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Ministering to Youth in a Changing Culture

Interview With Josh McDowell

Josh McDowell, a noted author and youth specialist, has traveled in Campus Crusade for Christ ministry 30 years addressing young people’s needs and problems. Here he answers Enrichment staff questions on how the church can better minister to youth in a culture of changing trends and absolutes.

How would you characterize the transformation of American youth over the last 30 years?

The transformation is twofold: It has gone from (1) concern for problems of the world to concern for problems of the individual and (2) from decision making based upon biblical moral absolutes of right and wrong to decision making based upon the situation—situation ethics, cultural relativism. You decide whether it is right or wrong for you but do not impose or share your values with others. This shift from objective truth, that there is truth outside of self, is determined from within—one’s feelings.

Tolerance has become the number one virtue in America. A transformation in our kids’ minds has occurred—from "you love the sinner but hate the sin" (negative tolerance) to "you love the sinner and will praise and respect the sin" (positive tolerance), which teaches that every belief, value, lifestyle, and truth claim is equal.

For example, I make the statement, "Jesus Christ is the Son of God." Tolerance says, "I believe Ronald McDonald is the son of God. Look at all the good—the hospitals and children’s homes—he has provided." Under the constitution we both have an equal right to hold these beliefs. Under tolerance both are equal. And if you dare say that the claims of Jesus Christ are greater than those about Ronald McDonald, you are a bigot because you are saying there’s hierarchy. And so our kids have shifted from negative tolerance to positive tolerance, and all is equal.

With our youth there has also been a shift over the last 30 years from theology’s being theocentric to anthropocentric. In other words, our actions have changed from being centered on God to being centered on man. And that’s a major thrust.

Is the world going to shift?

The world has already shifted—a total paradigm shift of truth culturally. We are going through the fastest cultural change in history called tolerance. People say America won’t stand for this. The Republicans have been elected, and the conservatives and rural America will rise up.

No they won’t. This is the first time for a cultural shift based upon a paradigm shift of truth. Show me where it has ever been reversed before—the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Darwinism, Tolerance. No. This is what pastors and denominational leaders are missing. The cultural change is based upon a shift of truth—from objective truth to cultural relativism. We see this in the very large percentage of churched youth who are living legalism. They are not led of the Spirit—and three-fourths of the parents.


Several reasons: (1) Many parents today are products of the fifties and sixties. They are still hooked into the attitudes of that era, and the seminaries have not corrected that through their pastors. (2) We have taught the Scriptures as precepts without moral authority. For example, I ask kids, "Do you believe lying is wrong?" Most say, "Yes." When I ask, "Why is lying wrong?" They say, "Oh, that’s a tough one." Their ethical and moral behavior, discerning right from wrong, is based upon a precept, a commandment.

What kinds of problems does that lead to?

All a precept or a commandment does is to declare something to be wrong. There is no moral authority to establish that it is right or wrong. All our kids have to stand on basically in a cultural, relativistic society and individual relativism is a precept, "Thou shalt not," with no moral authority. Until they know why the Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit sexual immorality, thou shalt not lie," they are living legalism.

The moral authority for the Ten Commandments is the person and character of God, but kids in our finest churches don’t know that. The great majority of them do not understand the ethical and moral reasons for right and wrong, and there is a fear they are going to fall. And they are—our finest kids.

Another problem is anger. Three years ago I brought 42 leaders (one was from the Assemblies of God) together for 3 days to study youth culture and to launch the Right from Wrong Campaign. These leaders said the number two problem we face and need help with is a deep, raging anger among our evangelical, fundamental kids.

I was recently in Akron, Ohio, and a secular station called and said eight Christian kids were there for a popular program. They asked if the kids could interview me for 30 minutes live at the most popular time kids listen. I agreed to the interview. Their second question was, "Why do we have so much anger?"

Our kids are angry—scared, don’t know how to discern right from wrong—and are making wrong choices thinking they are making right choices. For example, the study we did showed that of all the kids (3,795 from 13 denominations—the cream of the crop), 82 percent had been in church, Sunday school, and youth meetings every week during the previous 3 months. Concerning premarital sex, 46 percent said "love made it right." Of those who had ever been involved sexually, which is 50 percent, 77 percent said, "If you love someone, it makes sex right outside of marriage." Thus they are making wrong choices believing they are making right choices.

Until the kids can answer the question—which every kid is going to hear, "If you love me, you will have sex with me"—in the very nature and character of God, we are going to have angry, mixed-up kids. The Right from Wrong Campaign’s purpose is to take kids back to the very nature and person of God as the basis for right and wrong. We are supposed to teach our kids about God, but if you stop with the precept, you are teaching legalism. You go to principle—moral principle—which is a broad standard of norm. But if you stop there, you are teaching moralism. There is no such thing as morality in today’s secular society—it is opinion. And our kids are stuck with just another opinion with no moral authority.

We must go from the moral principle back to the very nature and character of God. For example, why is lying wrong? Because God is truth. Think of this: God has revealed himself as truth. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Because God is truth in His very nature and character, there is a moral principle of honesty, which is an absolute—absolute truth.

What does absolute truth mean?

Absolute truth is that which is true for all people, for all places, for all times. Only truth that is absolute protrudes in the very nature and character of God. Thus it is wrong to lie, not because I thought it was a good idea or my parents or my church taught me that but the very nature and character of God. Because there is a moral principle of honesty, there is a specific precept, "Thou shalt not lie." And the moral authority for that precept is the very character and nature of God himself. So that’s where our kids are.

You touched on two main points: legalism and anger. What is anger the result of?

Anger is a result of unresolved conflict with parents, of divorce/dysfunctional homes, of fathers not spending time with children and not loving them, of fear of broken homes…. It is happening to kids from secure homes.

For example, when my son was 6 he came home and said, "Dad, are you going to leave Mommy?"

When I inquired why he asked such a question, he said three of his friends’ parents had divorced in the previous 3 or 4 months. He was hearing so much wrong he was thinking, No matter how much Mom and Dad love each other, they are going to divorce. That causes anger and fear.

Another cause of anger is what is happening with the mass media. It started with Vietnam where you could see the killing live. The same followed showing the killing in Afghanistan, Granada, Bosnia…. You see it and feel totally helpless to do anything about it and a distrust of those who are supposed to be able to do something about it. It causes anger, deep anger.

Then they are part of a generation that doesn’t have affinity. They are called the Thirteenth Generation, X Generation, Baby Busters, etc. Everything is negative. No one has come up with a positive, and that affects kids.

These are only a few of the causes of the anger.

Should we assume the church is not speaking to America’s youth? Is that fair?

I believe the church is speaking to American youth in many ways, for the church is the most influential body in America. But so often we are resting on past laurels and are still teaching and living as if we live in a Judeo-Christian culture. We don’t. Judeo means our ethical, moral behavior stems from the Old Testament. Christian represents the New Testament. We don’t even live in a post-Judeo-Christian culture but an anti-Judeo-Christian culture.

So the church must adjust to the anti-Judeo Christian culture, to nonlinear thinking, to where the kids are emotionally. It doesn’t mean we compromise our convictions. Jesus adapted. He spoke differently to the woman at the well and the blind man.

You’re saying the church is speaking, but are we giving the right message?

Much of the message, yes. When it comes to ethical, moral behavior, no. We are giving legalism. You shouldn’t do that because the Bible says so—because the Bible says, "Thou shalt not." But why does the Bible say you shouldn’t lie? commit adultery? covet? commit sexual immorality? When was the last time you heard a sermon on that?

This is where we lost the Right from Wrong Campaign—not that the church is failing, but we want to become more effective. That’s the key.

The studies showed 57 percent of evangelical, fundamental kids say there is no objective truth apart from self—not the Bible or anything; 45 percent say, when it comes to ethical, moral behavior, everything is negotiable; 85 percent base truth on reason—just because it’s wrong for you doesn’t mean it is wrong for me; 56 percent say God might know truth, but man is incapable of understanding that.

We are in trouble.

What advice would you give to parents and youth leaders who are trying to keep kids in church?

That wasn’t a question I was expecting. I was expecting how to get parents and youth leaders to keep kids in love with Christ? Let me tie the two together.

Rules without relationship lead to rebellion. Kids don’t respond to rules; they respond to relationships. Truth without relationships leads to rebellion. You can take truth and hammer it home, as many do. They go to church, hear this truth, and go home and hammer it into their kids. But if you have not built a relationship with that child, it is ineffective. They’ll go to church with you outwardly, but they will be somewhere else on the inside. Relationship is the key.

With the Right from Wrong Campaign perspective there are three steps:

1. Teach the truth—precept, principle, person of God. Teach right from wrong.

2. Model the truth. Jesus said, "When a child is fully trained, he will be just like his teacher." But when a child is fully raised he/she will be just like the parents. Moral absolutes. And kids don’t believe in moral absolutes. Why? It is not the videos, pornography, or the music but the parents’ self-justification—they justify it away. Turning on the fuzzbuster is the number one variable why our kids do not believe in biblical moral absolutes. We have to teach the truth.

3. Build relationships. Doing these three things— teach the truth, model the truth, and build relationships—doesn’t guarantee anything, but it gives you a fighting chance that puts you ahead of the game.

The thrust of our Right from Wrong Campaign is to take the parents as well. As products of the fifties and sixties, they need teaching—anything to take them from feelings to convictions. That is our contribution to the pastor, the youth director, the church—everything. How do we take our kids from feelings to convictions? Through teaching the truth, modeling the truth, and building relationships.

Thanks. You have given us a lot to think about.