Embracing the next generation: an interview with Josh McDowell
Josh McDowell is an internationally known Christian speaker and author. He has spoken to more than 7 million young people in 84 countries, including visits to 700 university and college campuses. He has authored or co-authored more than 75 books that have sold more than 10 million copies. Among his most popular books are Beyond Belief to Convictions, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and More Than a Carpenter.1
Derek Morris: As a Christian apologist and evangelist, you have probably spoken to as many young people about Jesus Christ as any in the history of the Christian church. Share with us one of your most memorable experiences.
Josh McDowell: I was in Phoenix, doing a high school assembly. On the first day, there were about fifteen hundred students outside at noon. I stood on a huge boulder in order to connect more effectively with the crowd. I had been warned that there was a group of Gothics on campus who would try to break up the assembly. I had just started to speak when six Gothics came up and stood about ten feet away from me. They were dressed in black, with tattoos and piercings on every part of their bodies. They just stood there and scowled at me. Without the crowd knowing it, I changed my topic and spoke about intimacy. I shared with the crowd that Christ can give you the capacity to be real with another person. When my talk was over, I stepped off the boulder and the head of the Gothics leaped toward me. The whole crowd gasped. He came within six inches of my face. There were tears running down his cheeks. He said to me very respectfully, “Mr. McDowell, would you give me a hug?” And before I could even say “Yes,” this young man put his head on my shoulder and cried like a baby. Then he said to me, “My father never once hugged me or told me that he loved me.”
That story keeps coming back to me whenever I stand up to speak. Young people need to know that God loves them. And who are His instruments to share His love? We are.
DM: When did you first discover a passion to tell young people about Jesus Christ and God’s amazing love?
JM: After I had committed my life to Jesus Christ in my late teens, I immediately wanted to tell the whole world about Him. I was born running! I have a passion for young people because that’s where I was when I came to know Christ. I was so thankful that I had come to know Christ myself and I wanted to share Him with others. I started out my Christian ministry talking to university students. I have spoken on over seven hundred university and college campuses. But a major shift occurred 15 years ago. I realized that decisions once made in university were now being made in eighth, ninth, tenth grades. So now I focus my ministry on 12 to 17-year-olds. I want to reach kids for Christ before they have made a lot of decisions that are going to negatively affect them for the rest of their lives. After about 13 years of age in today’s culture, a young person is hardened like young people were after university 15 years ago. At a younger age today, young people are being confronted with different worldviews, conflicting ideas. For example, 15 years ago Islam was a religion in a different part of the world. Now it’s next door. Today, with free access to the Internet, anything that you believe as a Christian is challenged. That wasn’t true 15 years ago. That’s why George Barna suggests from his research that if you don’t reach young people in today’s culture by age 13, you might never reach them.
DM: You’ve been involved in ministry to young people for over 40 years. What keeps you going?
JM: One reason why I keep on reaching out to young people for Christ is that I am so grateful for my own salvation. I’m overwhelmed that the Creator God of the universe wants a relationship with me. In Exodus 34:14, He says “I am passionate about my relationship with you.” I’m just overwhelmed with that! So, every time I see someone, especially a young person, that verse pops into my mind. God wants a relationship with that person! He wants pastors, youth pastors, and parents to be the channel for establishing that relationship with God.
A second reason why I keep reaching out to young people for Christ is because I believe that every person’s destiny is dependent on how they relate to Jesus Christ. I am more convinced than ever that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God. So, young people need to hear the truth about Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, I keep on reaching out to young people for Christ because there are so many hurting kids in the world today. There is one word to describe today’s mosaic generation: Abandoned. Young people feel abandoned emotionally and spiritually. They need to experience God’s love.
DM: You mention on your Web site <www.beyondbelief.com> that we need a spiritual revolution in the Christian community— a CrossCulture revolution.2 What do you mean by that?
JM: I hate to say this, but right now we are losing the battle. We are not seeing transformation in the lives of professed Christian young people. Seventy-five to eighty percent of our young people are leaving the church. Research by Barna, Gallup, and others shows that there is hardly any difference between a young person inside the church and a secular young person outside the church. It used to be that on issues like lying, stealing, cheating, there was a 14 to 18 percent difference between professed Christians and unbelievers. Now, it’s less than three percent difference. We are beyond needing a reformation. We need a revolution, a drastic change.
DM: What are some ways that we can be more intentional in reaching young people for Jesus Christ?
JM: Providing a loving environment is one way that you can be more intentional in reaching young people for Christ. Young people need a loving environment in order to flourish. Ideally, a young person needs a Christian home, where Mom and Dad are in love with each other and love their kids, and their kids sense that love. Research sponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values showed that young people are hardwired for enduring connections to others and for moral and spiritual meaning.3
Secondly, if you want to be more intentional in reaching young people for Jesus Christ and passing on your values to the next generation, you must live out that truth in their presence. Teach your children, or the young people within your circle of influence, not only the “what’s” but the “why’s” of the faith. When that happens, it is very likely that the young person will assimilate the Christian faith.
Over the years, my wife and I have watched many movies with our kids. On 20 to 25 occasions, we got up and walked out of the theater. That had an impact on our kids. Now we’ll hear our kids say, “We went to watch a movie with some friends last night, but we got up and left!” Where did they find the courage to walk out? I had modeled for them the importance of being careful what you take into your mind, and the courage to walk out if necessary.
Thirdly, if you want to be more intentional in reaching young people for Christ, model what it looks like to share your faith. Be actively involved in changing the world. Talk about missions. Be involved in the community. Look for people, for events, for seminars, for conferences that will supplement what you are teaching and modeling to your children. Go on mission trips. Each year, ask yourself, “What seminars do we want our kids to attend this year?”
DM: As you view the Christian church as a whole, what obstacles or barriers are preventing young people from finding a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? JM: One obstacle is this: Young people are not seeing dynamic, living, examples of Christ’s life within the body of Christ. A young African-American woman, Lena Williams, put it this way: “We are not seeing God’s love through other people.” When today’s generation sees a lack of authentic modeling, they say, “It’s not true.” Biblically, all truth is taught in the context of relationships. Young people are looking for truth that works. If they don’t see it working in their own lives, they will say, “It’s not true.” This is why it is so important for us to live our faith in the presence of our children.
DM: I was impressed by your answer to a young person on your Web site who was struggling with impure thoughts and actions. Like many committed Christians, both young and old, she wanted to honor Jesus Christ by maintaining pure thoughts and actions, but it was a struggle for her. You spoke about pure thoughts displacing impure thoughts, and about the importance of memorizing Scripture.
JM: In the flesh, you will never resist impure thoughts and actions. We need to teach our children to be filled with the Holy Spirit by faith. It is the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit that strengthens us. It’s a simple process: Desire to be filled, because the Bible says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6, NKJV). Have no unconfessed sin in your life. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NKJV). And then, ask the Holy Spirit to fill you. “If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14,15, NKJV).
Once we have asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit, we need to recognize that God uses His Word to transform us. Only as we put Scripture into our hearts and minds can it replace those thoughts which can be so destructive. You can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the process of renewing your mind by striving to replace impure thoughts with pure thoughts. When you pour liquid into a test tube, it forces the gas out. In the same way, pure thoughts can force impure thoughts out of your mind. Memorizing and meditating on Scripture is particularly helpful. Here are some useful tips to help you memorize Scripture: Decide to memorize at least one verse per week. Start with these: Romans 12:1, 2; Psalm 51:10; Colossians 3:1-3; and Philippians 4:8. Memorize word for word. Don’t make up your own translation. Think about the verse. Ask what this verse means and what God is saying to you through this verse. Apply the verse to your life. “As a result of this verse, I will ______.” Review. Go over the new verse every day for two months. Then once a week after that. The psalmist said that he hid God’s Word in his heart to help keep him from sin (Ps. 119:11). When you ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit and fill your mind with the Word of God, you will be blessed!
DM: What are some resources that can help us to reach young people for Christ?
JM: There is Dare 2 Share with Greg Stier.4 They have a vision to train one million teens to clearly and confidently share their faith and to establish thirty thousand evangelism teams (e-teams) nationwide by the end of 2010. It’s a marvelous movement, and they are reaching thousands of kids for Christ. WisdomWords Ministries, with Mark Matlock, holds PlanetWisdom conferences to help young people grow into a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ.5 I thank God for Mark. And then there’s Teen Mania with Ron Luce.6 There is nowhere that you can go where your faith will become more contagious than Teen Mania. Ron challenges teenagers to take a stand for Christ in their schools, communities, and throughout the world. Paul Fleischmann and the National Network of Youth Ministries are working with over eight thousand youth pastors. Their goal is to expose every teenager to the gospel of Jesus Christ.7 Youth Specialties works alongside Christian youth workers of just about every denomination and youth-serving organization.8 They are providing resources and training for thousands of youth pastors every year. And then there is our own ministry, Beyond Belief.9 We are committed to equipping young people in this generation to become so thoroughly convinced of the reality and relevance of Jesus Christ and His Word that they act on their Christian convictions regardless of the consequences.
There are so many resources. The structure is there. The foundation is there. But we still have a great work to do to reach the next generation for Christ. We need to pray, be faithful to our commission as the body of Christ, and God the Holy Spirit will move!
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