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Greg Cootsona
 on December 18, 2019

Apologetics needs a “System Upgrade” for Emerging Adults

Changing the way we approach apologetics could help the church better reach the younger generation.


When I was a college student at UC Berkeley—and a new convert to Christian faith—my pastor offered this stunning definition of apologetics: “Proclaiming the gospel, fully aware of the arguments presented against it.” Honestly, I’m probably paraphrasing Earl Palmer’s insights a bit, but still, I think it expresses the gist of his interpretation of how the church needs to do apologetics. He was talking about C.S. Lewis as an apologist and why he was so effective in the 20th century, and I’m convinced this definition holds for us today. There’s wisdom in moving away from primarily defending the Gospel (which, I admit, is embedded in the Greek word apologia) toward presenting our message with skill. Embedded in our presentation is often a skillful and winsome defense.

And this brings me to the heart of the mission of BioLogos and the question before us: What are the arguments against the Gospel we face today? I am convinced that, if we want to do apologetics in age of science and technology, Christians have to recognize the challenges presented by the arguments swirling around the minds of emerging adults (age 18-30), who are actively leaving congregations in droves and not coming back.

As many people know, about 35-40% of emerging adults check the box “None of the above” when asked which religion they affiliate with. And one key reason? The church is seen as “anti-science.”

The recent Barna report about Gen Z (those born 1999 or after) revealed that just about half (49%) concur that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” And lest we think this is about outsiders—in this survey, this statement was the highest negative perception of congregations for churchgoing teens. How much more the case outside the church! For those who are reared in a world of science and technology, this is one obvious argument against belief in the message the church proclaims: “They don’t know science or technology, and both tell me so much about this world and about me. Why should I listen to the church if it disregards science and technology?”

How do we respond? How do we upgrade our systems in proclaiming the message of Jesus to this generation? From doing this work of bringing together mainstream science and mere Christianity for emerging adults over the past decade or so, I’ve learned four things to help guide our future.

Adjust the Paradigm

First of all, let me emphasize one particular piece from the phrase above—emerging adults are “leaving congregations in droves and not coming back.” Currently, one-third of men and half of women are married with children by age thirty. The expectation is that this won’t change anytime soon. But the reality is, by age 30, only one in six Gen Z expected to be married and have kids. Altogether, this means that the majority of emerging adults live in between childhood and adulthood. And thus they are “emerging” into adulthood from a sociological perspective, and they just don’t fit the common church approach that members have to be “in a family” (childhood and high school) or “with a family” (adulthood). Since most congregations feature family-centric ministries, they mis-program for the majority of 18-30 year olds. If emerging adults once went to church (which isn’t always the case), they now don’t fit this paradigm. Many congregations simply don’t have a place for them.

Update Communication Strategies

Secondly, Generation Z is also called “iGen” because of the centrality of social and visual media. According to Barna, 57% spend four hours a day on their screens. I really love books, and I’ve even written a few—so I hope people keep reading—but I can still see that we have to proclaim the Gospel in a way that makes sense. That means creating content like YouTube videos, Instagram posts, websites, etc. I take my cues from Martin Luther who employed the then-hot technology of the printing press to communicate the message of salvation by grace through faith to his 16th century audience. Why should we be any different?

up close hands holding cellphone

Point two has a corollary: Because of the omnipresence of technology, in the minds of emerging adults I’ve interviewed and pastored, the ideas of science and technology are not really separately distinguished. And thus we also need to include topics about technology—such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, bioethics like genetic engineering, wise use of our smart phones—into our ministries.

Teach Good Science

Thirdly, let’s not fool around with science that can’t be supported by scientists. I remember talking with two of the college and emerging adult ministry staff at Silicon Valley’s Menlo Church. We worked together on a grant project on young adults’ attitudes about faith and science. Pointing south from the church toward Stanford University—which is about 2 miles away and from which many students and professors fill their pews—they stated simply and firmly, “We don’t want to talk about any science here that we can’t discuss there.”

And this is wisdom. C.S. Lewis also knew this. He offered something quite similar to an assembled group of youth workers: “Science twisted in the interest of apologetics would be sin and folly.”

church community praying

Focus on Jesus

Finally, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus. I’ve found that Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, is his own best authenticator. I teach in a secular university (Cal State Chico) where less than half of my students identify as Christian (which is below the national average of around 70%). If I’ve learned anything from teaching my Gen Z students, they’ve heard about the problems of church history, the way Christianity is tied to political agendas, and which moral issues Christians are against, but none of this represents to the core of the Gospel. The good news is Jesus of Nazareth—what he taught, and who he was and is.

In the dazzling experience of the Transfiguration that Peter, James, and John had with Jesus, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2), and they saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. It was stunning, but apparently also distracting. And so God clarified their focus: “‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5). They bow in terror, and Jesus touches, telling them not to fear. “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (Matthew 17:8). May we too listen to Jesus and see him alone. Or perhaps, let’s let Jesus be seen in how we present our faith to a scientific and technological age. Let us even when we rise in our apologetics, do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

In my experience, bringing together faith and science should always return us to Jesus. Or to quote Lewis, who closed his talk on the subject with this: “Apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself.”

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About the author

Greg Cootsona

Greg Cootsona

Greg Cootsona is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Humanities at California State University at Chico and directs Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (or STEAM), a $2 million grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation and housed at Fuller Theological Seminary. STEAM is designed to catalyze the engagement of faith and science in Christian ministries with 18-30 year olds. His books include  Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva, 2002), C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian (Westminster John Knox, 2014), Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults (InterVarsity, 2018), and Negotiating Science and Religion In America: Past, Present, and Future (Routledge, 2020). He is also co-director of Science for the Church, an initiative that brings the resources of science to enhance the effectiveness of Christian congregations. Greg studied comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley and theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (M. Div.), the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg, as well as Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union (the latter where he received his Ph.D.) He has just finished 18 years as Associate Pastor for Adult Discipleship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City. Greg has written for several periodicals such as Zygon, Theology and Science, as well as the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today. He has been interviewed by CNN and The New York Times, and has appeared on the Today Show three times. He and his wife, Laura, live in Chico, California and have two daughters (18 and 21). Besides hanging out with his family, he loves to bike, read (and write), and drink good coffee.