Should we try a new starting point?
In the previous article, we observed that most people we see on a daily basis seem to have no urgent motivation to consider faith and there’s little indication their interest will change anytime soon. For this reason, we emphasised that one of the major tasks of Christians living in post-Christian contexts is to sift through the rubble of discarded beliefs in order to uncover starting points for helping people engage with the gospel message.
However, finding such ‘jumping off’ points in everyday relationships and interactions poses significant challenges.
(Interviewer) “Has there ever been a moment where you have had a question about your own faith, where you’re like: ‘if God was here face to face with me right now this is what I’d want to ask you?’”(Young Person) "No, I don’t think so."
NO QUESTIONS ASKED: THE FINDINGS FROM A QUALITATIVE STUDY OF 16-19 YEAR-OLDS IN LUTON,’ THE YOUTHSCAPE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH, 2016, P.14
In our experience, the relevancy barrier is one of the most significant obstacles keeping those in our everyday lives from pursuing any kind of faith or belief.
This is true amongst the youth we have worked with in the United Kingdom:
“This is a generation that is neutral on matters of faith, they are not anti-God nor against spirituality. However, for many, unless there is a crisis, or they are raised in a Christian home or they have friends who are Christians who talk about their beliefs, then faith isn’t on the agenda.”
Neil O’Boyle, Youth for Christ UK National Director YFC, 'Z-A of Faith and Spirituality' p.40
And the situation seems similar across the Atlantic in the United States:
“For most teens, religion is taken as part of the furniture of their lives, not a big deal, just taken for granted as fine the way it is. Most teens seemed content to live with a low visibility religion that operates somewhere in the mental background of their lives.”
The current climate seems to have taken many Christians literally ‘out of commission’. The Church and its people lack confidence and have little idea where to begin when it comes to engaging with their friends, family, co-workers, neighbours and classmates. Ironically, all this is occurring during in the midst of an era when Christians have access to an endless range of excellent books, dynamic programmes and engaging courses that can assist and equip us with our evangelistic efforts.
Where can those of us who still possess the motivation to talk about Jesus find hope and recover our expectation for engaging effectively with others in this age of unbelief? Is it even possible to awaken interest in the face of such an apathetic population?
In short, where should we start?
A New Starting Point Means Understanding:
- The questions people today are asking vs. the questions I want them to ask
- People evaluate truth based on experience vs. logical proofs
- The key to unlocking curiosity lies in stirring up internal longings vs. presenting external information
Understand The Questions People Are Asking
Sparking new hope and discovering new pathways forward starts by brushing away the ‘cultural dust’ of spiritual disinterest in order to uncover the kinds of questions people today are asking.
"Back in the eighteenth century, it was important to show that Christianity was true; in the twenty-first century, it has become important to show that it works."
Alister McGrath, Narrative Apologetics, p.17
Rather than skepticism regarding the existence of God, the reliability of Scripture or the credibility of the gospel accounts of Jesus, the questions people today ask are extraordinarily practical. These questions sound like, “So What?” “Why even think about God in the first place?” Or, “How could believing in a God help my life?”
These are questions concerning the relevance of faith and belief rather than questions about soundness or truthfulness.
We have been sharing – through our articles and social media posts – several examples from our own experience that seem to support what scholars and practitioners have been telling us and confirm that the ‘relevance’ questions hold prominence over any other sorts of questions about faith and belief.
As I mentioned in a previous article, my friend Simon had grown up without any kind of faith but accepted our invitation to join our small group and try reading the Bible. After weeks of struggling to get anything useful out of it, I decided to ask a most basic-level question: “Simon, do you feel like you need God?” His reply was, “I don’t think so. I’m not sure how he could make my life better.”
Adam is an example of a teenager I had the opportunity to share my faith story with. His response after listening politely was simply, “I’m happy you have faith. But I don’t really see the point of it for myself.”
In addition to these friends who either possess no interest in God or who feel they don’t need God, we’ve had friends actually plead with us, “I just wish you could believe that we can be good without God.” We suspect some of these emotions stem from negative experiences with the Church or Christians in their own past or perhaps from past human history in general. The inference is, “Because of all the evil that’s been done in God’s name, aren’t we as a civilization better off without him?”
Understand People Evaluate Truth Based On Experience Rather Than Logical Proofs
We know that setting out to establish the evidence behind Christianity or to demonstrate the sound logic of our Christian convictions is a less effective starting point than it once was. Again, these are not the main sticking points keeping the average person from thinking about their beliefs.
In the past, during the Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason, the Church spent a great deal of energy compiling evidence and constructing coherent arguments for its doctrines and beliefs. These efforts helped the Church to meet people ‘where they were at’ as they considered the claims of Christianity in light of other scientific and religious frameworks for belief and meaning.
However, the common person today no longer makes decisions about what is true or what carries value primarily by weighing up evidence or by reasoning whether or not the Christian faith makes more sense than other structures for belief – or unbelief.
This could be good news for the majority of Christians who seem daunted by the prospect of evangelism, often paralysed by fear of not being able to provide answers to complex questions. However, are we any better equipped to answer people’s surprisingly practical questions? Furthermore, is there a way to address these questions in ways that could actually stimulate an interest in God and encourage those around us to pursue a personal faith of their own?
Paul, in his address to the non-Messiah-seeking citizens and philosophers of Athens, set out from common ground, pointed to clues that God has placed in the cosmos and employed the voice of acceptable authorities within the culture to spur spiritual engagement.
So we wonder, what sort of common ground do we share with the common person in our context? What clues, placed by God, in the cosmos will people in our society consider? What acceptable authorities can stimulate curiosity? And how do citizens in our setting decide what is true?
After even a cursory observation of our culture, it seems resoundingly clear the main authority individuals rely upon for confirmation is... their own individual self. There is little surprise on this point. Since time began, our very first ancestors figured they were their own best authority for knowing what was good and right (Genesis 3). However, the means by which most people today decide what is true has shifted from times past. People today decided what is 'true' through experience.
Realising that the people around us decide what is true through experience is an eye-opening revelation for many of us. I still clearly recall the moment the penny dropped for me whilst I sat in an elective class at seminary. This new awareness seemed to challenge everything I thought I knew about reaching people with the gospel. It was at that point – as a fledgling youth minister – that the following question first started to burn in my heart and mind:
How can we possibly help young people who are not looking for God and who have no connection with God and no history with the church experience their way into a saving and transforming relationship with God through the person of Jesus?
Understand The Key To Unlocking Curiosity Lies in Stirring Up Internal Longings Rather Than Presenting External Information
We have wrestled with this question for over twenty years now in various youth ministry contexts. Relying on oneself and one's own experiences to decide what is true can be fraught with peril, particularly in light of the reality that "our minds are clouded and our hearts are darkened" (Romans 1). Nevertheless, like Paul, we have perceived several ways of employing this 'acceptable authority' to spark a spiritual journey. And it has driven us to develop several new approaches that seek to awaken curiosity and draw teenagers along on the path of faith toward God through Jesus.
Like most journeys, the most crucial step, and perhaps the most challenging, is the initial one. We have found the most effective first step that helps people clear the relevancy barrier, to overcome all the reasons not to believe, comes through the experience of discovering they have a soul.
Perhaps Paul was employing a similar tactic when he encouraged his listeners, "God is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live, and move and have our being." (Acts 17:27-28)
At our core, as humans, we are spiritual beings. But this reality is not something the average person is aware of on a daily basis.
So herein lies the starting point.
Learn to Stir
As Christians, we can learn to come alongside people and look out for the everyday emotions, longings and questions that reveal our true spiritual nature- the clues God has put in place to lead us to him. We can point to these realities and perhaps even learn to stir curiosity by leading and inviting people into experiences where they can exercise their atrophied spiritual muscles.
Once people experience their true spiritual nature, the relevancy barrier starts to crumble. Beliefs that have been buried and lie dormant under layers of dust start to awaken. Rather than concluding there is no real point to pursuing faith, spiritual experiences give individuals motivation to explore further and to pursue new possibilities.
We have seen this occur time and time again. Charlie, a teenager we have recently stirred with, wasn’t looking for God as he felt that evolution provided satisfactory explanations for his unmet longings. More recently, however, he reflected about how meaningful it would be to hear a ‘higher power’ tell him that he is unique and worthwhile.
Of course these are only the beginning, baby steps. We have highlighted the ‘spiritual’, but we have not yet spoken of God. We have not called upon anyone to follow Jesus. But let’s not underestimate the significance of what has occurred. We have helped to stimulate movement in a direction. A friend has now set foot in the ‘fitting room’ if you will and has started to ‘try faith on’ for himself. A co-worker has started a journey and she can now receive further guidance and direction.
How can we lead and invite people into experiences that help them to discover they are spiritual? How can we learn to ‘stir souls’?
We have been developing and sharing our approaches for ‘stirring souls’ in several different contexts. We would love to share a few core principles with you. You may even find our Stir Course helpful in a church or youth ministry setting if the people you are building connections with are not yet interested in faith or are not asking questions about Jesus and Christianity. We put a high value on the normal, everyday interactions with our friends, neighbours, co-workers and classmates and want to offer practical help for how to keep conversations going as opposed to giving answers to questions these people are not asking.
We are excited to share what we have developed. But we have so much more to understand when it comes to overcoming the relevancy barrier. We desire to continue learning - and maybe even creating a few new things – together.
Will you continue forward with us as we learn to Stir?
Darin (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) lives with his family in Oxfordshire, England. With over twenty years experience in leading youth ministry and training youth workers, as well as developing and delivering degree-level modules in Theology, Mission and Youth Ministry, he now oversees Start to Stir.
Simmer and stir......I am simmering and I think of all the fear I hear being spoken around me. Because of fear, they are looking for, as Sue said, "safe places to be held". But of course, what is wanted is 'microwave' results not 'crock pot' meals that take a long time.....hmmmm simmering and stirring. Good to do! Thanks!
I do think the emotions underlying all the fear we see in others around us can be a helpful place to start. But as you hinted toward, it will still take a huge dose of the Spirit's work as well! We as humans want quick fixes rather than digging down to the roots of our fears and learning to depend on someone other than ourselves. Thanks Judy for joining the conversation!
Thank you for your articles. It feels very relevant to us in our context at the moment - a long term town wide youth ministry. We have so many great relationships with young people through the youth clubs/schools work I'm part of - everything is in place for them to take another step towards God if they wanted to... but there's no hunger - or seemingly no hunger for God. None of the young people ask us 'why do you do this?' like they used to in the past. The biggest thing I notice they want (by their behaviour) are safe relationships and belonging. They need safe places to be 'held.' I guess this is revealing something of their spiritual nature isn't it - but how do we help and encourage them to grow from this place and begin noticing this need for themselves? Really open to learning more. :)
And isn't this desire for safe relationships and belonging one of those bits of evidence that they have a soul and were designed for more than just "survival of the fittest?" In seeking how this can apply in our real life settings, I'm wondering if you can ask them why they think they even need to belong anywhere. Why do they need anything beyond just food, water, and shelter? It would probably raise an interesting discussion!
Thanks for being so honest, Sue! And thanks for learning along with us. Our heart just aches, doesn't it, for these young people! We do want to create safe and comfortable spaces for them to simply 'be'. But we know that God can give them so much more. We hope these articles will offer a few ideas of what we've found helpful. The next two articles get really practical.
These articles are "stirring" a need within me to discover how to reach people in our world today. You are absolutely right. It's not about whether the Gospel is true for people today, particularly young people. It's more about, "Why does it matter -- even if it is true?" I know I want to read and understand more. Thank you for filling this void!
This seems like such a small shift to make, Darin, but since we talked about it recently, I've gotten more sensitized to noticing evidence of spirituality. It's like a little alarm goes off when I'm watching a movie or hearing someone talking to someone else and I want to yell, "Hey, don't you realize that shows you are a spiritual being and you need something MORE?" We need to be stirred to stir and to be taught how. Thanks for all the hard work you've put in to get it to this point!