For all the benefits of access and efficiency that have come with the explosion of communication mediums like e-mail, texting, Facebook, and Twitter, one serious downside is their limited ability to foster thoughtful dialogue.
We live in a soundbite culture where pithiness is often valued over wisdom, flashiness is preferred to wisdom, and the quick retort is favored over patient reflection. There is little room for a nuanced discussion to take place in such venues—especially when you’re able to “hide” views with which you disagree.
Our world has become increasingly complex as the internet and other media have made widely available at our fingertips an array of divergent opinions and studies on every issue under the sun. It is likely that this trend towards knee-jerk truncated responses will only increase as technology continues to expedite and encourage immediate pubic discourse.
Our inability to patiently grapple with complexity has lead to an increasingly hostile context for voicing opinions, particularly as the American arena for public discourse becomes increasingly polarized into divergent factions. Tolerance in this contentious environment has become more akin to intellectual apathy rather than being understood as holding an informed opinion and accepting that others have differing convictions.
In a climate where both voicing an opinion on certain issues is perceived as belligerence and those opinions are often stated in 140 characters or less, it’s no wonder that many youth (and their parents) are struggling to engage in meaningful dialogue on important issues—particularly as it relates to faith and culture.
So how do we equip youth to understand and engage their world with the beauty and credibility of the gospel of Jesus Christ given this increasingly polarized culture? How do we prepare them for the contentious world they will face down the road? In this article I offer five suggestions.
1. Be intentional.
Given the widespread breakdown of fruitful dialogue between people and groups that disagree on sensitive issues, we shouldn’t expect our youth to be prepared to engage with those who disagree with them on volatile topics.
Yet Peter in his first letter encourages the church to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We need to intentionally disciple youth to gently and respectfully articulate how and why their convictions relate to their hope in Christ.
2. Seek nuance in your views.
Likewise, it’s unrealistic to expect our youth to have well-nuanced views that actually further the cultural conversation and hold up in a debate if we ourselves are not taking the time to be informed. We need to be wary of soundbites as they tend to rally the base while ostracizing those who disagree. Soundbites do little to move the conversation forward in a productive direction.
3. Train youth to win people, not just arguments.
And we really should want to move our conversations forward in a meaningful direction—for our goal is not merely to win a debate or sound smart, but to be ministers of reconciliation. Paul tells the Corinthians, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
What sort of ambassadors would we be if we only ever started wars and mocked those who disagreed with us, and never actually took the time to know and care for those among whom we serve?
4. Prepare youth for rejection and humiliation.
Even if we are able to do all this and do it well, we must still prepare students for rejection and humiliation. Even if they learn to voice their opinions with gentleness and respect, born of love and compassion for those who disagree, rejection is still likely.
Even a quick read through the book of Acts shows that rejection and the faithful proclamation of the gospel go hand-in-hand. Some of their peers will likely mock them for their convictions, no matter how nuanced they may be. Youth can be notoriously brutal.
But we proclaim a crucified Messiah who was rejected and humiliated that we might be reconciled to God. As his ambassadors, our calling is to likewise endure suffering so that others may hear and experience the love of God for them in Christ.
5. Foster humility in our hearts and theirs.
As we train up youth to lovingly articulate their convictions, we need to remember to teach them intellectual humility along the way. Sometimes we will face rejection and humiliation because we are wrong. Scripture is our authority, but history shows us that sometimes Christians misinterpret and misuse Scripture.
As those committed to Scripture, we need to prepare students to receive and weigh challenges to their positions. We don’t know it all, but thankfully ours is a grace that comes through faith—a saving grace whereby we receive and rest upon the resurrected Jesus and his finished work alone for salvation.
Our hope isn’t in ourselves or our abilities—so let us encourage youth to let Jesus be their hope, to let his love drive their convictions, and to let his strength empower them as they serve as his ambassadors in the face of growing hostility.