Preparing Young People for a Life of Faith

Is your church a safe place where youth can question, discuss, and debate controversial faith-science topics?

by Michael Tenneson

Is your church a safe place where youth can question, discuss, and debate controversial faith-science topics like origins and beginning and end of life issues? If not, then consider these tried and tested practical approaches.

By Michael Tenneson

About 30 percent of young people who grow up with a Christian background remain committed to their Christian faith through their 20s.1 David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, believes this low percentage is due in part to a failure of churches to teach young people to integrate their calling with faith and culture. He says less than 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds “have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests.”2

Although some suggest that college experiences cause church dropout, this does not seem to be the case. Rather, “the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect. It exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.”3

The Barna Group found six themes that help explain the ongoing youth-church disconnect: 1) churches seem overprotective, 2) youth have had shallow spiritual experiences, 3) churches come across as antagonistic to science, 4) experiences of young people related to sexuality are judgmental and simplistic, 5) youth wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity, and 6) the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.4 Some critics of the Barna Group’s conclusions quibble with the details. The majority of youth workers, however, agree that an alarming number of young people are distancing themselves from Christianity.

What is the solution to this disturbing trend? No single cure exists for the array of ailments outlined above. For young people to deepen their faith walk, churches must provide venues for supernatural encounters with God — especially including understanding and receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Contemporary apologetics experts like Sean McDowell and Lee Strobel posit that churches must incorporate both empirical and relational approaches to prepare young Christians for a life of faith beyond the youth group. Young people must have significant personal connections with Christian peers and mentors as they transition from the sheltered youth group environment to the real world. They must also be encouraged to adopt evidence-based approaches to examine the tenets of their faith.5 A strong mentoring relationship can provide the security needed for a young person to venture into the uncharted territory of critical examination of beliefs.

Based on my experience as a parent and science professor in this demographic group, I agree. Our youth are neither brand loyal nor are they interested in arguments from tradition or authority. They do not find convincing “this is the way we have always done it,” or “This is what our pastor believes.” Christian educators and pastors cannot expect our young constituents to accept what we teach out of loyalty or respect. We must provide them with persuasive evidence in a safe and nurturing environment.

I do not know if I learned more about apologetics from my children or my college students. I have been both a parent and a professor for about 25 years. My oldest son is strong-willed, creative, and bright. He never accepted “Because I told you so” as an explanation for why we need to believe or do things a particular way. His stubborn insistence on sensible justifications forced me to come up with rational, spiritually grounded supporting points for my faith claims. This journey has been transformative for me. Whereas my early theological instruction involved unquestioned obedience to the authoritative teaching of church leaders and the Scriptures, my son’s resistance to this approach helped me dig deeper and re-examine my own beliefs from an evidentiary perspective. As a result, my faith and confidence in my conclusions are more robust.

Unfortunately, we base some of what we teach as Christian ethos on a superficial reading of the Bible viewed through the foggy lenses of our own biases and presuppositions. Without question, the plain truths of Scripture have universal application to all people at all times. But we must read some biblical teachings through the contextual lens of appropriate hermeneutics to grasp what God was communicating to the original readers. Some teachings of Scripture are culturally bound. Appropriate dress, music, language, and other social conventions vary greatly among cultures. My son continues to chafe under a variety of cultural norms masquerading as “biblical truths.” Even during his rebellious years, he never questioned God’s existence. When he was ready to surrender control of his life to God, he already had a solid fundamental understanding of the Christian life. He was able to hold on to the truth of God’s existence and love for Him because of the convincing evidences learned in his youth. His mind was primed; all he needed was to submit his will.

During my first year of teaching biology at a Christian university, I faced a dilemma. In an ecology course I found that my students not only knew nothing of evolution and natural selection, but they had not even discussed it in any of their preliminary biology coursework. I was and am a creationist. I also knew that to understand the myriad ways that life adapts to its environment, serious students of ecology must understand, at least in principle, the theories of natural selection, microevolution, and macroevolution. This was the impetus for me to embark on a long journey of research into teaching methods to enhance critical thinking in college students. Even though some of my colleagues warned me to tread lightly in this volatile arena, I felt God would honor my efforts to dismantle barriers between science and faith. I just had to be cautious.

In the first paragraph I mentioned six faith-weakening themes identified by the Barna Group. One of them is the perceived antagonism of the church toward science. One quarter of our young people believe Christianity opposes science. Three out of 10 young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29 percent), a fourth (23 percent) are turned off by the creation-evolution debate, and 18 percent are disillusioned by the anti-intellectualism of Christianity.6

Youth leaders are not adequately addressing this dissatisfaction. Very few are inclined or equipped to discuss faith-science issues. Even though slightly more than half of youth group teens are interested in a science-related profession, only 1 percent of youth group leaders address science-related issues in their teaching.7 We need youth leaders to become better equipped to handle these topics.

About 10 years ago, my friend, chemistry professor Steve Badger, and I began collaborating on research into using critical thinking skills to teach about the very controversial topic of origins. We have read much, participated in numerous professional meetings, and tried out our ideas on many of our students. Our work has been well received.8 Anecdotal feedback from our students tells us that our approaches have helped them handle controversial topics without rancor. Here are several practical approaches based on our experiences. Although my expertise is in the science-faith dialogue, these suggestions would work equally well in other controversial teaching environments.

Opening Engagement

When you begin, explain your qualifications and goals. Your main qualifications are that you are a fellow truth-seeker and that you have some knowledge and experience to share. Take advantage of books or other materials to provide some structure to your teaching. This allows you to reference expert sources if you get in over your head. You can avoid arrogance by acknowledging that the main difference between you and your students is that you have been on this truth quest longer and have traveled farther down the path.

Reassure your students of your personal commitment to God and your tenacious commitment to biblical inspiration and inerrancy. A short biographical testimony of your salvation experience and some basic statements about the reliability of God’s Word are also useful. Work to be transparent and show your vulnerability by sharing some recent positive encounters with God and some challenges you are currently dealing with. These contact points help lower barriers. Your group will engage much more with the ideas you present if you have established rapport and gained their respect.

After making personal connections with your students, openly summarize your goals. I disclose that my goal is not indoctrination, but that I desire to help them hone their critical thinking abilities and evaluate the evidences for what they believe — from an unashamedly Christian perspective.

Next, I explain the need to make data-driven decisions, not emotional or careless ones. What are the “data”? They range from evidences from nature (science), to theories of truth (philosophy), to theories of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Many Christians are reluctant to embark on such explorations out of fear this will weaken their faith. Such fear is unwarranted since God promises to reward truth seekers (John 16:13).

I argue against simply accepting the viewpoint of some respected person. Each of us must be willing to ferret out the evidences for particular positions, and our evaluations need to be as objective as possible. All of this, of course, needs to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It is effective to disclose some details of my views on controversial topics to the group, but not all of them at the outset. When people ask me point blank what I think, I state my position, or I tell them I will answer that later. Whether you share this with the group or only with the one who asked depends on the circumstances. We want to prevent our students from bypassing critical analysis in favor of the easier route of adopting our viewpoints. We are trying to cultivate habits of critical examination, both of the evidences and of our own biases and presuppositions. This will not happen if we spoon-feed conclusions to our students.

A Safe Place

Youth leaders need to endeavor to make church and the youth group safe havens. Students need to feel free to question, discuss, and debate both core and peripheral ideas in safety. What can we do to accomplish this?

We cannot always avoid controversial issues. Even if we could, this is not helpful. The proverb, “As irons sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17), is apropos here. We gain insight through evaluating opposing viewpoints. Civil discourse and disagreement foster the greatest critical thinking gains. However, to keep a lid on emotional outbursts, I suggest the following ground rules for discussion.

Remind your students (and yourself) to adopt a nonconfrontational, nonadversarial approach. The other person is not the enemy (even if he or she is not a believer). Civil disagreement can yield fantastic gains in critical thinking skills as long as the participants do not take disagreement personally. Remind your students to avoid attributing motive to other people’s positions or statements. Reinforce the necessity of responding to statements and supporting evidences, not trying to figure out why the speaker holds a perspective.

Teach how harmful it is to misrepresent your opponent’s position. If you fall into this trap, not only will your credibility falter, but your integrity can take a hit too. This can cause severe setbacks in your efforts to garner trust and connectedness.

One way to get out of the line of fire is to avoid championing one view over another. Let the proponents of a position share its strengths, and then have the detractors present the weaknesses of that position. As facilitator, you must be careful to present strengths and weaknesses in a balanced manner. If you seem to be masking some weaknesses or overstating some strengths of your pet position, your credibility will suffer.

When discussions get heated, your job is to defuse emotions. Remind your pupils to monitor their speech volume and tone. You can sometimes lower tension with self-effacing humor. I also find it useful to take a time out and remind the group that we are all part of the same family, and that our shared beliefs and values are much more significant than on what we disagree. Timely interruption of a heated discussion with a review of our discussion ground rules will often serve to lower intense emotions. Frequent reminders that ad hominem attacks (attacks against the person, not the evidence) are forbidden go a long way to defuse a potential conflagration. Consider reminding the group that we are discussing some second-tier ideas. Remind them that it is okay to end our discussion with some uncertainty and disagreement if we do not find the evidence overwhelmingly convincing. This is not the same as avoiding conflict at all costs. Rather, it reinforces the process of critical thinking. That is, we need to base decisions on objective criteria (data) and not personalities or attributed motives. Sometimes we do not have enough data to arrive at positive conclusions.

What about disagreeable people? I recommend that you not ignore or shun them; rather, treat them with respect. However, you need to insist that they abide by the ground rules. You have the right to insist on civility and arguments based on evidence.


Regarding content, a good starting point is to define truth. In dealing with faith and science issues, I define truth as reality. Truth exists whether we believe in it or not. The following diagram helps me illustrate relationships between truth, belief, and knowledge.

Statements (or ideas or theories) are either true or false, and they can be believed or rejected. So, it is possible to incorrectly reject truth and to mistakenly believe in a falsehood. We need to do everything possible to avoid these errors. Our goal is to maximize the overlap between truth and belief. In other words, we want to accept as much truth as possible — while avoiding falsehood at the same time. We call the overlap of truth and belief knowledge. Knowledge is justified belief; it is a belief that we have reason to conclude is true.

We can feel secure embarking on this search for truth because Jesus tells us His mission was to testify to the truth (John 18:37). A search for truth is the same as a search for God. Whether studied in nature through appropriate tools of science or in the Scriptures using sound hermeneutics, our efforts will reveal God’s truths. We need to trust truths obtained from either source. This search can be tortuous. Sometimes we make wrong turns and hit dead ends. These mistakes do not originate in the physical universe (science’s purview) or in the inspired, inerrant Word of God (biblical theology’s home turf); they are produced by fallible human interpretations. This is why we must carefully evaluate how evidences support or refute our conclusions.


Presuppositions are beliefs we possess that affect how we think about a new idea. You could think of them as a grid of boxes. When we learn something new, we try to fit the novel idea into a box. If it does not fit, we often decide the new idea must be false, so we reject it. A more difficult approach is to consider whether or not we need to adjust our organizing grid. Is this new piece of evidence of such importance that I need to modify my grid? Or, is my grid so ingrained that I cannot consider as true anything that does not fit? All of us — pastors, theologians, scientists, professors, and young people — are prone to reject these nonconforming ideas out of hand. Instead, we need to consider the evidence for and against this new idea objectively. We need to base our acceptance or rejection on the weight of evidence, not whether we can shoehorn it into our grid. If we let them, our presuppositions can largely control our conclusions. If we do not challenge the presuppositions of the atheist, how could they ever come to a saving knowledge of Christ? If we are unwilling to model such paradigm shifts, how can we expect our youth to change their minds as a result of our teachings?

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

Science is uncertain. Someone said that the half-life of contemporary scientific explanations of genetics and molecular biology is approximately 5 years. That is, if you examine scientific journals on these topics that are 5 or more years old, about one-half of the propositions made at the time will now be shown to be false. It would be ill-informed to draw too strong a parallel to biblical hermeneutics, but linguistic and archeological advances do inform our biblical scholarship and, consequently, our theology.

The foundation of scientific enterprise is observation and hypothesis testing. Hypothesis testing involves the repeated examination of data and the subsequent acceptance, modification, or rejection of the tested hypothesis. It is second nature for scientists to adjust conclusions based on new evidence. In some areas of faith and science, such an attitude is warranted. As Christians, we are sometimes guilty of the criticism levied against us by our youth — that we are too certain that we have it all figured out (35 percent).9

My collaborator, Steve Badger, and I have found that students and educators at Assemblies of God colleges and universities hold diverse views on origins. Some are young earth creationists, others are old earth creationists, and still others are evolutionary creationists.10 We find that some respondents are not well-informed about their position, and almost a fourth of the respondents are undecided about which position they embrace. Some find this diversity unsettling. I do not. Holding opinions loosely on this topic may be healthy, at least until more data become available that can help us determine which of these views is the most credible.11

Do not fall into the trap of relativity (that any of a variety of explanations could be true, so it does not matter which one we adopt). As group facilitators, we must identify some nonnegotiables, or “hills to die on.” In the context of faith, science, and origins, these would be propositions like the Bible is inerrant and divinely inspired and the Creator-God of the Bible exists. Less certain propositions, for example, would be those that must be interpreted in context. Examples would be stars fixed in a “firmament” or the suggestion that the Scriptures explicitly reveal the age of the creation.

Importance of Definitions

Terminology is king in the arena of discussions about origins. Protagonists of the various viewpoints are adept at defining terms to suit their polemics. We need to take time to agree on definitions of significant terms. In the area of origins, these terms include theism, deism, atheism, Darwinism, evolution, microevolution, macroevolution, evolutionism, naturalism, and scientism. We need to admit that some terms have disputed definitions, and why.


It is time for church leaders to engage our youth in dialogue on controversial science topics like origins, beginning and end of life issues, and environmental stewardship. With the help of solid Christian writings on these topics, and the advice outlined above, every one of us can venture into meaningful engagements that can help keep our young people from falling away from the faith. Instead, they will “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). They will be able to integrate faith and other disciplines, including science, with the confidence grounded in a deep trust in God and sound critical thinking skills, within the safe, nurturing environment of our church and youth group.


1. The Barna Group, “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts." Accessed January 5, 2012.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. The Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” Accessed January 5, 2012.

5. Chris Norton, “Apologetics Makes a Comeback Among Youth,” Christianity Today 55 (August 31, 2011): 15.

6. The Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” Accessed January 5, 2012.

7. David Kinnamen and Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2011).

8. Mike Tenneson and Steve Badger, “Teaching Origins to Pentecostal Students,” in The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation, ed. Amos Yong (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Press, 2009).

9. The Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” Accessed January 5, 2012.

10. For a more thorough discussion of Pentecostals and evolution, see Steve Badger and Mike Tenneson, “Does the Spirit Create Through Evolutionary Processes? Pentecostals and Biological Evolution,” Science and the Spirit: Pentecostal Engagements, eds. James K.A. Smith and Amos Yong (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010).

11. Mike Tenneson and Steve Badger, “Teaching Origins to Pentecostal Students,” in The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation, ed. Amos Yong (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Press, 2009).