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How Do We Make Theology Come Alive for Students?

How do we make theology engaging and interesting for students? While I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out, and am always looking for some creative and new ideas, here are four lessons I have learned from roughly two decades of teaching and speaking to students on theological issues.

students theology

First, use stories. We all love stories. Students do too. As Jonathan Gottschall wrote in his excellent book The Storytelling Animal, “Human minds yield hopelessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, not matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” Jesus told stories for a few reasons. People remember them. We relate to them. And lessons are best learned through stories. Jesus was asked who qualifies as a neighbor, and he told the story of the Good Samaritan. He was asked how many times we should forgive people and he told the story of the Unmerciful Servant. Teach theological doctrines, but whenever possible, tell a story.

Second, use cultural examples. Students today are engrossed with the prevailing culture. The movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the technology they use are all influenced by our wider culture. Sometimes we need to critique culture and other times we need to show how Christ is within culture. But using cultural examples of theology not only makes theology interesting to students, it also helps them make connections from their theology to the “real” world. For instance, recently I was talking with my students about the biblical view of sex. And so I used an example from the movie Passengers, which I wrote about here.

Third, ask good questions. In my experience, good questions are far better than answers. As I wrote in a recent post, my teachers who asked me good questions had a far greater impact on my life than those who simply gave me answers. Isn’t that true for you too? Students today have access to endless information. Simply giving kids theological truths has some value, but far more important is helping kids think theologically. We simply can’t cover every conceivable theological issue in our classrooms, ministries, or conversations. But we can give students a template for how to think theologically. And even if we did cover every issue of today, new issues will inevitably arise. Thus, the most important educational task today is teaching students how to think, how to arrive at truth. And one of the best ways to do this is to ask good questions and guide students through how to discover reasonable answers.

Fourth, connect theology to practical life. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion [1] students today tend to compartmentalize their spiritual faith. In other words, they tend to believe that science, math and history are matters of objective truth, but spiritual beliefs are merely a matter of preference that helps give their lives meaning. As a result, few students are able (or interested) to translate theology to their practical lives. In other words, few students can show how their beliefs about God practically shape how they live. If we don’t connect theology to how kids actually live, what’s the point? While there are many ways to do this (such as through stories, experiences, and personal examples), one simple step is to always ask, after teaching a theological truth: How should this affect the way we actually live?

Students need to see that believing God created the world should influence how we treat the environment. They need to connect belief in the resurrection to how we handle death. And they need to see how belief we are made in the image of God shapes the way we think about abortion, pornography, bullying, racism, eating disorders and many other issues. Theological teaching is not complete until students connect truth to their daily lives.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.


[1] This study is admittedly dated. But my experience and subsequent research confirms that this point is still largely true among today’s youth.

 


Yes, You Do Have Time to Learn Apologetics

By Melissa Cain Travis

Whenever I was in graduate school studying for my M.A. in Science and Religion, I was often the recipient of wide-eyed stares and exclamations of, “How on earth do you have enough hours in the day?!” After all, I was running a household, homeschooling two elementary-age boys, teaching intermittently at church, and nurturing my marriage all while working on a graduate degree. Post-graduation, I’m able to look back on those 3-and-a-half years with no regret and so very much to be thankful for. I would like to take this bit of space to encourage other busy wives and mothers (and husbands and dads!) by describing how and why I managed all of those responsibilities. Most of you are not considering graduate education, but what you should at least be planning is how to fit more learning time into your life, so that you can love and glorify God with your mind.

Learn Apologetics

Make no mistake; I sacrificed some things. But those things pale in comparison to what I gained, both in value and longevity. I had to give up mindless entertainment, but it was replaced with the life-long discipline of worshiping God on an intellectual level. I socialized a lot less, but whenever I did meet up with friends, the time was intentional and well-spent in deep conversation that grew those relationships unlike anything else could. I learned the value of rising early and making the most of every hour, yet I never denied myself a full night’s rest or a minimum of a half day’s rest each week.

Did my family sacrifice? In some ways, they did. My children did not get to attend every play group, birthday party, or kids’ church function that came around, but we did go to those things occasionally. We still did fun things like movies and park outings, but I had to economize my time in advance. My husband (who, incidentally, is my biggest supporter and most ardent fan) would often run an errand for me after work and we’d eat takeout a couple (or three) times per week. But you know what? He never once complained. He understood perfectly why I was doing what I was doing, that I was fulfilling God’s call on my life and investing my time in an important way. I asked him recently if he mourned the fact that I spend more time in books than I do in the kitchen. He laughed, then assured me that I was exactly the type of woman he wanted to be married to and to have as the mother of his sons. He sees the eternal value in what I am modeling for our children and what I’ve equipped myself to teach them before they face the world on their own. It is true that I almost never bake cakes from scratch, and my house isn’t always immaculate, but I can teach my kids how to be confident in their faith, and to defend their beliefs and worldview in the face of inevitable challenges.

Now that I’m finished with my degree, I have found that the extra time that became available to me has been naturally filled with self-study, writing, and teaching. I do participate in more leisure and social activities, but I’m still very intentional about how I spend my time. One of my sons saw me reading one afternoon shortly after graduation and he said, “Mom, what are you doing? I thought you were done with school.” To which I responded, “Sweetie, school ends, but learning should be life-long.” As parents, our actions speak so much louder than words.

Honoring God and fulfilling the command to reach the world for Christ is a mission that requires knowledge, including a good foundation in apologetics. We must always be prepared to give the reasons for the hope that we have! Sometimes, it will be the educated skeptic that demands answers. To be sure, coming up short in such a situation does not glorify the Lord. It isn’t possible for everyone to be an expert, and surely God has a different plan for each of us. But it is possible for every Christian to develop the discipline of study and to work towards having the conversational and research skills necessary to be an effective ambassador both to the world and to their own children.

Are you at a complete loss for where to begin? How about the most central doctrine of Christianity–the Resurrection of Jesus? There are fantastic resources available to you. For beginners, I would suggest Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace. I would follow this with a basic and broad apologetics overview, such as Douglas Groothius’ book, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (don’t be put off by the page count; it’s actually a relatively quick read arranged by topic). Don’t have  a lot of time to sit and read? No problem! There are many excellent podcasts available through iTunes that you could listen to in the car or during exercise. I personally like to watch apologetics and theology videos on my iPad whenever I’m folding a mountain of laundry or unloading/reloading the dishwasher. I recommend the podcasts and videos available through http://www.str.org, http://www.reasonablefaith.org, http://www.johnlennox.org, http://www.idthefuture.com, and http://www.rzim.org. Additionally, Biola University has a large selection of lectures available for free through iTunesU. This is only a fraction of the resources out there.

Just imagine the difference it would make if you were to give up a mere three or four hours of entertainment per week and replace them with high quality apologetics and theology material. I challenge you to try it for one month. I can guarantee that you will never be the same! Worshiping God with your mind is rewarding in a way that intensifies one’s motivation for it. I think of it as the ultimate perpetual motion machine!

 

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3 Perspectives Every Child Needs for Their Spiritual Journey

By Natasha Crain

I’m not a big TV watcher. In fact, the only guilty TV pleasure I have is watching Dateline NBC. I’m fascinated by the true crime stories and seeing how seemingly typical people get involved in crazy things.

Dateline recently featured the tragic story of Ian Thorson, a young man who got tangled up in a cult, eventually leading to his death. Thorson was born into an affluent East Coast family with all the trappings of opportunity. He was a laid-back surfer who went on to graduate from Stanford University. After graduation, he surprised his family by postponing a career and deciding to travel the world in search of “deeper meaning.”

While abroad, he got involved with a renegade Buddhist monk who promised enlightenment in return for total devotion. Through a long series of events, this eventually led to Thorson participating in a desert cult experience which resulted in his death (the full story is here).

Ian’s story pained me, as I marveled at how such an intelligent young man went so off course in his search for spiritual fulfillment.

I write a lot on this blog about how we need to equip our kids with specific Christian knowledge and experience to spiritually prepare them for the world. But as I watched Ian’s story, it reminded me that there are three spiritual perspectives that are critical for every child to have as well.

 

First, our kids must have a sense of spiritual priority.

A lot of young people like to adopt the glamorous-sounding label of being on a “spiritual journey.” But all too often, that spiritual journey is really a euphemism for “I don’t really want to commit to any stifling religious rules and doctrines so I’m going to just keep floating through life until I come across something that feels fulfilling.” It’s critical that we communicate throughout our Christian parenting that there is nothing more important than deciding what you believe.

How do we give our kids a sense of spiritual priority?

We demonstrate spiritual priority in our daily lives. There are no shortcuts here. If we’re not actually living a Christ-centered life, no words will convince our kids that our relationship with God is truly what is most important to us.

Here’s a quick gut check to tell you how you’re doing in this area: If your whole family stopped believing in God tomorrow, how different would your home be? (Convicting, isn’t it?)

 

Second, our kids must have a sense of spiritual urgency.

It’s one thing to acknowledge your spiritual life should be a priority. It’s another thing to live your spiritual life with a sense of urgency.

As humans, we’re usually shocked by unexpected death. That shock, however, is firmly rooted in an underlying assumption that everyone is going to live to a ripe old age unless a doctor has said differently. The uncomfortable truth is that any one of us could die tomorrow. We must always be spiritually prepared. Very few kids innately see life this way, so they need our guidance.

How do we give our kids a sense of spiritual urgency?

We cut the fluff. Romantic notions like “life is a journey, not a destination” lull kids into thinking they have all the time in the world to make decisions. For Christians, life is firstabout the destination, then the journey. The destination is eternity with God and what we do in the journey here on earth should be inextricably tied to that fact (Romans 14:8).

Here’s a letter I wrote to my kids as an eventual reminder that they need to live like they’re dying…tomorrow.

 

Third, our kids must have the right spiritual objective.

If I had the opportunity to go back in time and ask Ian one question, I would ask him this as he boarded the plane to head around the world: “What is your objective?”

I bet his answer would have been something like “to find meaning” or “to seek fulfillment.” Young people (and older people) too often search for subjective general meaning or fulfillment at the expense of looking for what is objectively true. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a grounding in the right spiritual objective: Seek what is true.

How do we do that?

It’s an emphasis we need to weave throughout all of our faith conversations. It’s a constant acknowledgment that we are Christians because we believe Christianity is objectively true … not because it makes us feel good, not because it gives us meaning (all kinds of beliefs can give a person meaning), not because it’s what we like the best. Our kids must clearly understand that the search for truth reigns supreme.

Not sure how to communicate why Christianity is true? Start here: Getting Started with Apologetics.

 

What other perspectives do you think kids need when they set off for their “spiritual journey?”

 

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