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: You're listening 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. Thanks so much for joining us.

Sean McDowell: We are back for a second show with Brett Kunkle. Brett, you went to Biola as an undergrad, did your Masters in Philosophy at Talbot, eleven years of youth pastor, 14 years with Stand to Reason. That means you've been in youth ministry 25 years, quarter of a century. And you're a grandpa.

Brett Kunkle: That means I started when I was 10 years old? That's crazy.

Sean McDowell: Exactly, and you've got a super neat ministry, called Maven, that we would encourage listeners to check out. But you also have a new book out that you wrote with John Stonestreet.

Brett Kunkle: Let's be honest. I actually just let John put his name on there. But… Well, someone had to do the heavy lifting.

Scott Rae: We're having John on next. You're aware of that.

Sean McDowell: Wait, wait a second. After you, so you better rein it in.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah. No, John was a great co-author. It was a great project to work together on. I think we brought some unique things to it and brought that together.

Sean McDowell: You gave me the chance to endorse, and I was more than happy to. But let me ask kind of the big question. It's called A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today's World. Let's start with a 30,000-foot view. Why did you write this book? What were you hoping to accomplish with it?

Brett Kunkle: I have five reasons for writing this book: Lexi, Micah, Page, Ella, and Jonah. Those are my five kids. That's the reason I wrote the book, because I have a responsibility to disciple those kids primarily in this culture. As a parent, I'm feeling the challenges. We all feel those challenges. We feel how the culture has changed. It presses in. It's more challenging. I needed to know how to help my kids navigate this culture.

I guess I have a sixth reason now. That's Annie. That's my oldest daughter Lexi got married in May of 2016. She just had our first grandchild. So there's another little one in the Kunkle family who we need to help navigate a challenging culture. So really, that's my motivation is my kids for writing this book. We wanted to give something that hit the ideas, and the theory, and the worldview stuff, and at the same time, didn't just stay there but that gave parents, and pastors, and youth workers, and grandparents, and leaders very practical tools and ideas that they could implement immediately. So there's a good balance between the ideas and the practicality.

Sean McDowell: Just for the record, you gave me a hard time in the last show about having more gray hair. But you are a grandpa. I'm not close to being a grandpa.

Brett Kunkle: That's right, that's right. There are some of my friends who are a little bit older than me that they take pride in not being ... They're like, "Well, you're the grandpa." But here's my question to those older gentlemen. They know who they are. Would you rather be a grandpa, or would you rather look like a grandpa? Would you rather look like a grandpa and not have the benefits of being a grandpa? No, I am a young, very young grandpa. But I think it's going to be pretty fun. I'm going to be able to enjoy my kid.

Sean McDowell: I'm sure you will. I thought it was interesting. You called the book Navigating Culture. You're not saying we're against culture. You're not saying we're above culture. Will you first off define for us what you mean by culture and the perspective you're taking, or saying, that Christians should have, our posture in light of culture?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, culture is an interesting word for Christians. Oftentimes, the way we talk about culture is in this very negative way. Culture is ... It's pop culture. It's debauched Hollywood. It's the bad songs that our kids are listening to. It's all this bad stuff. That's culture. And so if that's our view of culture, then you can see that our posture towards culture is going to be one of standing against it all the time. Then there's going to be this kind of fortress mentality, this withdrawal that I don't think is the way that we're supposed to interact with culture.

I think a very simple definition of culture is this: Culture is what human beings make of the world. It's what we make of the world. And so wherever you find human beings, you're going to find culture. So it includes things like our institutions that we build, the structures of the society that we build, our ideas within the culture, our heroes, our villains. I mean it's all of that stuff.

So Culture in and of itself isn't bad, it's what we do with it. It's what direction we take it in. In that sense, there will be different times that a Christian will relate to ... or different ways a Christian will relate to culture. So there will be times where we need to be against things in the culture. So for instance, on the issue of abortion, when innocent children in the womb are being killed, that's something we've got to be against. And we got to fight against.

But there are other times where someone makes a movie, a good movie. Any Marvel movie, of course, is what you're thinking, Sean. But you have a good movie that's out there, that promotes some virtue, or puts vice in a bad light, we can celebrate that as well, even if the movie maker wasn't a Christian. I mean, imagine that, or a beautiful piece of art, or those kind of things. Sometimes we can be for those things in the culture. Yeah, so that, I think, kind of what culture is and how we ought to relate to it.

Scott Rae: One of the things that comes out in your book, sort of repeatedly, is this notion that ideas have consequences. I like what you add to that when you say, "And bad ideas have victims." Give our listeners some examples that you have in mind of how some bad ideas have produced victims.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, well gosh, there's so many. It's hard to even think of what to hone in on. But let's just take the ... I mean, we talked about the issue of abortion. There are ideas in the culture, especially ... And you hear this a lot with young people, where there is this tendency and this impulse to want to have absolute autonomy. Then this idea that, "I am an absolute autonomous being who gets to, basically, determine my own destiny," gets played out in different ways.

So with something like the issue of abortion, the issue becomes not, "What is that thing in the womb, the unborn child, but what is my right? What do I get to do with my body?" And it gets reframed in that way. And these ideas have consequences for then motivating action. So a young person says, "Ah, I got pregnant in college. Okay, I'm not ready for this. Abortion is simply one of my options. I'm an autonomous person. I can make that decision." They make that call. And then there's devastating consequences for the rest of their lives for that person. That's the kind of example.

Technology, the ideas that come through technology and our use of technology, thinking that ... Again, this idea of autonomy, "I can use this thing however I please. I simply determine these kind of things." The whole idea of accountability, or obligation, or obligation to other people in my community, those ideas are gone. And so there are consequences of those bad ideas as they play out.

Scott Rae: The other term I like that you've coined in the book, that I'm not familiar with before, is the term you used to describe baloney detectors. How do you teach students to have a sharp and well-functioning baloney detector?

Brett Kunkle: I think it starts by grounding our kids in the truth first. In fact, when I talked about some of the unique mission trips and exposing kids to atheists, or skeptics, or people from other religions, but when I do that, there's something I do first before I ever take them on one of these trips. They are trained. They are taught. They are exposed to the truth first, then error. And I think that is key in helping to develop this kind of baloney detector, is that they need to know the truth first, so then they are able to spot error. Truth first, then error.

I think this starts when our kids are really young. Don't wait till junior high or high school to do this. This begins when they're two, and three, and four years old. This is where we begin the process of teaching them theology. This is why, with our kids, when they were two and three, we would start taking them through a children's catechism to teach them theology.

It's funny. Some of the evangelical response I get when I use that term, catechism, people go, "Oh, that's a Catholic thing. You got to stay away from that." Catechism is simply putting theology into a question-answer format. And I ask my kid the question, "Who made you?" is the first question of the catechism. They memorize the answer, "God." "What else did God make?" "God made all things." "Why did God make you and all things?" "For His own glory." And so then we're walking through this. The kids are memorizing.

Now here, sometimes we think, "Well, but they don't understand everything." Yeah, of course they don't. That's okay. I'm pouring into them all this raw material. Some of it they'll understand. Some of it ... It's fun to watch kids over time reflect on it and then have this "aha" moment. And then some of it, yeah, it's going to be there so that I can continue shaping it when they are in junior high and high school. But that foundation begins right from the get-go.

Sean McDowell: You have a chapter on the information age, which seems very timely. And I'm curious. Some people say the Internet has created The Dumbest Generation, was the title of a book. And yet, I was asked recently by a high-school student about the ontological argument for the existence of God. I'm just curious, what's your take? Do you take one or the other? Is it both? How has this information explosion just shaped this younger generation?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, I think it's a double-edged sword. So the access to information is great. The access to authors, and thinkers, and writers is great. I mean, if you want to read some of the great works of Western civilization, well they've been posted on the Internet. That's a great part of it. I think that the challenge is that there's so much out there. And there are so many bad sources out there, that it’s hard for a young person to discern what's a good source of information and what's a bad source. I can do a Google search for any topic and get a million hits. And I have no idea how to sort through that for a young person. That's what they're thinking.

And so then, I think one of the challenges is then they lose authorities in their lives. They're not sure who to trust as an authority, right? Because there's so many voices. And this is why it's important for us. When it comes to technology, technology is limited in what it can do. This is where the church, the community of believers, is so vital for a young person to be grounded in, so that they can see men, real-life, flesh-and-blood men and women in their lives who can be those authorities, who they can go to. It's not just, "Well, whenever I need some help, I go to Google. But no, I've got mom or dad, this wise person, or I have this leader at my church, or this grandpa, or whatever." There are these older people at church in their community who can be those sages and help give them that wisdom that you don't get by googling something.

Sean McDowell: So this is what you mean in the book by thinking worldviewishly? That was kind of a new word for me, too, like baloney detector. What do you mean by that? What does that look like with students?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, I've been doing apologetic stuff for a long time. And apologetics is good, and necessary, and important. So I'm all for it. But I think sometimes those of us in the apologetics community have to understand that apologetics can be kind of narrow. I=And it's not the end-all, be-all. In fact, if we think about it properly, apologetics is a sub-branch of theology. But there's this larger area of theology that, really, I think connects with this idea of think worldviewishly.

Another way to put it is we need to think theologically about everything. I want young people to know the truth and defend it, but then I also want them to see how it connects to every single area of life. In fact, one of the unique mission trips we did two years ago with my home church is we did a worldview road trip. And in part of that trip we taught the kids about the fallenness of man, took that aspect of human nature, and then we went to Sacramento. We did some looking at government, and economics, and that kind of thing. How do Christian insights play out here? But when we were doing the training, we did a talk. One of our trainings was on economics. And I remember one of the kids, at the beginning of that talk, his question was, "what are we doing talking about this subject in church?"

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Brett Kunkle: I mean, how revealing is that? His faith had absolutely no connection to this huge area of economics, which touches almost every area of their life, right? So that's what I mean by thinking worldviewishly. Okay, how does Christian truth apply to everything I do across the board? How does it pervade my life, whether it's social media, or technology, economics, or business, or what have you, any area.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I actually can't think of one aspect of our earthly life that doesn't have something, either directly or indirectly, to do with economics. You're so right to point that out. Let me take off on something similar to that. In the earlier parts of your book you describe your view of work, and calling, and vocation, things like that. Spell out a little bit more, what's the view of work and vocation that you talk to students about?

Brett Kunkle: Well, I think in the church we often hold up the "spiritual callings" as these higher callings. And so if you're going to be a pastor, or a missionary, or something like that, well, that's really a calling. You got to hear from God for that calling. Now if you're going to be a businessman, or a nurse, or a doctor, or a store clerk, or whatever it is, okay, that's nice. Really, what you can do is make money so you can help the people that have the real callings. Again, this connects with the idea of thinking worldviewishly.

What I want to help young people realize and understand is that the calling on our lives is a general call to see everything and every ... I think it was Abraham Kuyper who talked about how there's not a single square inch of reality where Jesus doesn't say "mine." And that's the idea, is that, no matter what area you go into, the Christian worldview has huge insights for that area. And there is a Christian way, or a Christian approach to that, to the enterprise itself.

I'm not just thinking of the businessman who says, "Okay, we're going to start our day with prayer." Or, "I'm going to use business as an opportunity to evangelize." All that's good and wonderful. But what about the enterprise of business itself? For instance, think about Jesus' words to us about serving. Does that have application to business? I think so. You have a business owner who has customers. You serve your customers well. There's insights there, even from Jesus, I think, for business.

So it's the enterprise itself, the activity itself, that can be a calling, where Christ and His truth are integrated to every aspect of it. And there's not this kind of bifurcation between the sacred and secular. You got your sacred callings, like pastors, and your secular callings, like business. No, you shatter that paradigm. And anything that you go into, any area of study can be used to the glory of God. And Christian insights can apply to that area.

Scott Rae: I'm so glad to hear you articulate it in that way, because I think that's so consistent with what the Bible teaches. And I love how, in the first part of the book, you relate that to the big story of the Bible, the four-chapter view of the big story of the Bible. Tell our listeners what are those four chapters, and especially, how do those bookends connect to this view of work and vocation?

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, it's important for us as believers to keep the moment--the cultural moment--that we're in and the story--the larger story--straight. And so what we wanted to do is ... This is not unique to us, to John and I, but we want to say, "Okay, what's that larger story? How do we categorize it in a way that it really kind of provides this framework?" And so the four acts of the story are creation, it starts with creation. A good God has created a good world. Then you have the fall, alright the fall of man that breaks everything. And then you have redemption. That's this act that we're in, where God is redeeming us unto Himself. And then lastly, we have restoration, where He will make all things new.

This is our framing story. This frames everything. And so one of the insights that we get from creation is that when God makes the world, He makes it good. And we are given this cultural mandate to subdue the earth. And we are made in His image. We are image bearers.

And so how does this inform, kind of, calling, and business, and that kind of thing, and work? Well, we are sub-creators made in the image of God. We take the good world that God has made, and we create beautiful things from it. And so a young person who's an artist, or makes music, or does film, or those kind of things they take the natural resources of the world and as a sub-creator, made in the image of God, with the ability to create, they make good things.

That, in and of itself, reflects God. It reflects our nature's image bearers. It reflects His beauty. We create culture, and we give it back to the world. We allow those things to point back to the Beautiful One, as we create a beautiful, not just a piece of art, but a beautiful business.

Scott Rae: We call that ministry or service, I think, is the better term to translate that word diakonia, from which we get, often, ministry, but our service. I think you take it even further, that opportunity to serve, it's also, I think, the best opportunities we get to love our neighbor. The Barna research, I think, has been very persuasive on this, that shows that churches and youth ministries that really, solidly address this idea of work, and calling, and vocation, students who get that when they're high school and college students have a three-times more likely chance to retain their faith and retain meaningful involvement in their churches. It's a really important part of it.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, there's a huge struggle with young people. For many of them in our evangelical churches, God operates in the background of everyday life. So when you do this, you bring Him front and center. You help them to see how He's relevant to everything, and that He's not just this genie who you call on when you need help, but that, actually, He is involved deeply in every aspect of life.

Sean McDowell: When I picked up the book, I was curious what topics you were going to talk about, specifically, in culture. There's a few I expected. You talk about pornography, and I'm thrilled you guys are willing to address that. You talk about sexual orientation, racial tension. But then there's a chapter titled, Affluence and Consumerism. Talk to me about the decision to include that and what parents and teachers need to know to help young people navigate on that tissue.

Brett Kunkle: Okay, so there's a book that parents and leaders need to read. It's called The Price of Privilege. And essentially, in that book, what the author does is shows us that affluent kids, those kind of middle-class, suburban kids that we think, "Oh, yeah, they've got the American dream. They've got education. They've got money. They've got technology. Those kids are happy." No, they're absolutely not. They're actually less happy than other demographics.

And so what we've done for our young people is we've given them this view of the good life that is a false view, that at the end of it is emptiness. But so much of life is oriented this way, right? In fact, when you look at the topics, we chose those topics, because as we talked to young people, these are the things that they are having more conversations about. These are the things that are touching their lives more.

Now, look. Do kids need to know about an apologetic issue like the existence of God? Yeah, absolutely. But I found that not a whole lot of kids are having that conversation right now. These are the conversations we've identified: What they're wearing, what they're buying, what kind of car they're going to get. Those are part of their everyday conversations.

But these end up being huge roadblocks for many of them in their faith. So they've been oriented all their life towards this view of the good life that says, "Good life is essentially pleasure, pleasurable experiences, material goods to bring pleasure." And what ends up happening is they take that kind of God-shaped void in their life, and they fill it with stuff. It leaves emptiness. What you find is there's greater rates amongst young people today of anxiety, and depression, and being on antidepressants. That's why we felt like that was a huge need to address, because I think ... I mean, let's be honest. The evangelical church struggles with this, with its own affluence and materialism. And so unfortunately, we have passed a lot of that on to our kids.

Sean McDowell: So what do we do in response to that? Is it just not give our kids things? Is it take them to go serve the poor? These are the typical answers I hear. What are some tips that you give?

Brett Kunkle: Well, I'll tell you some of the things that we do in our own home. Number one, from the very get-go, we, my wife and I, teach our kids number one, to work, and that work is a good thing. So we've kind of simplified our goals for our kids, things that we want to pass along to them as they leave our home. But one of them is we want to help them develop a work ethic.

That means starting off working very young. So it's when our kid is a two-year-old, we have them help clear things from the table. We'll have them help around the house. Then we talk about work in very positive ways, because we know that they're being shaped by this pleasure-oriented culture that says, "Oh, work, that's bad." We say, "No, work is actually a very good thing. Toil can be a very good thing." And we want to celebrate that.

Another thing that we do is we don't give our kids a lot of things. We have them earn it. We have them work towards it. My 10-year-old, her older sister has a Disneyland pass, so she wants to get a Disneyland pass. It's about, I don't know, a $300 investment. So we've told her, "All right, go for it. Earn the money, and save up, and do it." And so she has been.

Just about a month ago I'm driving in the car with her. She did her last task to get that last bit of money to get that $300 to get that Disneyland pass. We're driving in the car, and I can see she's thinking. The wheels are going and she, unprompted, she says, "Dad, it really feels so much better when you work hard and earn something for yourself rather than it just be given to you."

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Scott Rae: Hallelujah.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Brett Kunkle: Yeah, I could have wept. That was like, "Okay, she's not entitled. She's not spoiled. She sees the value in toiling, and work, and some of the reward." Now she gets to enjoy a gift from God, a Disneyland pass. So that's one thing that we've tried to do is get our kids to work, have them earn their stuff, work hard for it.

And then with that, we also have them give. We have a thing that we call a giving box in our house. And it's just a little wooden box. We encourage our kids when they earn money is to put a portion of their money in the giving box. And so we collectively do that. Then as needs arise, we look for opportunities to give that money away and the kids get input into that.

So recently, there was a couple from Talbot who needed to move across country. They were dirt poor. They needed some help. The kids decided, "Hey, let's take all the money in the giving box, and let's bless that family." And then they get to see the reward of generosity and giving. So those are just some of the practical things we do in our home.

Sean McDowell: Brett, these are some wonderful insights about culture but also some helpful, practical things that we can do. I'd certainly commend to our listeners your book you wrote with John Stonestreet, A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today's World. Thanks for coming on. I also encourage our listeners to check out your new ministry focused specifically on young people, and also in the world of apologetics, and worldview. You're doing a great job. Thanks for coming back.

Brett Kunkle: Thanks for having me.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Brett Kunkle, and to find more episodes, go to www.biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. 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, Think Biblically. About Everything.™