Two Simple Shifts for Teaching Apologetics in Youth Ministry

Early in my youth ministry career, I was teaching on the flood account in Genesis 6-9. It was your typical Wednesday night mini “sermon.” I taught the text, made my points, had some illustrations, and closed it out. Frankly, I was feeling good about it! I had just delivered a message that was sure to change all of our student’s lives. They would tell stories to their kids one day of the brilliant work of their youth minister! 

Well, it turns out this wasn’t the case. Reality became clear to me when a middle school girl walked up to me after the lesson. She was very clearly troubled by something. After some prying, she eventually asked me the question that was on her mind. “How could God kill all those people?” What came out of my mouth was less of an answer and more of a “uhhhhhhh.” I had nothing ready to say, and I hadn’t even considered the question in my teaching preparation! 

The truth was, I had spent much time preparing a message on what the text meant, but I had never stopped to think about the potential stumbling blocks that lay waiting for my students. From that experience, I learned quickly that apologetics (defending the faith) would be a necessary part of doing youth ministry. Those of us who who are familiar with Scripture can tend to mentally bypass some of the more challenging aspects of a text. For many of our students though, this is not the case. I knew that my ministry needed to be shaped for the students’ benefit.

So I began reading everything about apologetics that I could get my hands on. I desperately wanted to teach my students, but didn’t know how. My initial thoughts were to do an apologetics series—to take three or four weeks and use our teaching time to cover a different apologetics topic each week. This is a wonderful idea, and could be really helpful. But I can already hear the objections. “Are you saying we have to skip teaching the Word in order to incorporate apologetics? If that’s the case then NO THANK YOU.” This is fair pushback.

I’ve come to learn that apologetics and Bible Study don’t have to be mutually exclusive in youth ministry. Instead of being oil and water, these two teaching models can serve each other in mutually beneficial ways. Here are two ways you can easily incorporate apologetics into your youth ministry’s regular Bible teaching.

1. Anticipating Apologetics 

My favorite teachers in high school could read my mind. No, I did not go to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, so my teachers could not actually look inside my mind. But my favorite teachers always seemed to know what I was thinking! The best ones answered my questions before I had the chance to ask them. 

When we teach the Bible to our youth group students, we should try to anticipate potential apologetics-related concerns they might have. These include questions like: Can I trust the Bible? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Don’t these two passages contradict each other? and many more. Once we have anticipated some of the potential concerns in the text we plan to teach, we can address these questions as we present the passage. Doing so not only serves to incorporate apologetics into our teaching, but it will also help our students engage more on the whole. Students who know you care about their concerns will be more inclined to care about what you teach.

We can see both Jesus and Paul answering people’s questions as part of their teaching ministries. In Matthew 22:15-22 we get an interesting story about the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus. They want to catch him in a position where he cannot answer their question. The Pharisees ask him in verse 17, “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus anticipates their line of reasoning, and he cuts them off. Jesus sees where they are heading, and he responds before they can get there. Paul does this in his writings as well. We find this in Romans 6:1-2 when Paul anticipates an objection to his teachings on grace and justification: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Anticipating questions that students may have will help you develop a more robust teaching of the text, and it will also help your students to grow in their faith as they learn to think critically about the text. Instead of being sent into a tailspin when they hear someone on TikTok attack the faith, our students will have experience with thinking through objections to Christianity and how a Christian can respond to them. 

Imagine what it would be like if our students had a consistent model of their youth minister acknowledging difficult questions, working through well-thought-out responses, and displaying faith throughout the process. This teaching style empowers our students to take a breath and to think through the objection. We can assure them that even if they can’t figure out the biblical response themselves, it’s likely others have thought about it before. What a benefit to our students we can provide when we demonstrate what it looks like to face a challenge in the text of Scripture with clarity, thoughtfulness, and faith. 

2. Cultivating a Welcoming Environment

Youth group is not a corporate Sunday morning church service. So, the youth ministry teaching time should never be considered simply a chance for the youth minister to practice preaching. And thankfully, teaching the Bible at youth group doesn’t have to be strictly monologic. This realization gives us so much freedom to explore the best avenues for delivering biblical teaching to our students! Our goal in teaching in youth ministry is always to disciple our students toward a lifelong faith in Jesus. One of the ways we can achieve this goal is to cultivate an environment that invites students to ask questions. A truly welcoming environment is one where students feel safe to ask about what is on their minds. 

In my experience in both the classroom and in youth ministry, teenagers will only continue to ask questions when two criteria are met: 1.) they are explicitly encouraged to do so, and 2.) when they do speak up, we affirm—rather than shut down—their questions. This isn’t to say we affirm the thing they are questioning; instead, we affirm the act of asking the question itself. Asking a question in front of their peers, especially a vulnerable question, is terrifying for many of our students. It takes real boldness. When our students demonstrate courage, we as youth workers want to affirm the student’s decision to ask. Simple phrases like, “great question,” “oh that’s interesting,” and “thank you for asking, let’s look into that” can be the difference between a student’s allowing you in to help him process and a student’s choice to shut you out. 

For many of us, I imagine the prospect of answering students’ questions can sound daunting. What if students ask a bunch of questions for which you don’t have answers? What if students ask questions that are generally unhelpful? The truth is, that’s okay! More than just okay, this will happen. Your students will ask you questions that will stump you! Also, your students will end up asking you some questions that may take the discussion off on a tangent. These things are okay. 

We don’t have any examples in Scripture of the apostles holding a Q&A session. Thankfully though, we do have instruction from Paul to “test everything; hold fast what is good” in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. By encouraging our students to and providing a space for our students to ask questions regularly, we can show them how to test everything and allow them a safe place in which to practice.

Creating a welcoming environment helps your teaching become clearer. We youth pastors spend a lot of time trying to make our teaching as clear as possible. Despite this, we must be honest and admit that sometimes we miss the mark of clarity. I can’t even count how many times I have said something I thought was exceedingly clear only to be met with confused faces from my students. Engaging teenagers’ questions has a clarifying effect. Second, a welcoming environment encourages our students to engage the text with reason. It gives our students space to consider together how something works. 

If you want to incorporate apologetics into your youth ministry but you’re nervous or scared, here’s some encouragement: You will do apologetics imperfectly. We are all still learning. We all encounter questions we don’t have responses for. Sometimes we give unhelpful answers and have to circle back to clarify, or even to ask our students to forgive us for our clumsy answers. But in the midst of our continual learning, what a joy it is to know and to teach our students that in Jesus we have the answer to all of our questions. Even if we can’t see the answers clearly in the here and now, one day all questions will fade in the light his glorious face.

If you’re looking for resources to help you faithfully teach the Bible to teenagers, Rooted offers Bible-based curriculum. Visit Rooted Reservoir to learn more.

Bradley is a middle and high school math teacher at Jubilee Academy in Louisville, KY. He lives there with his wife, Carol, and son, Upton. He received an MA in Apologetics and an MA in Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is currently a PhD student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary studying Philosophy.

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