By / Jun 1

In a span of just 10 days, the United States was rocked by the news of two mass shootings. The first, a racially motivated crime, occurred in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. The most recent tragedy occurred at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and resulted in the deaths of 19 students and 2 adults. The nation finds itself, once more, discussing and debating what policies and prevention are needed to stop these atrocities and how to do so in a way that respects our Second Amendment rights. Christians should be ready to enter into those complex discussions with a perspective that is governed by a desire to honor God through obedience to Christ and protect the vulnerable. In the midst of these crucial conversations, it’s also important that we weep with those who weep while being forced to reckon with the inevitability of our own deaths.

Weeping in the face of sorrow 

Undoubtedly, when Paul instructed the churches in Romans 12:15 to “weep with those who weep,” he envisioned the example of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb. While the Son of Man fully trusted in the Father and did not waver regarding his goodness and sovereignty—even amid the suffering and loss of Lazarus—he still wept. Jesus’ perfect knowledge did not prevent him from expressing perfect compassion and grief in the face of deep personal loss. As those who follow the Savior who wept over the brokenness that sin brought into the world, we too, when we take sin and its effect on our world seriously, will be moved to mourn with the mourners. In doing so, we imitate Christ, the Incarnate God who is near to those who are brokenhearted (Ps. 43:18) grappling with suffering that is impossible for our finite minds to make sense of. 

While we weep with those who weep and seek to bring comfort to others as those who have been comforted by the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4), we will inevitably be reminded of our own mortality as we come face to face with the reality of death. And, if we are not, Jesus believed we should be. This is seen in a passage from Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus encountered a group of people asking questions about the fate of the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hand (Luke 13:1-5), he quickly redirected their inquiries. 

Facing our mortality 

As one reads the passage, an underlying assumption about the crowd emerges. Based on Jesus’ answer, it would appear that the crowd presumed that there was something inherently defective about those who suffer in this world. Otherwise, in their mind, why would such a horrible thing be allowed to happen? That was the only way they could think to make sense of such a tragedy. Jesus, however, answered by saying that there was nothing substantive or morally different between the Galileans who perished under Pilate and those who did not. The evil committed by Pilate against those Galileans was not due to something wrong with them. 

Jesus then went on to make the same point in the passage by highlighting another tragic accident in Siloam, where a tower had fallen on a group of 18 people, killing all of them. Those that survived in Siloam were not more righteous than those who perished. In other words, one’s goodness or badness is not the sum total explanation for “why” any given tragedy occurs. Jesus rebuked the people for what was implied in their search for an answer to the evil they experienced and turned their question on its head by ending his comments with a warning of repentance. 

Those that addressed Jesus were hoping that they could establish criteria for the type of people that bad things happen to, but Jesus wouldn’t allow it. He would not let them rest in the idea that somehow they could, through their own decisions and effort, avoid the horrors of this life in a fallen world. Instead, what they could do is repent and prepare for eternity so that they would not perish forever. In the Old Testament, the author of Ecclesiastes emphasizes the importance of considering our mortality: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (7:2). The solace of understanding this on the other side of the cross is that those who trust in Christ will ultimately pass through the valley of death into a life of neverending feasting and joy (Ps. 23; Ps. 16:11). 

Hope amid the horror 

While we dwell in this broken world and weep with those who weep, we must not assume that somehow we are or can be immune to the sufferings that others experience. Mankind’s rebellion against God has resulted in a good world gone bad because of the curse of sin. Our only hope of escaping the curse that sin has brought is for someone to bear the curse for us. This is what Jesus, the Son of God, born of woman, born under the law, does for all who would place their trust in him (Gal. 4:4). And this is the truth we point to as we love others and meet their physical needs in the midst of terrible sorrow. 

Jesus, as the only sinless, innocent, stainless human to ever live, came and took on our sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him (1 Cor. 5:21). He bids us to come to him in our grief and under the weight of unbearable burdens (Matt. 11:28). He alone has conquered death, and the precious promise we have is that all who are in him will be raised like him when he returns. It is from this posture of hope amid the horrors of this world that we can face our mortality and come alongside others to minister to them and mourn with them in their darkest moments. 

By / May 12

Several years ago when I was a kids’ pastor, I encountered my first transgender guest at church. I was not ready for the situation. No class had prepared me on how to react to a 5th grade girl asking to use the boy’s bathroom because she was changing her gender to something that made her feel more comfortable. 

That experience is becoming less uncommon for pastors today. 

In a recent study, 48% of pastors told Lifeway Research that they know someone who is transgender. According to Gallup research, 15.9% of Generation Z identifies as part of the LGBT community. Churches in areas with a high population of young people are more likely to be confronted with issues related to gender identity. If you haven’t had a transgender guest to your student ministry yet, you will soon. 

Based on my experience and my understanding of the scriptures, here are five things that you and your church leadership should keep in mind when a transgender student visits your church.

The imago Dei 

Imago Dei comes from the Latin version of the Bible, translated to English as “image of God.” This phrase has its origins in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse teaches an essential truth. Humanity’s value comes from being created in the image of God. 

This imago Dei is what separates humanity from all creation. Our intrinsic value comes from the divine nature that man and women were created to reflect. The transgender student and the 4.0 student and the star quarterback all have the same intrinsic value because they are all made in God’s image. Our churches often use Genesis 1:27 to condemn our transgender neighbors’ sin, but it also points to the wondrous truth that our worth and identity are grounded in something so much more, though not less, than being male or female. 

Despite our best attempts, the LGBTQ+ community often finds more judgment inside our churches than they do outside of them. What if, instead, they found a place that graciously shows them the truth about their value and gender? 

Your own identity crisis 

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3).

The reality for followers of Jesus is that we were once as confused in our spiritual identity as our transgender neighbors are, and that us to choose lifestyles in opposition to God’s ways. Hostile in our mind to the things of God and prisoners to the desires of our flesh, we, too, once walked in open rebellion to God’s design—just maybe in different ways. But God, in his mercy, offered us grace.  

There is a larger piece of our story in the life of our transgender neighbors than we often care to see. We will only find a perspective of hope and reconciliation for those struggling with gender dysphoria when we embrace the depth of depravity that God has rescued us from personally. Our churches should be distribution centers of the same grace we have personally received.

Jesus came for sinners 

Remind yourself of the mission of Christ himself: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (John 19:10). 

If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, our churches should be welcoming to people who look, act, talk, and live like they are lost. It might be time to sit down with your leadership team and ask, “Are we OK if a transgender person wants to come to our student ministry?” If that question makes you uncomfortable, you can rest assured that our transgender neighbors will feel uncomfortable and potentially unwelcome in your church. 

Remember Jesus’ words from Mark 2:17 to the religious leaders of his day who were unhappy with whom Jesus spent most of his time, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Our student ministries should be the waiting room of our community where young people suffering from the symptoms of sin can come to meet the healer. 

It’s harder than it looks 

Repent from your sins and be saved through Christ. That’s the message that most churches preach on any given Sunday. It’s the message that many of us have heard all of our lives. And it’s the message we need. But that message comes with a high price for the transgender guest sitting in your church on Sunday.  

Jesus warns would-be followers in Luke 14:28-33, 

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” 

For our transgender neighbors to follow Jesus, they must count a significant cost. For many of our transgender friends, renouncing all that they have will feel like denying their true selves. It will mean giving up comfort in their own body, relationships, community, identity, and potentially family to be a disciple of Jesus. Our churches must be grace-based centers of encouragement, community, and refuge for those whose faith compels them to embark on such a journey marked with loss.

Parents are scared

It might be that the transgender student visiting your church is a child of one of your members. Currently, in my church, a dear friend and faithful volunteer confided in me after youth group that his child wrestles with gender dysphoria. My heart ached when I heard him describe his worry about discussing publicly what he and his wife were going through at home because of the judgment that they might experience in our church. He confessed that all he and his wife were looking for was prayer and encouragement as they sought to handle the situation in the most Christ-like manner and in a way that didn’t alienate their child from church. I drove home thinking, “Why should he be afraid?” 

There is an opportunity today for pastors to lead in creating a safe place for our transgender neighbors to encounter Jesus Christ’s life-changing love in our student ministries and in our churches. Not affirming a lifestyle pursuing sin—but embracing a sinner in need of grace and transformation. Not turning a blind eye to the biblical categories for gender—but pointing to a greater reality for identity and value than our physical bodies. Not prescribing a checklist of do’s and don’ts—but creating a welcoming community that receives people just as they are because Jesus is powerful enough not to leave them that way. 

As we welcome our transgender neighbors, we can demonstrate who our servant King by meeting sinners with grace and truth, but without fear. We live in a complex time with complex problems that will not have easy answers, but we can move forward in ministry confidently because we know our God is greater than our sin, and his gospel is more powerful than the false promises of our sexually confused culture. 

By / Mar 15

For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays. 

Some dangers to watch out for

While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.

Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction. 

Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.

A better way

By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case. 

However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other. 

Some practical considerations

So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:

Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs. 

Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.

Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things. 

If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.

The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.

Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life

In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.

I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.

By / Oct 11

Every pastor I’ve spoken with in 2021 has called this the hardest year of their ministry. We could point to political polarization, COVID-19, mask mandates, racial tension and more as the reasons why. But one theme that has been a personal discouragement for me has been the so-called deconversion of young adult believers who formerly seemed solid in their faith.

It would take at least two hands to count the number of friends and people I’ve done ministry alongside who have lost their faith in the last few years. Several patterns have emerged as I’ve witnessed these deconversions, but one in particular struck me recently. We spend all sorts of time and energy preparing high schoolers for college, afraid they’ll lose their faith when they get out of the house and into campus life. But I have seen far more people walk away from their faith in their 20s than in college. Why is this happening? And is there anything church leaders can do? I’d like to suggest four reasons we are seeing so many deconversion stories. 

4 reasons young adults are leaving the faith 

1. Leaving the discipleship pressure cooker 

For many, college is an intense discipleship environment. Some students get involved in college ministries that meet multiple times a week. Some spend all summer at the beach working by day and being trained in Bible literacy and evangelism by night. Others spend a month at camp being filled up by adult staff members and, in turn, pouring out what they’ve been taught to campers. These environments are life-changing. But what happens after college? 

Recent college graduates often move to a new city for a job or get married and start looking for a different church. Now, instead of spending five or six hours a week in concentrated Bible study with close friends and leaders, they might spend 90 minutes a week at a community group, half of which is devoted to fellowship and half to discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon, with people they don’t honestly know that well. And instead of raising their big questions or doubts to a Christian roommate, discipleship group leader, or college pastor, they might work up the courage to call up a pastor at their new church. But, more than likely — especially if they attend a large church and have little access to a pastor — they’re taking their questions to blogs, social media and podcasts. 

A few years go by, and these young adults have kids. Instead of spending 45 minutes or an hour a day reading Scripture and praying, they’re fighting for 15 minutes a few days a week in between night feedings and lunch packing, school drop-off and pick-up, work and house chores.

The loss of these three things — intense and regular communal discipleship, access to those more advanced and knowledgeable in the faith and extended devotional time with the Lord — amounts to a removal from the pressure cooker of college discipleship.

2. Looking for wisdom in the wrong places

One result of being removed from this pressure cooker is the pursuit of answers in new places. In the absence of the resources they once had, where do young adults go for wisdom? This challenge is only exacerbated by the ever-increasing amount of issues which demand their wisdom. The whirlwind of lightning-fast information exchange, ubiquitous social media and a polarized American culture demand not only our attention but also our “correct” opinion.

Many young adults — and older adults, too — turn to the 21st century’s solution for finding answers: our phones. Anyone with a social media account knows there are countless “influencers” offering their “expertise” on all kinds of cultural crises. Not sure who to vote for? Your favorite podcast can tell you. Don’t know what to think about vaccines? That Instagram model does. Not sure what to think about Afghanistan? Your favorite Twitter theologian has it figured out.

These influencers are ready to offer authoritative answers to all of these and a host of other complex issues, and we’re drawn to their certainty. We go to them for their opinions on sports or fitness or postpartum depression; we stay for their opinions on geopolitics, pandemics and racial justice. Before we know it, we’re so bought into their project that we’re listening not just about matters of temporal significance, but matters of eternal significance: issues related to human sexuality and gender, commentary on the trustworthiness of Scripture and (revisionist) history about the evangelicalism that taught us how to read the Bible, pray and share the gospel.

The unique challenges of 21st-century young adulthood tempt us to trade community, spiritual disciplines, theological expertise and pastoral wisdom for the sharp-tongued certainty of unqualified bloggers and podcasters who are quite literally profiting from our attention. 

3. Owning your faith

The first two reasons for young adult deconversions are related to the transition out of college. These next two stem from things often taught in our student ministries, one of which relates to the heavy emphasis placed on “owning your faith.” 

Both college and high school students are urged to let go of the coattails of Mom and Dad’s Christianity and make a personal decision for Christ. In college, this often takes the form of choosing your own church and beginning to engage in personal spiritual disciplines — good things. But two characteristics of our secular age make this a precarious value: expressive individualism and the “subtraction story.”

Robert Bellah coined the term “expressive individualism,” but it has been popularized by the Catholic Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The basic idea is that we live in a context that locates one’s identity in one’s desires. We are told to look into ourselves — our hearts — to discover who we truly are, and then to express that self to the world — often in a way that rejects some important inheritance from authority figures in our lives. The danger here should be obvious. As teenagers are sent out of the home and into the world for college, “making their faith their own” usually includes not only additions (spiritual disciplines, etc.) but also rejections of something from their religious upbringing. In my case, I came home from my first semester at college ready and willing to lecture my parents about their financial decisions and to mock my Christian school for its legalism.

But something happens when we start down that road. The quest for individuality can prove insatiable. Once having rejected financial decadence and religious legalism, we often move onto political alliances, political positions and then to moral and theological positions. By their late 20s, many hold a “Christian” faith that looks different than their culturally Christian upbringing and than anything identifiable in 2,000 years of church history (by, for example, embracing the cultural orthodoxy on sexuality).

4. Defending your faith

Many youth ministries are rightly devoted to teaching high schoolers to defend their faith. We want students to know their faith is reasonable and that it can be defended by reason. We want, for example, them to be prepared for the progressive freshman literature professor who thinks Christianity is fundamentally about misogyny and white supremacy, or the freshman biology professor who mocks Christians for their belief in a six-day creation. 

But sometimes in the process of teaching them to do so, we end up teaching students, however subtly or implicitly, that the reasonableness of the Christian faith lies in their ability to explain or defend it. In the pressure-cooker discipleship environment of college, this doesn’t usually start to pose a problem because students can rely on community and well-educated leaders to help them wrestle with those Christian beliefs that prove intellectually or emotionally challenging. But when those challenges arise in young adulthood, it can prove to be a disorienting and confusing experience. 

Prepare students for life, not just college

So, how can pastors and ministry leaders prepare young people for life beyond college? Is there a way to prevent some of the young adult deconversions that are happening to those who made it through college without a significant challenge to their faith? While offering thorough strategies is beyond the scope of this article, I would offer four brief encouragements for student ministry leaders.

(1) Get students out of the pressure cooker and into the slow cooker. Many of us have had incredible moments at the “mountaintops” of Christian experience. But the peaks-and-valleys approach to discipleship is not sustainable. Feeding students a diet of this sets them up for starvation in young adulthood, when the peaks are out of reach and the valleys become faithful friends. 

Young adults often lose their faith because they haven’t been shaped in the sustainable rhythms of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. They haven’t been given a vision of “a long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s words. They’re not prepared for the disappointment, depression and difficulties of Christian life as an adult — summer camp didn’t have a breakout session on that. We give young people a gift by training them in these sustainable rhythms long before they realize they need them.

(2) Teach students to value theological expertise. I have had the privilege to spend the last decade in formal theological education. The process of theological education has come at the expense of short nights of sleep, sacrificed time with my wife and daughter, neglected friendships and literal tears. I am in the company of many others who have studied theology so that we can build up the church. But, in our society, the opinions of the podcaster or Instagram influencer with no theological training are valued above scholars. 

There is a real crisis of authority and expertise in American society. Evangelicals are suffering from the death of theological expertise. Our young people need to be taught — before they become young adults — that neither they nor their favorite TikTok theologian is going to ask a question that hasn’t already been asked and answered by someone in church history. The Bible and the Christian theological heritage have the resources to deal adequately with modern challenges to the faith, and theologians spend countless hours and energy mining those resources for this very purpose. Teach your students how to identify expertise, to respect and appreciate it and to take advantage of it when challenges inevitably come.

(3) Don’t teach students to make their faith their own; teach them to receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This sounds counterintuitive. Don’t we want students to have a personal faith? Of course we do. But we need to make sure they understand that it’s a personal appropriation of a faith that was there before them and will continue to be there after them. Coming into a personal faith is a lot less like finding a hidden waterfall in the forest and a lot more like jumping into a well-known rushing river that has carried faithful travelers through the starts and stops and storms of life for millennia. We need to emphasize this with young people.

(4) Teach students the importance of Christian presuppositions. The more I see my friends deconvert in their 20s, the more convinced I am of the importance of presuppositions. Many of us grew up being taught to remove presuppositions so we can see with objectivity and clarity. Some of us got to college and heard professors — from the other side of the religious aisle — doubling down. Both were convinced that an objective, reasonable approach would prove their point. But one of the surprising gifts of postmodernism has been the exposure of the myth of objectivity. We all have presuppositions. I am increasingly convinced of this. And if we all have presuppositions, we might as well have the right ones — or, at least, Christian ones. 

Here are three Christian presuppositions every Christian should fight to maintain: (1) The Bible is God’s Word; (2) God is our Creator, so he knows what’s best for us; (3) God is good, so he wants what’s best for us. With these presuppositions firmly fixed, we will assume the right things as we face discontinuities between the Bible’s teachings and our culture’s ideologies. We will assume, for example, that if we don’t like something God has said in his Word, the problem isn’t with God or his Word; it’s with us. That leads to a second assumption — and a humbling one: if we don’t immediately see the answer to some question or problem that arises from God’s Word, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. That’s where the pursuit of understanding comes in. But the pursuit of understanding, as Anselm taught us a millennium ago, comes after faith, not before.

The 21st century has not proved easy for ministry. Disappointment after disappointment has come in the form of beloved friends and family members walking away from the faith they once held dear. Our sadness in the face of this reality should be accompanied by prayer, believing that God’s arm is not too short to save or draw back those who are wandering. And while we recognize and hope in the role of the Spirit in drawing people to Christ and giving them saving faith, we also want to consider how to effectively change methods or practices that may unintentionally lend to this trend of deconversion. My hope and prayer is that a more careful, historical, biblical approach to student ministry can help prevent a similar exodus of young adults from Christianity in the years to come.

By / Sep 29

“You Matter,” “I Matter,” “We Matter,” 40 fifth graders chanted in unison on our first day of elementary school where I teach in a high poverty area in Indiana. The first days of school are momentum building. Teachers pour on the positive praise, rewards, and reinforcement. In many elementary schools, this is also the honeymoon period. There are new clothes, new hair styles, new school supplies, and pep talks from parents that haven’t fallen on deaf ears quite yet. 

My school is no different in many ways, but with the highest rates of child poverty in the city, there are unique barriers we face at the beginning of the school year. We are a “promise school,” meaning the district is committed to investing resources into our building. But the barriers are profound because of our poverty rates. Strong, experienced teachers request to work in our building, but the district moves them to more established schools. And while there is funding for technology, project-based learning initiatives, and school police officers, my classroom, for example, does not have doors, our desks are old and scratched, I have a small window, and the school battles a mice and cockroach infestation. If there was an emergency, there is no additional exit in my room that my students could actually get through with efficiency.

In light of the obstacles we face, Jesus reminds me that those who belong to him are promised his faithfulness, care, and compassion. He sees us, he knows our needs, and he loves us. I am reminded of this when a stranger writes me a $300 check for classroom snacks. Or, when partnering churches bring lunch and send in large donations of food and school supplies. I experience it when people pray and spend the evening putting up posters in my classroom. Or, when teachers give up their planning periods to assist in other classrooms. And I see it when neighborhood adults meet children at bus stops with breakfast and snacks. 

As teachers go through the school year, with all of its challenges and joys, we need the promises of Jesus to carry us through. And we see glimpses of those promises through many of our everyday experiences. 

We are promised his comfort and shelter. On the second day of school, children, teachers, and parents stand in a thunderstorm at the end of the day, scrambling to get kids home, many walking more than a mile. Many families do not get bussing due to district cuts years ago, and several bus stops are several blocks away. A pregnant mother of eight comes running and reaches for her children. I hand her an umbrella for the walk home. Teachers and students huddle together beneath the awning as they wait on parents. One of my fifth graders comforts his scared and sobbing 6-year-old brother because the storm is too loud. 

We are promised his friendship. Former students contact me, and children give huge hugs in the hallways. “Jack” has such a profound speech disability that he is unable to say any consonants. We celebrate that he is in my class with his best friend “Blake.” Jack and Blake are so close that Blake translates for Jack when someone can’t understand him. Jack will call him over when I am struggling, and Blake listens closely and lovingly interprets what he is saying. They’ve pulled each other away from fights this week and never leave the other’s side. I’ve never seen two kids have such a truly sweet and mutual relationship. They choose to be with each other because they love and enjoy one another. 

We are promised nurture. The siblings of a child who lived with us in the past are currently living with our dear pastor friend and his wife. I have prayed since these children were tiny that they would experience safety and security. The kids squeal in delight when we arrive at the bus stop. The 4-year-old runs up to my preschool daughter and says, “You coming with me.” After the big kids get on the bus, the small ones will go back to our friends’ house until pre-k starts. Goodbye hugs are given. I know our children are both seen and heard. They will be loved at school and in the home of the pastor’s family. 

We are promised he will bear our burdens. A teacher resigns after four days of instruction. The needs and behaviors are “too much to bear.” It is not only the behaviors or the needs that are too much to bear. The grief alone is too much to bear. None of us are strong enough to handle it ourselves. 

We are promised grace. A friend brings dinner on Friday. My husband and I are draped in fatigue and irritability. My mantra is “just get to bedtime.” I run upstairs to change clothes before taking my kids to play. I am half-clothed when my 3-year-old screams, alerting me that her little brother let the dog out. The neighbor meets me on my porch, and the dog follows her back, only to get away from us again two more times. She watches my kids while I grab my keys and put shoes on. The 2-year-old is crying. My neighbor says, “Sometimes motherhood is hard.” 

We are promised that he sees. An adoptive mother of seven loses her new home and puppy to a house fire. She and the children are left with the clothes on their back. I met these sweet children several years ago when they were living with little food, shelter, transportation, and proper hygiene. The mother and father struggled with addiction, to the point of losing their children. The aunt, who is now their adoptive mother, moved across the country to keep the siblings together and care for her elderly mother. When I met them, it felt so meager to deliver a package of diapers, yet the Lord knew their needs. Currently, the family is living out of a hotel room. My friend cares for the three youngest, and several churches work together to gather supplies for them. 

The promises continue.

Our teenage daughter, whose life is a testament to the miraculous promises of God, is invited to be a peer mentor for students who have experienced trauma, are on the spectrum, or have behavioral disabilities. “What an honor,” I say.

With an eye roll, and flat tone, she responds, “I just treat them like humans.” 

I am reminded that it is Jesus who says we matter, and it is his people who affirm it. We are called to treat one another like humans made in God’s image — beautiful, created, seen, valued, and loved. 

Jesus invites everyone to grab hold of his promises, and the Spirit fulfills these every day. He does not forget the orphan, widow, addicted, homeless, suffering, or wandering. He promises to meet us at the bus stops, in the food pantry, in pre-school, and in the suffering hearts of young people. He has not forgotten, and he will restore. I am forever thankful to rest on these promises. 

By / Jun 22

When facing doubts and fears, the last thing you want to do is isolate yourself and struggle alone. Sometimes we do that because we don’t think others will understand. Or maybe we feel embarrassed that we are questioning our beliefs. But we have to be honest about our struggles and bring them into the light. This is why your involvement in Christian fellowship on campus is so important. 

You need a deep, strong group of believers on campus who can support you when you walk through tough times. Lean on them. Let them speak truth to you. Let them encourage you to persevere. That’s what the body of Christ is for: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Eccles. 4:9–10).

Study your faith deeply

I know that the last thing you want to hear right now is that you need to do more study. You probably think you have enough coursework to occupy your time! But the study I am talking about is even more important. If we are going to battle our doubts, we have to be committed to studying God’s word. And I don’t mean just studying passages of Scripture (as important as that is), but I mean diving deeply into the entire Christian worldview so that we understand not only what we believe but why we believe it.

If you think about what causes your doubts, you will realize that each of those causes can be addressed (at least in part) through deep study. If a person has intellectual doubts, studying the evidences and reasons for the faith can help quell her concerns. If a person has lost his way morally, the word of God can be a reminder of the importance of obedience and how God empowers us to follow him. If a person has dealt with great suffering, a deeper understanding of the nature of God—his goodness, his sovereignty, his purposes for evil—can provide great comfort and perspective. And even if a person is a chronic worrier, the Scriptures speak to that too. The psalmist shows us how to trust God with our fears: 

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9–10

Here’s the point: good theology matters. A believer with a solid theological foundation is able to handle these difficult questions better than a person who has a shallow understanding of the Christian faith. And good theology is not automatic. One must study diligently to attain it.

Get wise counsel

Even if you have solid fellowship, and you are committed to deep study of God’s word, you still need to lean on Christians who are wiser, older, and more mature. After all, you are not the first Christian in the history of the church to wrestle with these things. Many have gone before you, and you need to learn from them.

Who can provide this wise counsel? Well, one obvious answer is a pastor at your church. Pastors are trained to handle such difficult questions and are therefore a great resource for finding help. Again, this is why being part of a good church is so important. You can also get wise input from a biblical counselor, someone trained to help apply God’s word to the issues and problems we all struggle with. And of course, you can look to a mentor, perhaps an older believer who has invested in you and is looking out for you. 

Doubt your doubts

When we doubt some truth of Christianity, we often don’t realize that we are doubting that truth because of some other belief we hold. In effect, then, we are swapping out one belief for another. If so, then when we find ourselves doubting one of our Christian beliefs, we can fight back by challenging the belief that replaces it. Timothy Keller provides a helpful example.1Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2018), 39. Imagine you meet an atheist who turns out to be kind, happy, and moral, and this makes you doubt whether Christianity is really true. A little reflection will reveal that there is another belief that is feeding this doubt, namely, the belief that atheists ought to be bad, awful people. And since they’re not bad, awful people, then you doubt your faith. 

But it is precisely this belief, argues Keller, that you should challenge. Why should we think that atheists must be awful people? It turns out that such a belief is highly problematic. The Scriptures teach that even non-Christians can be outwardly kind and good by virtue of being made in the image of God. Moreover, the Scriptures also teach that believers are often serious sinners because we are saved not by works but by grace. So this alternative belief falls apart upon closer scrutiny. This is what it looks like to doubt your doubts. Fight against the belief that is trying to replace your Christian belief.

Grow from your doubts

While our doubts can seem like they’re destroying us, don’t forget that God may have other purposes for them. As strange as it sounds, there’s a certain spiritual depth, and a certain spiritual strength, that we will never reach without going through an intense season of doubting and struggling. When we push through such a season, we can find ourselves all the stronger on the other side of it. Indeed, some of the great saints of old have had to endure such trials so that they may prove more faithful in the end. Even Jesus himself endured a “dark night of the soul.” In the garden of Gethsemane, he suffered greatly under the prospect of what lay before him, in anguish even to the point of death (Matt. 26:38). 

Of course, in the middle of such doubts, it is not always easy to see what God’s ultimate purpose might be. Sometimes we cannot see it until it’s all over and we look back. It’s worth noting that it was when Martin Luther was in his darkest season of doubting that he wrote his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” And that hymn, born out of a period of doubt and darkness, has strengthened millions of believers since.

This article was originally published by Crossway.

  • 1
    Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2018), 39.