If you take a look around most student ministry series, conferences, and curriculum you’ll see one word that consistently pops off the page—“apologetics.” The teen years are full of questions, debates, and crises of faith. So naturally the defense of the faith is a common subject.
Apologetics are good and important; this is not meant to denigrate the field. But I think we’ve gotten the cart before the horse in student ministry. In our desire to answer every niche question we are missing opportunities to teach the big truths of our faith with clarity, which would filter down into the apologetic assurance we were seeking to begin with.
In the age of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and relentless public assault against the Christian worldview, students can easily become overwhelmed with a litany of questions about creation, the Old Testament law, gender, specific texts, moral failings of Christian leaders, and much more. We could conceivably spend every discipleship meeting and student gathering just addressing these questions. While this could be helpful to a point, we would really just be giving students a quick fix to problems that require much deeper thought. In student ministry, we must resist the temptation to defend the Christian faith with 1-minute soundbites. I think most student ministries would do better to focus on theology proper and church history, which would in turn produce students who know the faith they seek to defend.
In my experience, GenZ has a harder time with the morality of God than determining whether or not there is one. How do we reach the student whose burning question is not “does God exist?” but rather “is God good?” The answer is through theology proper. Theology proper is just the study of who God is. When we spend more time teaching about the Trinity, God’s attributes, and His work in the world, students naturally develop the instincts needed to handle other apologetic questions.
But teaching students theology proper is difficult. Topics like the Trinity, aseity, and transcendence cannot be adequately covered in a couple of lessons. To understand such deep and complex topics usually requires exposure over the course of months and years. As students begin to understand these topics, they provide categories that actually aid apologetic efforts by grounding answers in God’s nature, instead of treating each question as a horizontal talking point. I’ve never seen a student caught up in the beauty of the Godhead suddenly abandon their faith over a niche intellectual argument.
Now, many of my more apologetically minded youth workers may say this strategy is not a step away from apologetics, it’s a step from pop-apologetics to real, good apologetics. They may be right. Even so, I’d wager everyone could do with more meditation on God’s nature and work–while some could do with a bit less opportunity for conflict. Theology proper offers a win-win.
Much like theology proper, church history may not seem like the most invigorating topic for student ministry. After all, debating the age of the earth or talking through the newest celebrity deconstruction story might make for much easier marketing to get students in the room (and that does matter). But church history is one of the few tools that forces our students to look beyond their cultural moment and see the bigger picture of what God has done and will do through His people.
Church history teaches students that the controversies today do not represent existential threats to the faith. The church has weathered wars, theological debates, cultural upheavals, complete reformations, and consistent persecutions without collapsing or ceasing to exist. Knowing these stories helps students take what seem like world-changing conflicts and put them in proper perspective. The biggest issues facing the Church often change, shift, or even vanish. Knowing this helps students doubt their doubts and take more seriously their faith that has lasted throughout the ages.
Teaching church history also allows us to be honest with students about the past. GenZ is keenly aware of the sins of past generations; They notice every time Christians sweep our own dirty past under the rug out of ignorance or fear. Being open about our failures and flaws yet still telling God’s story will tear down apologetic barriers and situate them in God’s big story.
Theology proper and church history aren’t easy to teach—and they certainly aren’t quick or flashy—but they are worth it. As it turns out, if you’re a youth worker and you’re tackling theology and church history well—you’ll actually be doing great apologetics.
If you don’t feel equipped yourself in these areas, then invest in good books like Church History in Plain Language or The Story of Christianity. Consider also systematic theologies like Wayne Grudem’s, John Frame’s, or Millard Erickson’s. More than just reading, invest in solid seminary training. In fact, Phoenix Seminary has made all their Church History 1 and Old Testament 2 course lectures available free of charge.
Our students will face doubts and concerns regarding their faith. If we want them to defend the faith instead of walking away from it, we should ensure they really know what they’re trying to defend. Are you providing the easiest answers, or the right ones?
Will Standridge serves as the preteen and student pastor at Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He received his B.A. from Boyce College and M.Div. from SBTS. Will blogs frequently about student ministry philosophy. He is married to his high-school sweetheart, Kendyl.