5 Lessons I Learned About Apologetics Ministry to College Students
"All religions basically teach the same thing."
I had heard versions of this argument so many times in just a handful of years in campus ministry that this time I just couldn't let it slide. So, I did what any rational person would do.
I made a chart. I listed 7 major belief/thought systems and showed how they each answered 5 basic worldview questions. I made another appointment with the student and brought my chart, confident that this would be how I broke through to him.
Long story short, my chart failed to be the breakthrough I was confident it would be. We talked through many of the points, I pointed out similarities and differences. I noted that similarities don't mean the same and we established that why various belief and thought systems arrived at conclusions also matters. After discussing it for over an hour he shrugged and said, "I still think they're all pretty similar."
I'd love to say that this was an isolated incident, but it's not. Young adults are growing up in increasingly unchurched and secular contexts meaning they value spirituality, but not necessarily any specific religious system. A significant number of college students and young adults have also decided to leave the church after spending a lot of time there growing up. Both present significant challenges to the way we engage in apologetics.
But many of us only learn apologetic strategies that are designed to reassure the faith of the already convinced. Here are the top 5 lessons I've learned from engaging in apologetics with lost students:
Apologetics ≠ Evangelism: I have yet to engage in an apologetic conversation with a lost student that resulted in him/her deciding to follow Jesus because of that conversation. Apologetics for lost students and young adults is functionally pre-evangelism. Your goal is to lay a foundation for why it is feasible to believe in Jesus.
Questions are better than statements: College students and young adults are very open to talking about spiritual things. They are not open to listening to anyone spend an inordinate amount of time telling them that they're wrong or talking about themself. Learning how to ask good questions is the key to having a productive conversation with a lost student that provides opportunities to transition to the Gospel and leaves the student open to talking with you again.
Listening is better than arguing: Inevitably, the other person is going to say something with which you deeply disagree. Resist the urge to offer a counter-point immediately. Instead, ask a good question and listen to the response. For example, "That's interesting. Have you always thought that?" or "I haven't thought about that before. Have you heard/thought of... (offer your rebuttal as a question)" You can also ask clarifying questions. Once, a student told me he couldn't be a Christian because the Bible had been changed so much. I asked, "What do you mean by 'changed'?" It turns out that he wasn't talking about textual criticism. He considered different translations to be "changes," which is an entirely different conversation.
Let them have the last word. We're not trying to "win" the argument or show that we're thoughtful or clever. Our hope is that ultimately this person will decide to follow Jesus. So, allow them to have the last word. Even if their last word is a completely false point that you know you can easily disprove, say "Thanks for being willing to talk to me about this. Can we talk again soon?" In doing so you demonstrate that you value this person's opinion and perspective and so become someone that they will feel more comfortable speaking with in the future.
People are more than walking brains. Our apologetic strategies are often about cold, hard facts. Like my chart example above, we think that if we build an air-tight case that the other person should be convinced. Oftentimes, they're not. That's because people make decisions based on all kinds of factors independent of, and sometimes in spite of, logic. A variety of factors influence decisions we make. You will rarely find someone who doesn't believe in Jesus based completely on logical factors. As you ask good questions and learn more about the person's background, you are likely to uncover some type of negative/traumatic experience that has highly influenced their belief. In those instances, you will be more effective if you function as a de-facto counselor rather than a philosopher/theologian/historian.