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Youth Ministry and the War on Reason

There is a growing belief amongst students and parents, that being exposed to anything that contradicts their beliefs, or even challenges them, is an infringement on their rights. More and more students and parents, both in middle school/high school and in college, are protesting textbooks and required reading materials—fiction and non-fiction.

In Time Magazine, Kareem Abdul-Jamar wrote a powerful opinion piece where he lamented this ‘War on Reason’, as he called it. “For many Americans, education is about feeding students certain factual information, then testing them to make sure they retain it.”, he writes.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, in many youth ministries it’s no different. I grew up in a church and a youth ministry where the right answer was what mattered. As long as you answered ‘Jesus’ to every question, said you prayed every day and did your quiet time, and prayed for the persecuted Christians behind the iron curtain (yes, I grew up in the eighties), you were doing fine as a Christian. Not once was I challenged to argue why I believed, other than by repeating what I’d been told to say to defend my beliefs.

Yet the ultimate goal of education is not a test. It’s to teach students HOW to think, not WHAT to think. And the only way to do that, is to offer conflicting opinions, contradictory information, facts and statistics that confuse and challenge us. Because that will teach students to analyze, reason, build argument based on facts, rather than on emotional rhetoric.


And again, that holds true for youth ministry as well. I’m certainly guilty of telling students what to think, especially when I first started doing youth ministry. But as I got more experienced, I realized that that kind of indoctrination doesn’t last. It’s one of the reasons why teens lose their faith as they grew older—because it was never fully theirs in the first place.

Youth ministry cannot participate in this war on reason. We need to make plenty of room for contradictions, confusion, healthy debates and discussion. In the long run, we serve our students way better by teaching them how to think about theology, how to ask the right questions and find answers than by telling them what to believe.

Look at what Jesus did when he was teaching his disciples. He didn’t give easy answers, or quick how-to’s. He told stories they had to interpret themselves. He gave commands that contradicted everything they knew. And when he taught, he used arguments based on facts (Scripture), not on emotions.

It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s mighty uncomfortable at times. But in the long run, it’s the only way to a deep and authentic faith.

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