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Critical Thinking and Cultural Engagement for Passionate Disciples

I was fascinated and intrigued by the fact that in 2006, Time magazine’s invention of the year was YouTube. As I read more about the “magic” of YouTube, there were three significant things that peaked my attention. One was that YouTube allowed ordinary people to voice/broadcast their opinion in the midst of a culture where the “experts” dominate. The second thing was that YouTube allowed ordinary people to expose the clay feet of the experts. And thirdly, YouTube cultivated a community of creativity where members were able to express themselves authentically and in some cases, their authenticity made them more famous than the icons of pop culture.

And so it is with these three ideas in mind that I’d like to talk about passionate disciples and the characteristics of critical thinking and cultural engagement. Because it seems that in today’s youth ministry culture, we have become fairly comfortable with cultivating a type of discipleship where our students are “christian bubble believers” and their passion to be creative has been subdued by a prevailing “play it safe” attitude of today’s church-going generation.

I would like to raise four questions that speak to this foundation of passionate discipleship:

  1. How can we help our students think…both practically and theologically?

    Probably one of the failures of the education system today is that our students are coming out of school as “regurgitaters of data” instead of “problem-solving thinkers.” The church is not exonerated in this failure! With programs like AWANA (rote memory scripture memorization) and with bumper stickers that say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” we Christians show that we are happy to be members of a religion where content and head knowledge is more important than debate and thinking ability. So in light of this, it becomes important for us to be intentional in helping our students think. Our students do not necessarily need more moral lessons on how to act nicer in their school halls. Instead, they need an education and an approach to spiritual formation that helps them think critically both inside and outside the church.

    One example of this is the young earth vs old earth debate. Our students sometimes find themselves in two different worlds on this issue. In school, they are taught that the earth is four billion years old. In church, if they have a young-earth proponent for a teacher, they are taught that the earth is 7000 years old. So what is a Christian student to do? A student who is taught to be a thinker, can think and research through the issues and try to pull out the best from both worlds. The danger is that certain evangelical groups tend to make one view more “Christian” than the other. But in the realm of cultivating critical thinkers, it’s not a matter of labeling ideas Christian or Non-Christian – – it’s a matter of helping our students think through issues in a thoughtful, balanced and careful manner. There are so many other issues that need this kind of scrutiny – – things like environmentalism, fair trade, sexuality and social drinking are at the top of my list.
    The beauty of helping our students think critically is that it helps them in practical living as well. No longer do our students need to be won over by the latest commercials, internet schemes or silver-tongued car salespersons. Nor do we need to create a “do’s and don’t list” for our students to get along in the world. Instead they will be critical thinkers who carefully examine every artifact of their culture…including Christian culture.

    And now for a word about theological thinking. In church life we are too often programmed into believing that if we teach the right things, right choices will be made. There may be some merit to this idea but there is also much to be said about creating theological thinkers and providing opportunities for our students to think theologically rather than be caught up in the habit of making decisions according to logic, rationale and gut feelings.

    Part of our responsibility as youthworkers is to help students gain biblical knowledge and skills as they grow up in our congregations. On a practical level this means working with students and walking them through the process of applying the text of scripture to the text of their lives. When facing decisions in terms of life direction or ethical issues it is helpful to look at biblical models or examples. We must make an effort to remind students that to be a Christian means being a theological thinker. As one book puts it, “All Christians are theologians. It’s not that they were born that way or decided one day to go into theology. It’s a simple fact of Christian life: their faith makes them theologians, whether they know it or not, and it calls them to become the best theologians they can be.” (see Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically, page 1). As the church moves forward in this postmodern era, non-believers are not looking for cookie-cutter answers to pre-packaged problems. They are looking for people who have a meaningful faith and firm convictions – – people who will be able to offer stories of relevance and hope and yet be grounded in more than just self-help and spiritual “band-aids” (i.e. “Just let go and let God” or “You just have to have more faith and everything will get better”). The challenge for us as youthworkers is to be intentional about training students who will engage in deeper theological thinking. Though we may be tempted to be satisfied with just offering shallow phrases about the Christian faith, we must challenge students to consider the “work of theology,” which is a “matter of personalized, conversational thinking about shared convictions” in the Christian life.

  2. How can we help our students question, doubt and wrestle with their faith?
    One of the exciting things that I did during my most recent youth ministry position was to move from a place of “talking to” students to a place of “talking with” students. I attempted to be much more careful in letting them express their opinions and doubts about faith rather than making myself the Christian expert and telling them what was right and what was wrong. It was less about winning and equipping these students for the “truth war” and more about helping them “speak truth in love.” One of the unique places where this happened was when we started to talk about our faith and comparing our beliefs with other religious groups. In southern Alberta, Canada, one of the predominant religions is Mormonism. In my experience, whenever a Sunday school teacher or youth leader wanted to teach about the mormon religion, they would bring in a video or a guest teacher who talked about how they were once in the mormon religion but then became a part of the evangelical Christian church. This approach didn’t sit well with me and now that I was able to choose who would speak for the mormons I decided that I would talk to someone who was an active member of the mormon church. I had a good relationship with my mormon neighbor, so he and some local mormon missionaries agreed to come to our Sunday school class and one of our youth small groups to talk about their faith. The result was amazing! Not because either side won a debate or won converts to their religion. The result was amazing because these mormon believers were seen as real people who we could engage with in a healthy dialogue and both parties could talk, ask questions and then reflect on their faith journeys in a context that was safe and gracious. After these meetings with the mormons, I set up a visit from a Jehovah’s Witness church member and we were able to have another healthy dialogue about our religious beliefs. After every one of these meetings I was so pleased with the honest dialogue that continued and how the students were challenged to look deeper into what they believed and the “why” behind their faith journeys.

    I believe that these are practical ways that we can help our students wrestle with their faith issues. It is so easy for us to “bash the enemy” when it comes to issues of abortion, homosexuality, terrorism. But our “real life theology” is best developed in healthy dialogue where issues and positions have human faces and personalities attached to them.

    Helping our students wrestle with their faith is not just a matter of talking about other religions. It’s also being intentional about providing a safe place where students can dialogue about their doubts and questions. Today’s younger generation is no longer willing to accept the answer “because I told you so.” They are much more savvy in detecting frauds or questioning double standards. Thus dialogue is the preferred posture instead of argumentative debate. And conversation wins the day instead of confrontation.

  3. How can we help our students live out a faith that is authentic and passionate?
    Being authentic and passionate is nothing new in terms of an approach to the Christian faith. From Peter’s bold sermon in Acts 2:14ff where he couldn’t help but stand up and talk boldly about his faith to today’s examples of south Americans who courageously stand up for God’s justice in the midst of corruption we have a rich history of what it means to live out faith in a “turn the world upsidedown” manner.

    And yet in North American youth ministries, we’ve managed to make several of our youth groups holy huddles where students are protected and where mindsets are filled with cookie cutter answers to questions that are only asked inside the evangelical christian bubble. Our Christian bookstores are lined with titles like “Become a Better You,” “Roll Away Your Stone,” “Get out of that Pit,” and “The House that Cleans Itself” and we wonder why our students are happy to settle for the suburban Christian life of ease instead of a messy and mysterious life of following Jesus.

    Part of the answer in cultivating a life of authenticity and passion is challenging students to walk by faith and not by fear. Our 80’s and 90’s north American church culture has trained us well in making us feel safe with our “Evidence that demands a Verdict” apologetics books and our seeker-sensitive “feel good” evangelicalism. But this comfortable culture has not allowed us to step up and step out in faith. We are meeting our church budgets and we are paying our church staff but our impact and engagement with the real world around is minimal. The challenge that lays ahead of us as we disciple this next generation of believers is to unleash young people to make their Christian faith authentic and to give them something passionate to share about and live out as they follow Christ. This is not a matter of continuing Friday night youth group gatherings and Sunday night bowling marathons. This is a matter of inviting students to a life of passionate discipleship – – where lives are transformed by the power of the living Christ and the message of the gospel and where disciples then take up their cross and walk with others through the muck and mire of life, faith, failure and heartache.

    It’s attempting to live out the ways of the sermon on the mount. Losing your life and finding it. Humbling yourself and receiving a peek into the Kingdom of God. Giving outrageously and not being controlled by possessions or position. There’s a book that was recently released called “The Year of Living Biblically.” I would like to recommend that our youth ministries begin living Biblically, but not based on the Law of the Old Testament, but by building our lives on this new way that Jesus taught us in the Beatitudes. Shane Claibourne has captured a glimpse of this in his book “Irresistable Revolution.” Oh that we would stop, pray and reflect on how to live this way in the midst of our youth groups and church communities. Then, we might be able to catch a fuller flavour of what it means for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Lord help us! I appreciate how Henri Nouwen talks about this way of faith without fear:
    “Do not be afraid, have no fear,” is the voice we most need to hear….Why is there no reason to fear any longer? Jesus himself answers this question succinctly when he approaches his frightened disciples walking of the lake: “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:21). The house of love is the house of Christ, the place where we can think, speak, and act in the way of God – – not in the way of a fear-filled world. From this house the voice of love keeps calling out: “Do not be afraid…come and follow me…see where I live…go out and preach the good news…the kingdom of God is close at hand…there are many rooms in my Father’s house. Come…take for your heritage the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world….Jesus offers us this house right in the midst of our anxious world.” (see Henri Nouwen’s book Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. P. 21-22)

  4. How can we help our students run towards culture rather than run away from it?
    As we live out this life of faith we will no longer be able to retreat into our Christian subcultures. Youth groups that listen to Christian music only will become a thing of the past. Expecting students to attend Christian school, read Christian novels and then dine in Christian-owned eating establishments will not be the way of cultivating a kind of discipleship that engages with the real world. Instead our students will embrace the culture that they are immersed in and learn how to be salt and light in the midst of a world that is often tasteless and dark.

    With all the change that abounds in our society these are challenging times to be raising up younger disciples in the faith. These are not necessarily easy times and gone are the days of the “neat and tidy” Christian youth group. The demands are diverse and the range of experiences that students bring to the milieu are varied but a messy, spiritual adventure awaits us. Are we up for the task? May God grant us courage to keep on moving forward – – helping young people follow Jesus passionately in the midst of a world that bullies them into living a life of fear and trembling.


  1. How have you helped your students learn to think for themselves rather than simply “spoon feed” them Christian morality and content. Listen to Derek Webb’s song called “A New Law.” It’ll make you think twice about how we are helping our students to think…or not!
  2. Are your students wrestling with their faith? Does your youth ministry or church environment provide a place for young believers to doubt and ask the hard questions
  3. Who are the students in your youth group who live with the most authenticity and passion? Who are the people in your church who live with the most authenticity and passion? What makes them this way? Perhaps you can have them share their life story at one of your gatherings.
  4. When a student graduates from your youth ministry what do you want them to “look” life…or better yet… “live” like? Try to make your answer less about a checklist and more like a human being.

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Critical Thinking and Cultural Engage...

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