Today’s Youth Need Our Help To Go … Beyond Belief
By Josh Mcdowell (With Bob Hostetler)
School shootings. Terrorist attacks. Dangerous “designer” drugs. Teen suicide pacts. It seems there is no end to the reasons to fear for our children’s safety and well-being.
But there are other fears, daily worries, and more imminent reasons for most parents to be frightened. What strikes fear into many parents’ hearts is the daily possibility their children will fall prey to the wrong crowd, succumb to cultural pressures, and make wrong choices that will bring pain and suffering to their lives. That fear is real. And it never goes away.
In today’s world, teens are likely to encounter more ethical and moral temptations, greater spiritual battles, and more emotional and relational struggles than any other generation in history. Young people’s exposure to sexual temptations, school violence, alcohol, illegal drugs, and many other dangerous influences threatens to undo what parents may try to teach them. Yet, while parents need to fear what their children could be tempted to do, they need to be more concerned with what their children are led to believe.
The way teens behave comes from something. Their attitudes and actions spring from their value system, and their value system is based on what they believe. Glen Schultz puts it this way: “At the foundation of a person’s life, we find his beliefs. These beliefs shape his values, and his values drive his actions.”1
In his book, Kingdom Education, Schultz uses the diagram below to illustrate this:
The Making Of An Individual2
The illustration shows a young person’s actions are just the tip of the iceberg. If parents are concerned their young people might make wrong choices that will bring them pain, it is shortsighted to merely try to mold or control what they do. It is better to instill right values in them, values based on solid biblical beliefs. Unless their actions are built on a solid foundation of biblical beliefs, parents can expect their children’s lives to reflect the pain and consequences of wrong choices.
What do they believe?
Today’s churched youth say religious beliefs are important to them, and the Bible is accurate. Eighty percent3 of children involved in evangelical churches agree religious beliefs are important to them, and 61 percent4 say the Bible is accurate. That is the good news. After all, this generation, more than past generations, seems far more open and vocal about their faith — even to the point of wearing their Christian witness on T-shirts and worshiping with passion. Research conducted by the Barna Group indicates, among Christian teens in evangelical churches, 80 percent believe God created the universe and God is personally involved in people’s lives (84 percent).
That is as far as most people see. Most parents, pastors, youth leaders, and Christian educators recognize a fervor and faith in teenagers that largely encourages them. Sure, teens have their problems, but they are okay. They believe in God. They are following Jesus Christ. They hold the same beliefs their parents cherish. Right?
Not so fast. Dig a little deeper. Their views about God probably do not differ much from those reported by Rob Rienow, a youth minister at Wheaton Bible Church: “Their answers were as individual as the children themselves. One thought God was like his grandfather: ‘He’s there, but I never see Him.’ Another took a harder view, describing ‘an evil being who wants to punish me all the time.’ Two more opinions followed. Finally, the last teen weighed in: ‘I think you’re all right, because that’s what you really believe.’ In other words, as Rienow relates it, God is whatever works for you. On this, all of the youth agreed.”5
“As individual as the teens themselves.” That is the general storyline. Though most teens in evangelical churches today say they believe in the God of the Bible, 63 percent also believe Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and all other people pray to the same god, even though they use different names for their god.6
Do all religions pray to the same god? An alarming 63 percent7 of teens think so, and 70 percent8 say there is no absolute moral truth. How do they determine what is right or wrong? Seventy-two percent9 say they can tell when something is right by whether or not it works in their lives.
Do teens believe Jesus rose from the grave? Do they think the devil and the Holy Spirit are real? Fifty-one percent do not believe in the resurrection of Christ, 65 percent do not think the devil is real, and 68 percent do not believe the Holy Spirit is a living entity.10
Though 87 percent of teens believe Jesus was a real person who came to earth, and 78 percent believe He was born to a virgin, nearly half (46 percent) believe He committed sins and more than half (51 percent) say He died, but did not rise from the dead.11
Why Beliefs Matter
Does it really make a difference what teens believe? We may prefer for them to have biblical beliefs, but what harm will come if they do not? Will it really change the way they think and act in the real world? Yes, and to an astounding degree.
Research consistently shows what a person believes translates into behavior. A major survey of more than 3,700 teens involved in evangelical churches reveals that, compared to teens who possess a solid, biblical belief system, young people who lack such basic biblical beliefs are:
- 225 percent more likely to be angry with life;
- 216 percent more likely to be resentful;
- 210 percent more likely to lack purpose in life; and
- 200 percent more likely to be disappointed in life.12
These findings confirm that beliefs create values, and those values result in certain attitudes. But as the pyramid illustration showed, beliefs shape values, and values drive actions. In other words, the things teens believe will result in specific behaviors.
This is why research has shown teens — otherwise good teenagers from good families — who do not possess a biblical belief system are:
- 36 percent more likely to lie to a friend;
- 48 percent more likely to cheat on an exam;
- 200 percent more likely to steal;
- 200 percent more likely to physically hurt someone;
- 300 percent more likely to use illegal drugs; and
- 600 percent more likely to attempt suicide.13
While this may be disturbing, it should not be a surprise. Beliefs matter because they form the values that determine people’s actions. What may be surprising is the best way to correct the distorted beliefs teens have about God and the truth of His Word.
Believing Is Not Enough
Now, you may be among the few parents who could say, “But, Josh, I am teaching my children right. We have family devotions. I take them to a solid church, and I even send them to a great Christian school. My children believe the right things. They will be able to stand strong against temptation and evil influences — right?”
My answer may sound like I am contradicting myself, but teaching teens to believe in the right things will not be enough to enable them to stand strong and make right choices in today’s culture.
This sounds contradictory. Beliefs do matter. If teens do not have solid biblical beliefs, they are 200 to 600 percent more likely to exhibit dangerous or destructive behaviors. So why isn’t the solution simply teaching our kids the right things to believe? How can believing the right things not be enough to hold teens steady when life’s trials and tests come their way?
The older generation’s concept of what it means to believe in something is probably different — radically different — from that of your teens. Influenced by postmodernism, many teens today find the inerrancy of the Bible hard to swallow. They are not convinced Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life for “all the children of the world.” Forty-eight percent believe it does not matter what religious faith one associates with because all teach the same principles and truth. Fifty-eight percent believe all religious faiths teach equally valid truth.14 The vast majority (65 percent) either believe or suspect there is “no way to tell which religion is true.”15
Christian teens are not rejecting Christianity as they know it; they have been influenced to redefine it according to their cultural setting. Teens are forming their own religious canon in a smorgasbord style. They have been led to believe it is better to construct a tailor-made faith that is right for them by choosing from various concepts of God and religion. They are being encouraged to piece their faith together themselves; that way it will be right for them personally, and will offend no one.
Newsweek reporter John Leland discovered, “Even more than their baby-boomer parents, teenagers often pick and choose what works for them. … As they sample from various faiths, students have become more accepting of each other’s beliefs, even when those beliefs are stringent. Clayton, a high-school junior, says he is known among his classmates as ‘the religious guy,’ but this does not make him the odd man out. Clayton, 17, an evangelical Christian, is one of a growing minority of teenagers who are vowing to defer sex until marriage. ‘There really is an atmosphere of whatever you think is okay,’ he says. ‘Just don’t tell me what to think. I’ll figure it out myself.’ ”16
Clayton’s stand for abstinence is encouraging. But his comments are less than reassuring because they reflect the culture’s encouragement to teens to figure it out themselves. What most are figuring out is a little truth here and a little error there until they end up with erroneous beliefs.
Thus, an entire generation of young people today believe truth is not true for them until they choose to believe it. They believe the act of believing makes things true. Once they believe, those things will be true for them only until they choose to believe something else. As soon as something more appealing comes along, they are likely to begin believing that — whether it is biblical or not.
Some time ago I was speaking at a denominational youth conference. The denomination had assembled their top young people at this conference. They were the cream of the crop — solid Christian teens. Because I was planning to speak the next day about the truth of the Bible, I went from one young person to another in the course of my address and asked, “Why do you believe the Bible to be true?” The teens did not have an answer.
The next day before the morning session a young man came running up to me and shouted, “I know the answer.”
He caught me off-guard. I was not sure what he was referring to, so I asked, “The answer to what?”
“To your question about why I believe the Bible is true.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s hear it.”
“Because I believe,” he answered with assurance. “Because I have faith.”
“You’re saying it’s true because you believe it?” I asked.
“Yes.” He could not have sounded more convinced.
I looked around at the teens that had gathered to listen. Many of them were smiling and nodding their heads in agreement, as though this young man had solved a great riddle, and what was once so puzzling now seemed obvious.
I asked him, “Does this mean the Bible would also be true for your neighbor or the kid down the street?”
“It would be if he believed it,” the boy responded.
I gazed at him for a few seconds. His answers saddened me deeply, but I knew he was typical of today’s teens. Finally, I said, “You know the basic difference between you and me?”
“What?” he asked, still smiling.
“To you,” I said, “the Bible is true because you believe it. I believe it because it is true.”
The Need For Convictions
Alarming as it may be, most young people today — even the brightest and best of them — agree with that young man. They believe the act of believing makes things true. They have accepted what I call “subjective believism,” a philosophical way of thinking that is reflected in the statement, “if you believe something is true for you, then believing makes it so.” Getting our children to believe the right things is not enough because believing is a thoroughly subjective exercise to them.
An entire generation of young people are being conditioned to believe truth is not true for them until they choose to believe it. And then, once they believe, the things they believe will be true for them only until they choose to believe something else. As soon as something more appealing to them comes along, they are likely to begin believing that whether it is biblically correct or not.
To believe in something is to “accept it as true, genuine, or real.”17 But as we have pointed out, teens are conditioned by today’s culture to believe nothing is objectively true, universally genuine, or real in an absolute sense. They think something is true, genuine, or real only when they accept it, subjectively, for themselves.
If teens are to stand strong in today’s culture, we must help them develop correct beliefs so deeply rooted no tempest can shake them, no storm can uproot them. They need more than personal opinions or lightly held suspicions. If teens are to withstand the pressures and temptations in today’s dangerous world, we must help them move beyond subjective believism … to firm convictions. They need to be so thoroughly convinced of what they believe they will take a stand for it regardless of the consequences.
The Facts Of The Matter
It is not enough to have convictions. The actions of terrorists and suicide bombers demonstrate it is possible to have deep, abiding convictions and still be tragically wrong.
That is why evidence is crucial to Christian convictions. Christianity is a verifiable faith based on clearly recognizable and accessible historical facts. To move teens beyond belief to conviction we must guide them through an examination of the evidences for what they believe. Only then will they be equipped with the conviction that Christianity is objectively true. But even that is not enough.
Deep convictions are built not only on what the mind believes, but also around what the heart has experienced. Christian faith is intended to be a personal experience; it should have a profound and relational meaning for each of our lives.
Most young people, however, do not understand how their faith can be meaningful in their everyday lives. They may have been told faith in Christ results in eternal life and involves a call to right living. But most teens see little correlation between what they believe (about God, truth, or the Bible) and their relationships with friends and family, or their future in life. But that presents a golden opportunity. We can demonstrate to teenagers not only what is objectively true about the Christian faith, but also how it can be relationally meaningful to their lives.
Therefore, our task is to present the Christian faith to young people in ways that demonstrate believing is an intelligent exercise of knowing what is objectively true and experiencing it relationally. When we do that, teens will begin to develop deep convictions that will make them strong, even in the face of today’s challenges.
The Road To Conviction
To begin the task of leading young people beyond belief to convictions:
Examine your own faith. Reading Beyond Belief to Convictions may cause you to realize you have not come to fully understand why you believe what you believe. If so, you are not alone; many Christian adults have not examined the facts and their meaning to the point of being able to explain their faith to others. But if adults are going to guide teens into deeper convictions, we must have deep convictions ourselves.
Encourage honest, open discussions with teens about the things they believe (be prepared for surprises); try to draw them out and get them talking. One must understand what teens believe before he can address it. Criticizing or correcting too soon will probably discourage openness.
Emphasize the personal nature of truth. Moral and spiritual truth is not merely abstract or philosophical; it is innately concrete because truth is a person. Truth is best understood as a “who,” not as a “what.” Try to relate discussions of right and wrong, true and false, to the loving person of Jesus Christ.
As much as possible, avoid teaching truth without application. Everything Scripture teaches teens to believe, to be, and to do contains one common thread: an intimate, real relationship with the one true God of the universe. When teaching a Bible story, for example, explore what the passage reveals about God’s loving desire for a relationship with His creation.
Explore with teens how their faith in God answers the fundamental questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Together, we can ground the next generation in deep, solid, biblical convictions that will enable them to live as “children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which [they] shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15).
BOB HOSTETLER is a writer and pastor from southwestern Ohio. His books include The New Tolerance (coauthored with Josh McDowell) and the new release, American Idols: The Worship of the American Dream. He and his wife Robin have two grown children.
1. Glen Schultz, Kingdom Education: God’s Plan for Educating Future Generations (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 1998), 39.
2. Ibid., 40.
3. George Barna, Third Millennium Teens: Research on the Minds, Hearts and Souls of America’s Teenagers (Ventura, Calif.: Barna Research Group, Ltd., 1999), 47.
4. Ibid., 52.
5. John Leland, “Searching for a Holy Spirit,” Newsweek, 8 May 2000, 61.
6. Barna, 48.
7. Ibid., 48.
8. Ibid., 44.
9. Ibid., 44.
10. Ibid., 51.
11. Ibid., 48.
12. Ibid., 65.
13. Ibid., 43.
14. Ibid., 51.
15. Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, Right From Wrong (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1994), 263.
16. Leland, 62.
17. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “believe.”