on? And so I talked to him about where’s that gap?
They felt ill prepared to have a conversation with anybody about faith. They felt like they were Christians, but they didn’t even know why, and that’s scary. Because if you don’t know why you’re a Christian, you probably won’t be one for much longer. So I said, Okay, here I am, I’m a teacher. And it’s my job. I got to teach these guys something, where’s the missing link?
And it occurred to me that they had read some stuff by Ravi, they had read some Keller stuff, they had read some Sean McDowell stuff or seen a video here or there or whatever, watched a couple Bible Project videos, you know,, but nobody had built the case for Christ, let’s say, or the case for faith in a ground up manner.
In other words, I’m not going to assume that you believe any of this. I’m going to start with literally how do we know anything? And so then, I’m having to research some ideas about how we know stuff. But next thing you know, I’m, thanks to Google, I’m in a field called epistemology, which is simply a big fancy word for how do you know what you know.
It comes down to four things like, and this is true of anything.
And matter of fact, you can even boil it down to one thing. And that is, we know what we know, because we rely on authorities. And an authority is someone or something that you trust, to define or describe reality for you. That’s it. That’s all it is. So if I was to say, you know, “how do you know that the earth is round?” Unless you’re an astronaut, you don’t.
If you were relying on authority, somebody snapped a picture. And you don’t know where that picture was taken and you don’t know who took it. And yet, you you you rely on it. You don’t even know your own birthday.
The only reason why you think you do is because you were there for it. But you don’t remember it. You claim that your birthday is the day that it is because some nurse wrote it down on a birth certificate somewhere.
And so, we are relying on sources of authority that we are willing to trust. If you think that let’s say rioting is a problem around the country. It’s because you trust a source of authority that’s telling you if you think it’s not a problem, it’s because you’re trusting a different sort. I know that unless you’re in one of the cities that are experiencing the the unrest or right maybe it’s stable, I don’t know.
But we are relying on sources. So we have four basic sources of authority.
We got experience, reason, community and revelation. And so then you just kind of explain each of those. And honestly, look, when it comes to God, there are three options, it seems overwhelming, but it’s not.
And this is all I did in the book, is give reasons for and against each position. And you trust that kids in an internet age are able to, to kind of comb through the evidence that’s available, and entrust themselves to the to the best authorities on the topic, which I think is Jesus.
To so many students in youth ministry, the youth pastor is the authority. They’re the pastor. They’re the one they see every time across the table at Taco Bell. They’re the ones that hang with them. They’re the ones that are in community, they’re the ones that are there. And so youth workers, to many of your kids, believe it or not, you’re the authority that when there’s a struggle, there’s a problem. They ask you because they believe that you’re the authority on how to solve a problem, or what does the Bible say about something.
And one of the things that just really drives me crazy is after some tragedy, right, Kobe Bryant passed away in a helicopter. There was one recently I’m drawing a blank on what it was, but it was one of those moments when there’s cultural moments, where people say why, right? Why did this happen? You know, where was God? That sort of thing.
And I hear so many pastors, this really gets at me, I hear so many pastors say something like, Well, you know, people don’t want theological answers in moments like that. And of course, they pointed Job and how his buddies kind of, you know, they were fine, as long as they were just sitting there and holding hands. But once they started to speak, it became a problem. Job’s friends spoke wrongly, first of all, but secondly, if you listen to what people are saying, they’re asking for theological answers. They’re saying, “Why did this happen?”
And if Christian pastors are caught flat footed in that moment, then then what makes us think if we don’t have anything to say in moments of tragedy, that we have anything to say when things are fine, like everybody can talk when things are fine, it’s when things have fallen apart. That Christian people can step in and say, let us tell you about a God who is good despite the circumstances that we presently are experiencing.
It’s because we’ve become we’ve become enamored with the idea that nobody actually wanted that theology, it’s not relevant for those moments, or it’s unwelcome in those moments, when in fact, I think that that those are the moments where people are saying, What does Christianity or any faith system have to tell me or comfort me or consoled me or encouraged me in this very moment?
And when we just say, well, we don’t we can’t we don’t have anything to say. We can give you a hug. Well, that’s cool, like hugs are helpful. But also, I feel a whole lot better if I felt like I had a firm grip on reality right now.
Sure, sure. And there’s and I think there’s, you have to be a, I think you have to be a compassionate apologists, right? You have to be a compassionate person who delivers these things, right? these instances, these stories, these facts, these, all these things with that with a sense of compassion, which then brings me to my next question, how can teens use apologetics without being a jerk?
Yeah. It’s a great question. I think that Eugene Peterson makes this connection with an example of a 16 year old given the keys to a car and he doesn’t know how to drive. It would be crazy to do that. So I think that a lot of this honestly, like apologetics, and let’s say contending for the faith or commending the faith to others, and defending it against nay-sayers or whatever. I think that it has to be done. From an overflow of other things, hopefully the fruit of the Spirit that Christ is working in your life and this is where I almost think that you’re teaching kids how to be an apologist. Even when you’re not teaching about apologetics, necessarily
Andy Stanley has this point, the relationship, not the argument is important. And so, this is where I think some of the other things that you’re teaching can really kind of bleed over and affect how we respond to and relate to other people.
Now, specifically, one of the things that I continuously put forward to my students is to encourage them to come from a posture of curiosity. There has never been a time when I asked somebody and dude, I’ve been in conversations with adults, with students from the east coast to the west coast. There’s never been a time when I come from a posture of curiosity, when I say hey, what makes you think that? Where they don’t feel like cool like this, dude, I can talk to you. He’s listening.
In fact, I met a dude in Wyoming and he was like, “Hey, what do you do?” And you know, I’m trying, I was trying to think through like, okay, you know, you can say you’re a pastor, but that shuts things down pretty quick, I said, “I teach religion” and dude, he just went on, he was like, “you know what, I’ve been looking for somebody, I can talk to him about religion.” And we were off to the races.
It turned out, he had a very bad church experience growing up, and he is hostile toward God and hostile toward faith and so forth. He didn’t think Jesus ever existed. And it was just like, a really great conversation that opened up tremendous avenues. I’m just like, hey, what makes you think that?
If you can arm your students with a question, when they encounter a different perspective, it’s simply, “How do you know that?” Like, if somebody makes a claim, it could be something that we all assume that we agree on, or it could be something that uh, that we don’t agree on. It doesn’t even matter.
It’s like, I think the Bible is wrong. Well, how do you know that? I think God is real How do you know that? And what we’ll find over and over? And that’s a curiosity question that invites conversation. And then, if you can ask them to engage not just with curiosity, but with humility, to where there is kind of an open handed nature to this that says, I recognize my finitude.
In other words, I recognize that I don’t possess an all seeing eye that I don’t know, in fact, what it’s like to walk in your shoes through empathy, I can try. But there’s always a disc, there’s always a gap, right? I’m finite, God’s infinite. So because of that distance, I can’t presume that I know everything that’s going on in your heart or in your head. The other thing is, is that we are fallen. So we’re finite, and we’re fallen. And those are two sides of this coin, that that forced me toward humility, because in my fallenness, I live with this reality distortion field, where I am very likely to construe the data in ways that are easiest or most agreeable to me. Right. So those are two things I would I would really try to get at.
I had a fantastic conversation with a 16 year old girl who identified as a lesbian, who and no other pastor seemed to be able to kind of get get through to her, her local youth pastor, you know, had really driven her out her parents and kind of shipped her off and, and I engaged in this fantastic conversation with this girl, simply because I came from a place of curiosity.
I said, “Help me understand what it’s like to be you right now? She identified as a Christian as well. So I said, Did God ever factor in like, what role did God play in your thinking on this or decision making on this? Or did the Bible kind of play a role? And she just said, No.
Like, that’s curious to me, as a Christian person, how are you making decisions about big decisions about life and orientation, and sexuality and so forth, without at least maybe going to God in prayer or seeking counsel through the word, and that opens up more conversation.
So I honestly think that you can’t totally get the argumentativeness out of kids. Kids are just a bit more black and white than that. So this is part of the risk that we take when we unleash these little guys and girls as ambassadors for Christ.
We can continue to harp on and teach them through apologetics, but also the way that we talk about other people of faith, and so forth in our teaching and the way they see us engage.
Thanks Trevor for stopping by today and equipping and encouraging youth workers to grow in their own education of apologetics so they can equip and encourage their students.