What are the unique challenges young people face today? And what are some creative ways to equip and reach them? In this podcast, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae talk with youth expert Brett Kunkle about how to help students effectively navigate technology, media, and other pressing concerns of today.

Brett Kunkle's latest book is titled A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

More About Our Guest

Brett Kunkle

Brett Kunkle is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation know truth, pursue goodness and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with junior high, high school, and college students. He was a youth pastor in Southern California and in the Denver area for 11 years and was the Student Impact Director for Stand to Reason for 14 years. He holds an MA in Philosophy from Talbot.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome back to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Sean McDowell, an author, speaker, and Apologetics professor at Talbot School of Theology, here at Biola University.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host Scott Rae, professor of Christian Ethics also at Talbot School of Theology.

Sean McDowell: We're here with a friend today of Biola, a friend of Talbot, Brett Kunkle, you were a youth minister for 11 years, then you worked with Stand to Reason for 14 years. You have a passion for young people, but also worldview and apologetics. Yet you just launched this new unique ministry with a vision, and it's called Maven. Tell us first off, what does that mean and what's the idea behind it?

Brett Kunkle: That's the number one question we get. What is Maven? It's actually a word that means, it refers to someone who is knowledgeable and passes that knowledge on. For instance, you might have a finance maven, or a fashion maven. Right? For us, that's really what we wanna be for young people. We wanna take the knowledge of the truth--the truth of Christianity--and pass it on to young people. That's what we want them to become.

We want them to become mavens, who know the truth of Christ and pass it on. And then we wanna help equip parents, youth leaders, pastors, Christian educators to do the same with the young people that they work with. That's what the name means. We are a youth focused ministry. Our primary target audience is junior high, high school, college. Secondarily it's pastors and leaders; we want to come alongside them.

For us this is an opportunity to repackage the truth if you will. We're dealing with a different kind of kid nowaday. We're dealing with a kid who is media saturated, image based, they feel not necessarily think a lot. So how do we reach that kind of kid? And we wanna be an entry point. We know they need good theology and worldview and apologetics. How do you reach that kid though? You can hand him, here's a theology book, here's an apologetic book, and 90% of their eyes glaze over. So that's what we wanna do.

Sean McDowell: Talk to me about a couple of the practical things you're doing because you've inspired me to do this in my own teaching and work with students, I think it's really fresh and I would love to see the church jump on and really have this explode for the sake of students. Talk about maybe like one or two of the unique things that you have been doing and will be doing in Maven.

Brett Kunkle: This is not unique in and of itself that we're gonna provide virtual tools. We're gonna do online videos and resources and seminars, but we're gonna pay very close attention to how we package it, and how we design it. So for instance, I was just at a recent youth conference and a video was played for these students, you know junior highers, high schoolers are there. A video is played and I'm watching the video, and I'm thinking, I think I know youth well enough to say, this video is not hitting them.

So afterwards, I'm talking to a couple of the students. Sure enough the students said, "Did you see that video?" In fact this is hilarious, one of the kids he says, "What are we in, 2012?" (laughing) We'd be like, “What are we in the '90s?” He's like, "What are we in 2012?" That’s how fast things change.

Scott Rae: So five years ago.

Sean McDowell: Wow. Wow.

Brett Kunkle: Then I asked him, "What did the video say?" Cause what it said was great, it was good content. They're like, I don't know. I don't know. They could not get past the wrapper, they could not get past the music, and so they were out. So how do you reach that kid? So that's one thing we wanna do in our virtual training, the things that we produce.

A second thing we're gonna do is live events. We're producing some new conferences. Thirdly, we're doing what we call immersive experiences. This is where we train young people in worldview and apologetics, and then we take them to Berkeley, California. We take them to Salt Lake City, Utah. We've got some other locations we're looking at developing trips at. We give them a five or six or seven day experience where now this stuff is out of the classroom and now it's in real life. It's in engaging a secular kid or a skeptical kid on the college campus.

Doing surveys, or bringing out atheists, or talking to Mormons. Now they actually have to live this stuff out. Those are some of the things we're excited about.

Sean McDowell: That's awesome to see. I can say anybody listening, I would encourage them--pastor, youth pastor, parent, teacher, to get ahold of you and think about leading these trips. I've done with my students and it is literally a game changer. It's pretty awesome. Tell us your personal story, why are you so passionate about apologetics, worldview, and young people? In particular start back in college when you had an experience that kind of rocked you with someone growing up in the church.

Brett Kunkle: I grew up in the church. I had a wonderful experience growing up in the church. Very involved in the body of Christ. All throughout elementary my family, we were highly involved, I was at church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. When I got into junior high and high school became a leader in my youth ministry, was really involved.

I was like that model Christian kid. And I go off to college and my freshman year, I'm at a local junior college in Southern California, and I'm completely ill equipped to meet my philosophy professor. And so he just dismantles me over that semester. Just attacking the rationality of Christianity. He wasn't your stereotypical like angry atheist professor, he was actually very winsome, and one of the most popular professors at this university. He's this cool surfer. Everyone loved this guy, and he was very compelling and persuasive.

He dismantled me. I remember being in his office cause I realized I couldn't engage with this guy in front of everyone without looking like an idiot in class. So I would go to his office, try to debate him in the privacy of his office. And the last time I was in his office, he said, “Get out a Bible.” Of course, I was a good Christian kid, so there it was in my backpack; I pulled it out. He said, “Pull out a piece of paper and a pen.” He had me divide a sheet into three columns and write Matthew, Mark, and Luke at the top of those columns. Then he just took me through the resurrection accounts and the gospels and had me write down the details.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Brett Kunkle: Then showed me, right there on the sheet, oh look at the contradictions. I was done, I was floored, I was speechless. I just folded that piece of paper back in my Bible and put it away. Said, "Thank you Dr. Lane," walked out. The walk to my car that afternoon, I was shaking, I was trembling. I just thought this is... I mean is it over? Because if what he says is true this seems to undermine my faith.

And so that experience of growing up in the church, and not being equipped, and then being devastated by a college professor, really through that process God helped me to discover apologetics and defense of the faith. It opened the door to this thoughtful, rich Christian tradition and history and truth that we have, that I didn't even know about for the first 18 years of my life.

So that's why I'm so passionate about it.

Scott Rae: Brett, you have a few gray hairs, not very many.

Brett Kunkle: Almost as many as Sean.

Scott Rae: No, but not very many. You've been working with students for a really long time.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah.

Scott Rae: What changes have you seen in how students respond to the gospel, how churches are involved with students in meaningful ways? What trends have you seen that would impact students’ ability to connect with the gospel over the 20, 25 years you've been involved with students?

Brett Kunkle: Well I think, I mean there's a number of things we could list. I think one of the biggest things is the technology piece. You have kids who are now digital natives, right? They've grown up now with a smartphone, or an iPad, or some screen in front of their face since they were two years old. That is such a powerful force in shaping our young people.

Now some of the negatives on that is that, it has lead to a… young minds that are very distracted. Right? They're very distracted; they have not learned how to sustain a careful thought, follow an argument. They're actually easily persuadable, not by argumentation usually at first, just by images or slogans or things like that.

So I think the technology piece is huge challenge for us, cause it leads to this very distracted mind, it leads to shallow mind unfortunately, and then I think it conditions them to be very entertainment oriented. Of course, we look at the brain science on this and what it does to the brain and how those constant shots of dopamine will affect someone and produce addictions and that kind of thing.

But I think that is one of the biggest challenges for us in the church is technology. Then, you couple that with pornography. I think those two are the biggest challenges with a lot of young people. Cause now you take a very sexualized culture and you take porn, you look at some of the data on this, young people, they're now young people who think it is more immoral to not recycle than to view pornography.

That's where we're at. Now you take pornography and you've got the technology to give constant access and this is shaping so many of our young people. And it's breaking so many of our young people. This is a huge challenge I think for us with this generation.

Scott Rae: That's a really interesting convergence between technology and pornography, how easily accessible it is today.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Let me follow up on just one thing on this. How has the digital revolution, the smartphones and iPads, sort of the constant availability of images and to keep people occupied, how do you see that impacting students’ ability to connect relationally and interpersonally?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, it stunts them. I see it all the time. I took my son out to dinner, my six year old, It was just Jonah and I out for dinner, now I'm seeing this all of the time, these two high school students come in and sit down at the table next to us. And so I'm just casually observing, I'm talking with Jonah, I want one kind of rule we have in our family is that at meals, whether we're out, or we're at home, technology stays away. And that included mom and dad. Right?

So we're talking and joking around and whatever, and these two high schoolers sit next to us, they sit down they look at the menu, they order and as soon as they order, and the waiter walks away, boom they grab their smartphones, and they're on their smartphones, and they don't engage one another. They’re just scrolling through stuff. I think there's little things that happen all the time that maybe as one instance it's a small thing but over time this kind of chips away.

You look at students who are walking on campus or if you're in an airport people are constantly in their phones. And so you miss an opportunity to walk past someone, smile, say hello and greet them. Or if I'm sitting in an airport everyone's on their phone you around and there's no engagement with other people. I think that has huge potential to really stunt their growth relationally, when it comes to conflict. Right? It's easier now to deal with conflict over your technology, text someone or even say things and do things that you would never do face-to-face, in face-to-face engagement.

Scott Rae: I was with a group of guys awhile back, out to dinner and we had a rule we all put our phones in the middle of the table, and said first one to reach their phone also gets the bill for dinner.

Brett Kunkle: That's right.

Scott Rae: Nobody touched it.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, yeah.

Scott Rae: As much as we wanted to look at that text or that email coming in, we were all too cheap to wanna pick up the bill.

Sean McDowell: That's why I get a smartphone so it alerts me when the text goes off, just in case, so I don't have to pay for dinner. That's a great idea. Let me ask you this, Rod Dreher who's the author of The Benedict Option, said something recently that got my attention cause there's been a lot of talk about why kids leave the faith--worldview, apologetics, relationship, moral issues. He said just this week on a post, he said the issue of how kids use technology will largely shape whether they stay in the faith in the future.

That this issue is so important, doesn't just affect their relationships now but whether or not they'll stay in the faith in the future, would you agree with that or not, and what principles do you also build into your kids, and when you work with people, especially young people on dealing with technology?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, I'm not sure I would put it the way Dreher puts it. I would definitely say that technology is a huge challenge and I think what Scott mentioned was that the convergence of things. So how is it a huge challenge? Because we know technology in and of itself is not immoral; it's not wrong to use the smartphone. What we have to teach our young people, and what we have to realize ourselves it's also the medium itself is not neutral. Right?

So just in using that thing, even if I'm using it for something that's not immoral in and of itself, just the use of that thing has the potential to shape me, right? So take something like social media. Social media, is it wrong to use social media? Is it wrong to post pictures on Instagram? No.

What that thing can do over time is condition you to feel like you always have to display. And what you have to display often will end up being a false picture of who you are and what you're doing. So kids will, they'll scroll through other kids’ pictures, and they'll see them eating good food, taking nice vacations, doing pleasurable things, having fun, always happy, and as they scroll through that, it presents a false view of reality. But they see it to be the truth about reality, and their friends are always doing this stuff, and here they are sitting at home in their bedroom, life boring.

They will then, I've talked to kids who will post things that they're not actually doing, maybe an old picture.

Scott Rae: Wow.

Brett Kunkle: They'll post something that they're not doing at that time, and make it look like they're doing something, to make it look like their life is kind of exciting. That kind of thing. That's an example of how it's not, this thing is not neutral. It can shape you, and it's slow and subtle and over time.

Scott Rae: Think about how many times you've seen somebody post something from a bad day.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Never see that.

Sean McDowell: Never.

Scott Rae: Yeah, you would actually believe that this is the way these people live all the time.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, and there's correlation with the amount of time that a young person spends on social media with whether or not they're gonna be more or less depressed. Right? And feel anxious about life. Because they've got this false view. That's just one of the possible, I think kind of lies that technology can tell you, your life has to always be on display. I'm the authority. I don't need any authorities. I’m the authority. Right?

There's just one way that this thing can really cause you to become self-centered and narcissistic, because it's always a focus on you the individual. Practically, how do we help kids navigate this? Number one, I think that we have to teach them to take breaks or have screen free times and places. It's a way to kind of bring back that classical discipline of fasting.

So I think students, and maybe you start with your students and it's once month, and maybe it's 12 hours in a day, we're gonna fast together from our smartphone. That will be a big enough step for a lot of kids.

Sean McDowell: 12 hours is already a lot.

Scott Rae: I could just imagine the look on their faces.

Brett Kunkle: Oh yeah.

Scott Rae: That would be unbelievable to see.

Brett Kunkle: What's funny when I talk to kids about technology, most of them are willing to admit they think they're addicted to their smartphones. And then I ask them a second question, “Are you willing to change? Are you willing to do something?” Then you just, you just see the resistance. No, they think that kind of addiction is okay. Right? “I'm not addicted to drugs; it's just a smartphone.”

There's a resistance, but you start with once a month. And then once a week. I think ultimately we want to get our kids in a rhythm where once a week they are taking a sabbath. They are fasting from technology. Also, in addition have screen free places in your home if you're a parent. Like one place for us is the dinner table, no technology. Another place is the kids’ beds, when they're up in bed, no technology is with them. There's those kind of screen free places that we have as well.

Sometimes when we start a road trip, or vacation or something no screens out, so those kind of things are really--

Sean McDowell: Until kids start fighting, then it's like just turn it on. We need a break.

Brett Kunkle: That's right, we reserve it for we need to anesthetize them.

Sean McDowell: Let me ask you a bigger question. How do you motivate students who are in one sense just looking at their phone all the time, checking Instagram, to slow down and wrestle with the big questions of theology and philosophy--what does it mean to be human? Is there a life after death? Does God exist? These worldview shaping questions that really determine the rest of their lives. What are some maybe tools or ideas to just motivate young people to care about this stuff?

Brett Kunkle: I think one of the best things that I've discovered, and you know this from the trip we've taken, is that you can motivate kids when you get them out of the classroom, and you put them into some real life experiences. And so we know there's a real need for kids to know theology, to know Scripture. So hand them a Bible or hand them a theology book and say, “Read this, you need it.” And they’re, “Whatever.” You know. They'll blow you off.

But take them and put them in front of a Mormon who know their scriptures better than they do, who will kind of tear them up and then talk to that kid. You're not saying, “Here's the theology book.” They're saying, “Where's the theology book?” It creates that, what we know to be a real need, now becomes a felt need as well. And I think the more we can do that kind of thing, that is maybe the most powerful motivation for young people, is get them out of the classroom, get them in real life situations.

This is why you and I do the role play. In fact that's what I discovered when we did these Berkeley mission trips where we would bring out an atheist, we do these Utah trips where we take them Utah and put them in front of Mormons or dialog with Mormon missionaries or go to BYU. One of the benefits were these kids would become so motivated.

We would give them free time, and during their free time they'd be pulling out their Bibles or their Book of Mormon, and they would stay up to one or two in the morning studying because they know, oh we're going out the next day. I think about my own experience. When was I really motivated? When I was kind of demolished by that professor.

And so I think this speaks to the need to get our students and our people out from behind the four walls of the church. So much of our activity is just behind the four walls of the church, and we need to be out going. When you live your life on mission, and you get engaged, and you get challenged it has a way of sparking you. So that's one of the best ways.

Sean McDowell: The way you phrased it I think is really valuable. One thing my father's taught me, is he said,"Real ministry is not meeting a felt need, but making a real need felt." That's what you're doing with students; they have a need for theology, and need to understand their faith. How do I put them in situations where all of a sudden they feel that need that they have?

Scott Rae: You raise a really good point here, if you think about it, this is actually basically the way the Bible was written. We typically, I think in our churches we go to the text, here's what it means, and here's how it applies. I think the Bible actually did that approach backward. Because the Bible starts with real life. And says now, here's what you need to know theologically in order to meet this real life situation. I think the books of the Bible that are the most doctrine oriented like Romans, and Ephesians.

Both are written to address really specific issues. For example, Ephesians was written to address the mother of all racial tensions in the early church, between Jews and Gentiles. They started with that real need that had become felt, then used our worldview, our theology to answer those questions.

It's not only a great idea for connecting with the kids; I think it's also really consistent with how the Bible does this.

Brett Kunkle: Absolutely. Absolutey. In the 25 years of working with young people, I've never seen anything like it that motivates them, nothing. Get them out of that, and get them engaged. It doesn't have to be six, seven day trip. When I was a youth pastor, I would do a series on world religions and I would always set up a field trip after. We do Buddhism, 25 minutes down the street was a Buddhist temple. We take them to the Buddhist temple and have a Buddhist Monk give them a tour, explain Buddhism, and then engage with the kids and these were junior highers.

You should see these kids come to life, right? I couldn't get these kids to shut up when we're trying to debrief. Well, I guess that's a normal problem with junior highers. But they wouldn't shut up about theology and apologetics, and the Buddhist worldview. It was just amazing. The more we can do that, the better.

Sean McDowell: If you were able to take youth ministry, and I think I know it now hearing you speak, and just turn it upside down, what would it look like to most effectively teach and train our students where culture’s at today?

Brett Kunkle: I think I would do a couple things. Number one, on the content I would focus on theology, apologetics, and worldview. I would go back though all of my messages, and not do the five how to's, to have a better relationship with your parents, or I would let that flow out of the theology and the apologetics and the worldview stuff.

But I would really go after their minds, looking to bring transformation by the renewing of their minds. I would focus on that. Because you have a limited time in youth ministry as well. So I would wanna focus on what they believe, why they believe it, and then how does this truth apply kind of across the board. Secondly, I personally would eliminate any of the so called fun trips, where we would just do--

Sean McDowell: A ski trip or something like that.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, I might do a retreat where I had a ski kind of thing, the retreat would be central. I wouldn't take out things going to, whatever the waterpark, this or that, instead what I would do is I would create opportunities for them to engage. I got a limited amount of time here. And some people might say, "Well, we do those things for fellowship." Well that's great and it may build some fellowship, but I'll tell you what builds way better fellowship, is when you figure out ways to live on mission for Jesus together.

There's nothing that builds fellowship in a body, in a group of Christians when you're constantly living out the gospel with one another and sharing that gospel, I mean I think that this is, we see in Philippians. Philippians, I think the theme is this church partnering with Paul and the cause of the gospel and what's the result? Joy. That book is the book of joy.

But that’s symptomatic of their partnership in the gospel. And that, talk about deep fellowship, that's much richer, deeper fellowship than just going to Magic Mountain.

Sean McDowell: Brett, thanks for joining us today. I'm thrilled to hear just the vision God's given you for Maven, the ides that you have, we want to support you in every way we can, and I encourage our listeners to go to maventruth.com. Right?

Brett Kunkle: Yes, maventruth.com.

Sean McDowell: Follow all the things you're doing on Twitter, the videos and just get your kids, get your youth pastor involved cause I think this is a significant ministry that God's gonna use to shape a lot of lives. So thanks for doing it, and for coming on.

This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Listen in next time as invite Brett back to continue this important discussion. To learn more about us, and to find more episodes, go to www.Biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's Biola.edu/think-biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember. And remember, Think Biblically. About Everything.™