It’s not every day you can personally ask any question you want to the president of a significant apologetics ministry—especially if that president also happens to pastor 600 young adults. But for me, that chance came this summer when I spoke over Skype with the founder of Apologetics Canada, Andy Steiger. After we’d chatted about the results of my 360 in 180 quest to investigate how Christian students keep their faith at universities around the world, I asked him a question like the one I’d posed to so many others in my travels:
“What is the most important thing a young adults’ pastor could do to equip and support their students?”
I bet it’ll be the need for students to learn apologetics, I guessed.
But I guessed wrong.
“The need to create and foster healthy community,” Andy replied, “would be number one.”
Then again, thinking back to almost every interview I’d conducted during 360 in 180, I had to admit that the importance of interpersonal foundations—strong Christian community and godly support networks—had been a consistently central theme across multiple countries. And Canada was no exception.
“You’ve probably come across the travel guide, The Lonely Planet,” he continued. “It’s been interesting to see that even as the world has opened up via the internet and airplanes, it has become a lonely planet. There’s a lot of anxiety and loneliness that young adults are experiencing, and an incredible need for community. In our young adults’ ministry, we beat this drum saying, ‘You were created for community—for relationship with God and with people. You’re not going to flourish unless you’re living in those relationships.’ You might find it surprising that this apologetics guy is going to say that relationships and community are most important, but that’s the heart of the church.”
Far from making the need for apologetics any less significant, however, these relationships are themselves a source of important apologetics questions, discussions and considerations. And far from making Bible teaching any less significant, strong community centred around God’s word provides rich ground for spiritual growth. As Andy observed,
“If our flourishing is going to exist through relationship with God and people, that raises apologetic questions: ‘Does God exist?’ ‘How should we use technology in our relationships?’ For example, it’s interesting how social media drives us in some regards while also giving us a false sense of community. A lot of our young adults are terrified to come out to our events at first—they’ve got ‘fear of missing out,’ but also fear of large crowds. In fact, one of my leaders watched us on Instagram for a year before she got the courage to come out to one of our events.”
Great community and the greatest commandment:
“So, what does healthy community look like?” I wanted to know.
In response, Andy reminded me of Jesus’s words about the meaning and purpose of life:
“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV.)
“’Love God and love people’ is the answer Jesus gives repeatedly,” Andy pointed out, “. That’s critical. Do I realize that God loves me? Am I willing to respond to that love? Am I demonstrating it myself? Is it changing me—changing my life, relationships and how I interact with people? What are those relationships going to look like? I’ll argue that they’re going to point you to Jesus. How to love God and love people is most clearly demonstrated in Christ. If you want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. But also, if you want to know what a human should look like, look at Jesus. Look to Jesus for how to love God and love people.”
As vital as this sort of loving, Christlike community is for Christian students—and for all disciples—I couldn’t help but remember one of the main obstacles which students told me prevented their growth in Christian community.
Combatting communities’ consumeristic cliquishness:
“I’ve spoken with different students,” I commented, “who say they weren’t able to become integrated into a Christian community because of cliquishness within the available ministry groups. How can Christian groups overcome cliquishness?”
“It’s a sad reality that that happens so regularly,” Andy responded. “That kind of mentality constantly manifests itself inside and outside the church. I think it’s really critical for the church to advocate and model what it looks like to be committed to community. But the reality is that the church hasn’t often demonstrated what that looks like. We often take on a very consumeristic mentality of church, that it’s about what the church can do for me. That’s a message we’re constantly getting from society, and from the church. It becomes narcissistic and inward looking. So, I think part of the job of those leading the church is to constantly challenge and correct what people are seeing in society.”
Consumer church. I thought back to Thailand, where a missionary had told me about the dangers of this type of phenomenon—something he called ‘spectator church.’ So often, we can adopt the mindset that church is a place we come to as consumers or spectators, a building we visit to take in a show complete with fresh coffee, a musical pep talk, and a motivational message about how to live our best life. And if we don’t like the show, we don’t come back.
Church has become about brand loyalty; about marketing and attracting. Somewhere along the way, we’ve constructed our concepts of “church” to revolve around one of culture’s biggest lies—a lie that flies in the face of Christ’s words: “Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24-25.)
It’s all about me.
And if it’s all about me, why should I go out of my way to leave my cozy group of friends and invest in that shy newcomer?
Yes, maybe cliquishness really is just a symptom of a deeper disease—evidence that our ideas of Christian community have become infected with the lies of cultural consumerism.
“In our ministry,” continued Andy, “we’re constantly trying to break those images down. Cliquishness will always rear its head at some level, but in our church, it’s not a huge issue. I’ll often ask young adults, ‘Why are you here?’ They’ll very rarely answer, ‘Because of the teaching and worship.’ They can access that on the radio, or on podcasts. Instead, they’ll often answer, ‘It was welcoming; I found community.’ We tell these stories and challenge our students to be welcoming, and we model that ourselves.”
The moral of the story:
Certainly, the need for welcoming community doesn’t minimize the need for solid Biblical teaching within that community. (See also 5 Ways Youth Groups Can Give Kids What They Really Need and Top 9 Tips for Christian Students Going into Secular University.) The point is that students won’t maximize their spiritual growth from biblical teaching if they’re too disconnected from community, whether by cliquishness or any other barrier, to access, discuss and respond to that teaching alongside others in the first place. So, what can we do to develop the kind of community which optimizes healthy foundation-building for Christian young people?
We can embrace Christ’s commands to love like He loves.
We can ditch a consumeristic “me mentality” and recalibrate our priorities to the Gospel.
Ultimately, we can pattern our communities after the life of Christ rather than the lies of culture.