Ministering to the Hearts of Skeptical Teenagers

One of my college theology professors forever changed how I approach non-believers when he told our class about his interactions with skeptics at his local YMCA. After his regular workout, he’d hang around to relax and recover. More important, he’d make himself available to share the gospel with anyone God might bring his way. 

This godly man recounted some of the stories among the hundreds of conversations he’d had with non-believers. I remember being inspired to do something similar one-day. But I felt wholly incompetent at the time because of my lack of Bible knowledge. I believed God gave Professor Jones these opportunities to preach the gospel to strangers because he had all the answers a skeptic could possibly want. My resolute take-away from his stories that night was to learn as much as I could so that I could be ready to give an answer that would win someone to Jesus.

Skeptics Need Us to Aim for the Heart 

The advice our professor gave us that night was the complete opposite of what I expected. I thought the answer was more knowledge and rhetorical skills. But over the many years and hundreds of conversations Professor Jones had with skeptics and non-believers concerning faith, he had heard just about every question under the sun that could keep someone from saving faith in Jesus. He would often ask people, “If I answer your question that’s keeping you from saving faith in Jesus to a satisfactory level, will you in that moment give your life to Jesus and submit to him as Lord of your life?” 

I was sure at least one or a handful of people had said ‘yes’ to his question. After all, isn’t that what skeptics need? Proof? Answers that satisfy the searching in their restless minds?

As it turns out, not one person had ever said “yes” to Professor Jones’ question. He concluded by telling us that the unbelief of skeptics is not ultimately a matter of the head, but of the heart. Our professor reminded us that no amount of knowledge can change a heart. Only God through faith in Jesus Christ and the gospel can do that. 

James K.A. Smith writes that what we know is even secondary to Jesus: “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”1 Smith contends that we don’t always love what we claim to worship, but we will always worship what we love. 

What skeptics really need, then, is a renewed and transformed heart. 

Tools for Engaging Skeptical Teenagers

So, where do you start when you’re meeting with a skeptical or previously unchurched teenager in your youth ministry? Forget the head knowledge and systematic theology. Focus on the heart. Focus on the person, the image-bearer with whom God has allowed you an audience. 

James, the brother of Jesus who was a skeptic himself that came to saving faith in Jesus after the resurrection (not many of us would believe our sibling if they told us they were the Son of God!) offers some of the best advice for us today “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV).

Listen before you seek to answer their questions.

Our students don’t care what you know about anything, let alone about Jesus or matters of faith, until they know we care about them personally. Be careful and discerning with your words, heeding the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 5:2-3 “Do not be quick with your mouth… let your words be few… and many words mark the speech of a fool.” 

Be patient.

We shouldn’t be surprised when skeptics or non-believers in our youth ministries say some things about Jesus that anger or frustrate us. After all, the Apostle Paul told us a long time ago “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18). Count this teenager’s willingness to hear what you have to say as the victory. God will do the transforming, all you have to do is pursue him or her personally, with loving perseverance. 

Give thanks for the opportunity to tell a skeptic or non-believer about Jesus.

As God brings students who are not yet following him into your sphere of influence, seek to listen with love. Choose your words carefully. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you refrain from being frustrated. Rather, give thanks that God has brought this teenager into your life. Pray that God will change his or her heart

Above all, lean on Jesus and on the message of the gospel.

No answer you’re able to give will change a teenager’s heart. The Apostle Paul was a pretty smart dude, but even he said “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16, emphasis added). The only thing that will bring a skeptical teenager to saving faith in Jesus is God’s own resurrecting power and his gospel. 

We know we can’t change the hearts of the students in our ministries. So the best place to start in our conversations of faith with skeptics and non-believers is our hearts. In your time with the Lord, retreat into prayer. Saturate your own mind with the truth of the gospel daily. After all, isn’t that where we want a skeptic or non-believer to end up? 

If we are not leaning on Jesus and the gospel regularly—if our own love for God and his Word aren’t obvious—how can we expect students to want what we have? My senior pastor often asks this question to people who are becoming members in our church “who’s someone that makes faith attractive to you? Who’s the person you see living their faith out that makes you say that’s the kind of relationship with Jesus I want?” 

Begin With Your Own Heart

I know for certain that what makes that person’s faith attractive is that he or she loves Jesus wholeheartedly. If you want the skeptical or unbelieving teenagers in your ministry to love Jesus with all their hearts… Show them your love for Jesus first, then answer questions as they come.

Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist specializing in the field of trauma, has come across many skeptics as she confronts the worst of sin and trauma this side of heaven. I have found great comfort in her advice as I consider how to approach non-believers in my life and ministry:

“Our task is no less than living out before them the character of God himself. Early in my work with survivors I longed for a woman who had been chronically abused to truly know the love of God. I tried telling her about it but realized that she was only politely listening. I clearly remember getting down on my knees before God and begging him to help her see what she so desperately needed to see–that he loved her.

“What I heard back from God was -You want her to know how much I love her? Then you go love her in a way that demonstrates that. You want her to know that I am trustworthy and safe? Then you go be trustworthy and safe,” Demonstrate in the flesh the character of God over time so that, who you are reveals God to the survivor.

“If you want the survivor [or in our case, skeptics/non-believers] to understand that God is a refuge, then be one for her. If you want her to grasp the faithfulness of God, Then be faithful to her. If you want her to understand the truthfulness of God, then never lie to her. If you want her to understand the infinite patience of God, then be patient with her. And where you are not a refuge, or are tired of being faithful, or are fudging in your answers or growing impatient with the necessary repetition, then get down on your knees and ask God to give you more of himself so that you might represent him well.”

Youth minister, God has given you everything you need to point skeptical teenagers to his grace in Jesus. He has given you his Son, the power of his Spirit, and his gospel of grace. All God asks of you is to walk in obedience as he changes lives and hearts.

1 Smith, James K. A, 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, p. 2.

2 Langberg, Diane, 2015. Suffering and the Heart of God : How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, pp. 96-97.

Looking for practical support and coaching as you serve teenagers and their families? A new session of Rooted’s gospel-centered mentoring programs begin in January.

Arek is a CA native who currently serves as an ordained high school and young adult youth pastor at Hillside Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI where he lives with his wife Jamie and daughter Kaia. Arek holds an M. Div. from Western Theological Seminary, but is still just a big kid at heart. Arek loves spending time with family and friends and will talk to you about football, specifically the Raiders, for hours if you want to.

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