Brett Kunkle from Stand to Reason recently took me and 22 of my high school seniors, for an experience that was, in the eyes of many, irresponsible, risky and even dangerous. So, what did we do? We rented four Suburbans and went on a road trip to U.C. Berkeley—the top public university in the country known for being extremely liberal and radical—and invited leading atheists to make presentations to our group. The presenters included Mark Thomas, president of the Atheists of San Francisco, David Fitzgerald, president of the Atheists of Silicon Valley, as well as a former Episcopal priest who is now a homosexual activist and a non-religious group from U.C. Berkeley called SANE. (Students for a Non-Religious Ethos).
While I have been on many mission trips, spoken at many camps and retreats and been to quite a few conferences, this was by far the most significant ministry and educational experience I have ever had—period. The students absolutely loved every minute of it. They all agreed that the trip was eye opening, and quite a few even described it as the most significant experience of their lives.
Each speaker gave a 20- to 30-minute talk, followed by an hourlong Q&A. I sat in the back, allowing the students to do most of the interacting, interjecting when it was necessary to guide the discussion. While the presentations were insightful, it was the interaction that was most lively. In our preparation for the trip, I trained my students how to ask good questions and how to recognize logical fallacies. They did a great job of this! I was so proud to see them respectfully challenge some of the ideas they heard. They truly held their own.
You might be thinking: "Why would you expose your students to the ideas of atheists, homosexual activists and students who so strongly oppose Christianity? Aren't you afraid some may walk away from their faith?" I share this concern, at least to some degree. But on the other hand, it's only a matter of time before all young people are exposed to ideas of this sort. In an Internet age, we simply can't protect our young people from hearing worldly philosophies. Doesn't it make sense to expose kids to these ideas while I can still shepherd them? Isn't there wisdom in my modeling for them how to lovingly yet articulately dialogue with atheists, skeptics and other non-believers?
While there is a risk involved in taking such a trip, the benefits are substantially greater. In my view, if a student has a crisis of faith, then I wonder how solid of a faith that student had in the first place. It may be that an experience like this truly brings a kid's doubts, struggles and insecurities to the surface so we can really deal with them. And this happened on a couple occasions.
Reason No. 1: It's missional. There is a lot of talk right now about the importance of getting out of our safe Christian enclaves and reaching people on their turf. This is exactly what we did! Each of them commented that our students treated them kindly, asked good questions and were different from their typical experience with Christians. In our preparatory training, we really emphasized the importance of defending our beliefs with gentleness and respect, as Peter admonishes (1 Peter 3:15). And the speakers noticed it. In Western culture today, Christians are often criticized for being exclusive, closed-minded and intolerant. While this critique is plagued with philosophical problems (i.e. why is it tolerant to be intolerant toward Christians?), we wanted to demonstrate firsthand that Christians are open-minded. Interestingly, one of the student presenters from SANE argued that the skeptical way of life is non-dogmatic. I kindly pointed out that it was we—Christians—who were willing to come up to their turf and give them a platform to present their ideas.
Reason No. 2: It's dramatic. In his recent book "The Kingdom Triangle," philosopher J.P. Moreland demonstrates that as humans we are made for drama. This is why we love March Madness and why kids love video games and movies. This trip was full of drama—lively debates, engaging conversations and late-night discussions.
Reason No. 3: It's educational. As a teacher, I spend quite a bit of energy simply trying to convince my students that theology, philosophy and apologetics matter. But on this type of trip, when kids knew they were going to be personally challenged to defend their faith, their eagerness to learn was peaked. In fact, they were so engaged in the topics at hand that every time we got in the car or ate at any restaurant kids were engaged in deep discussions about the evidence for the Bible, the historical Jesus and intelligent design.
Reason No. 4: It's faith-building. As we all know, it's often during the trials and life-challenges that we grow most in life. This is why our trip was such a growing experience for so many of our students. They were challenged to ponder new ideas and reach deeper in their faith than ever before. As a result, they each grew significantly in their faith. One of the best growing periods was when we debriefed after each session. Students were able to recognize self-refuting statements and other logical fallacies made by the presenters. As we discussed the issues in more depth, their confidence in the Bible, creation and Jesus grew significantly.
Not a task for everybody
I would definitely caution anyone from impulsively jumping into a trip of this sort. I teach high school apologetics and was able to train my students for about five months beforehand. We also had additional training sessions at my house on a few evenings and attended a debate between Dinesh D'Souza, "What's so Great about Christianity," and Michael Shermer, of Skeptic Magazine. This is not a trip for the weak at heart. But those who are up to the task will find it life-changing.
McDowell is head of the Bible Department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools where he teaches philosophy, theology and apologetics. Among his published works is "GodQuest," a six-week DVD-based curriculum.
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