Teaching Apologetics to the Next Generation

By Sean McDowell

Before becoming a graduate professor of apologetics last year, I spent a decade teaching apologetics full time to high school students at a Christian school in Southern California. In fact, I still teach one high school Bible class simply because I love it! I also have the privilege of speaking to thousands of young people each year on all sorts of apologetics-related subjects. There are some lessons I have learned—many the hard way—about how to teach apologetics to young people. I trust these will be helpful and encouraging as you aim to equip and challenge the next generation.

DOES APOLOGETICS STILL MATTER?

It is not uncommon to read a blog or hear a speaker denounce the importance of apologetics today. In fact, many have claimed we live in a postmodern culture in which apologetics no longer matters. Yet William Lane Craig is right—this sort of thinking is a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture.1 Ironically, we have witnessed the emergence of an apologetics renaissance right when many critics claimed postmodernism made apologetics passé.

And much of the interest in apologetics comes from young people. I have witnessed this in the classroom, but I am also frequently barraged by apologetics questions from young people as I speak at churches, conferences, schools, and camps nationwide. When they realize that I care and respect them as individuals, students express a variety of questions and doubts.

Youth experts Kara Powell and Chap Clark launched a multiyear research project examining the transition of Christian students beyond high school. They discovered that students who felt the freedom to express their doubts tended to have a “sticky faith,” which means they maintain their faith after high school. Powell and Clark narrowed down the top ten doubts college students remembered having in high school. Not surprisingly, they included the existence of God, the problem of suffering and evil, the exclusivity of Christ, and the reality of hell.2

This does not mean apologetics questions are necessarily at the forefront of students’ minds. Yet it does indicate that, like the rest of us, young people want to make sense of the world and to find their place in it. So how do we motivate students to care about ultimate questions of truth?

MOTIVATING STUDENTS

There is no magic bullet that will motivate all students to care about truth. Some students may not be in a place in their lives where they are spiritually receptive. Does this mean we give up on those students? No way! I was once frustrated that I couldn’t engage a certain student. My principal gave me some words of wisdom that really helped: “Give yourself a break. Some people even walked away unconvinced after personally encountering Jesus.” He was right. The rich young ruler walked away from personally talking with Jesus because he did not want to give up his wealth (Matt. 19:16–22).

This was a freeing revelation for me since I often took it personally when students disengaged from my class. But after teaching for a few years, I now realize that seeds are planted in the hearts of many students even when they have a “whatever” attitude about spiritual matters.

One time a former student visited my class after he began studying at a local junior college. I was shocked this student returned to my class because he seemed totally disengaged in high school. When I asked him what I could have done differently to help motivate him more in high school, he replied, “Honestly, Mr. McDowell, probably nothing. I didn’t realize how important it was back then. But I did learn a lot more than you might think.”

While some students may not be as spiritually receptive as we would like, there are some helpful steps we can take to motivate students in apologetics. When these steps are taken, many young people will respond enthusiastically…

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Teaching Apologetics to the Next Generation – Christian Research Institute