My passion has always been youth. Ever since my days as a youth pastor in the local church, I've sought out ways to more effectively reach students and offer them serious teaching and discipleship. That's why I started and developed Stand to Reason's apologetics mission trip to Berkeley and our theological mission trip to Utah. Of course, those trips require some serious effort. There are lectures, reading, studying, tests, and more, and that's before we ever go on the trip. Then there's the actual trip, with engagements with atheists, agnostics, skeptics, Mormons, and anyone else we can throw at the students, all day long. But most Christian kids won't have the opportunity or the maturity to attend a mission trip like this, so I've thought a lot about the best way to reach larger numbers of students. How do we get that typical evangelical student, who is sitting in our youth groups week in and week out, exposure to deeper teaching in apologetics and theology?
Three years ago, we tried out one of my ideas: an apologetics conference specifically designed for youth. I called it the reTHINK Conference, and our tagline was, "Stand to Reason Student Impact exists to provoke a new generation to rethink their worldview, recapture the truth, and then reengage the world for the cause of Christ." We had about 400 students, youth workers, and parents attend that first conference, and we were ecstatic. We did it again in 2013 and more than 600 showed up. Last year about 1,100 came out, and last weekend 1,500 people (most of them students) came out for our fourth annual reTHINK Student Apologetics Conference in Southern California. We've clearly seen the success and impact of this conference on the lives of young people. But why? What has made reTHINK successful? Of course, it's ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, but what have we done on our end to facilitate God's work? Here are a few thoughts that might help you as you try to reach your own young people:
(1) Our communicators must be able to connect with youth. This is absolutely key. Kids don't care much about your Ph.Ds, the books you've written, or your scholarly accomplishments. They're not going to listen to you simply because of your credentials. If you don't grab them in your talk in the first few minutes and then hold them throughout, they'll tune out. Unfortunately, that's just the reality of modern youth. So we bring in speakers who can speak to youth exceptionally well. Not only are they humorous, not only do they tell good stories, not only do they illustrate well, they also don't dumb down the truth, while still making it accessible to young minds.
(2) Our conference must be filled with fun and laughter. I'm tired of apologetics being saddled with a reputation for being stodgy, always serious, angry, argumentative, somber, etc. Yes, we want to be serious about God's truth, and our speakers do a great job with that. However, we want to model a Christian life that is filled with joy and laughter. So we intentionally plan for it. For example, as the MC, I do not get up and introduce the speakers by reading through their list of accomplishments. Instead, we joke around, tease each other, or even play a little competitive game to get the audience laughing. In the process, the speakers are introduced in a more personal way, making them more relatable. Indeed, I had many attendees applaud us for the humor and laughter. Who thought you could laugh so much at an apologetics conference?!
(3) Our content must be focused on worldview, apologetics, and theology. The content of most youth teaching and curriculum can be summed up in two phrases: love Jesus and be good. Sadly, that's about as much depth as they go into. We make sure students are being exposed to the evidence for Christianity, that they see life Christianly, and that they come to understand the great theological truths about our great God. And we've seen students rise to the occasion, telling us how much they learn and grow at each conference.
So those are some of the things we do to tailor this conference for youth, and it seems like God is using it to reach them. This was some of the best feedback we received this weekend, from a dad: "The quality of every aspect of the event that my son and I experienced was awesome. The topics were engaging, relevant and diverse. As the dad of a 17 year old boy, I can't tell you how satisfying it was to hear him say the very best part of his week was going to reTHINK. Thanks for putting together such a powerful event that I know strengthened both mine and my son's faith. You guys killed it!"
We're taking this show on the road too, hosting our first reTHINK Conference in Dallas on October 23-24. Come join us!