I’ve written repeatedly about why the Church needs to stop teaching students about their faith. Young Christians are leaving the Church in tremendous numbers during their college years, and our efforts to teach them has been incapable of reducing this rate of attrition. That’s why it’s time to stop teaching students and start training them. There’s a difference between teaching and training. Teaching is about imparting knowledge; training is about preparing for battle. As I explain this principle around the country, I use the acronym, T.R.A.I.N. to help people understand the conceptual difference:
T – Test
Challenge students to expose their weaknesses.
R – Require
Expect more from students than we sometimes think they can handle
A – Arm
Provide students with the truth and teach them how to articulate it
I – Involve
Deploy students to the battlefield of ideas
N – Nurture
Tend to students’ wounds and model the nature of Jesus
This week I’m going to briefly describe each step in this process. You may be thinking, “Hey this youth ministry stuff doesn’t really apply to me.” You’re wrong. I think the problem facing young Christians in our culture is indicative of the problem facing all of us as Christians. If we hope to become better Christian Case Makers so we can influence the culture and respond obediently to the command of God (1 Peter 3:15-16), we’ve got to rethink our approach to knowledge and Christian education. So let’s examine the TRAIN paradigm and see what it can provide. We’ll start today with TESTing.
Whenever I work with a youth group for an extended period of time, I begin with a test. This accomplishes two goals. First, it helps me see where specific weaknesses may be so I can focus my efforts. But more importantly, testing helps students understand how much they need to be trained. My experience as a police officer has helped me to understand why this is so important. We have a bar in our city that is a constant source of fights and disturbances. Officers are continually called to the location to handle difficult problems. It’s a perfect place to test new officers. When I was on training, I knew my field training officer (FTO) was going to volunteer our unit for any call that was dispatched to this bar, because he wanted to see if I could handle myself in tough situations. At some point, every new officer has to be tested to see if he or she can do the job; this bar became the perfect test location. Sometimes I held my own, sometimes I didn’t. After a scuffle in which I didn’t fare as well as I would have liked, I understood my need for improvement and started training as a fighter and wrestler. I was determined to do better next time. The test exposed my weakness and encouraged me to train.
That’s why I start by testing Christian students with role-playing. If at all possible, I try to have the host pastor introduce me as an atheist and give me two hours with the group during the first training session. In this first meeting, I present the case against theism calmly (but unflinchingly) to see if the students can make a case for what they believe. Sadly, they are usually unable to hold their own. These first sessions are nerve wracking for students who struggle to respond to my claims and begin to anxiously squirm under the weight of dozens of unanswered objections. They don’t fare well in this bar fight. When it’s over and I finally reveal I am actually a Christian who has come to help train them, the relief in the room is palpable. They are delighted to see I am a Christian (even though I am obviously aware of the many atheistic objections we face), and they are ready and eager to train. Like young officers, there’s a time when every Christian student must be tested. We can either seize the opportunity to test in the setting of our youth ministries, or we can pass on the opportunity and allow the first test to take place in college (when we aren’t available to our students). It’s our choice.
If you want to make a difference in the lives of Christian students (including your own children), stop teaching them and start training them. Begin the process with a test, and continue through the steps we’ll be talking about here on the blog this week. We can impact the character and durability of our young Christians, but we’re going to have to be intentional trainers to get the job done.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.