Immunizing Students From Bad Ideas
Passing on a Christian worldview to our kids requires us to help them love the truth and gain spiritual immunity against infectious bad ideas.
John StonestreetShane Morris
Many Christian parents worry about passing on the faith to their children. Sadly, statistics suggest they should. In 2020, the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that just 2% of millennials, a generation now well into adulthood, have a biblical worldview. That is the lowest of any generation since surveys on the topic began. Lifeway Research reports that two-thirds of those who attend a youth group as teenagers will drop out of church as adults.
A significant aspect of the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation has to do with ideas. Helping students think correctly about life and the world, God and themselves, would be hard enough if they weren’t facing such strong cultural headwinds. But they are. And bad ideas are like viruses. They spread from the mind to the heart and from person to person, even infecting entire populations.
Many young people today leave the faith because they lack the necessary immunity from the bad ideas of our culture. Christian parents must not only present the truth to their kids, they must find ways to immunize them against lies. To do that, we need to know which teaching methods work and which don’t.
Dr. Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries points to the work of a Yale psychology professor from the 1950s. Dr. William McGuire suggested that bad ideas behave like viruses. Specifically, the more exposure one has to bad ideas in a controlled setting, the less likely they are to fall for those ideas later.
McGuire performed a series of experiments in which he tried to convince subjects of a lie, that brushing their teeth was actually bad for them. Those with no preparation for what they were about to hear were more easily convinced to stop brushing, and those who were warned against a specific bad argument that they would hear were harder to deceive. No real surprise.
More surprising were the groups that were easiest and the hardest to dupe. The group most vulnerable to falsehoods was not the one with zero preparation, but the one who had merely had the truth reinforced. In other words, the subjects most easily deceived were told things like, “You know brushing your teeth is good for you, right? You’ve been taught this since you were little. Trust us.” When they heard arguments they had never heard before, this group felt sheltered and even deceived.
The least vulnerable group were those who had not only been warned against a bad argument they would hear, but they were also taught how to respond. They were also warned they could face additional bad arguments, so they needed to be aware and vigilant.
What does this experiment teach us? For one thing, that the method many Christian parents and churches use to pass on the faith—reinforcement without taking seriously counter ideas—is doomed to fail. In fact, it can leave young people more vulnerable to lies.
It also teaches us that we don’t have to give kids all the answers, but they do need to be aware and ready to think for themselves. This requires that we give them a framework, or a pattern, of responding to bad ideas thoughtfully and confidently.
This is what the team at Summit Ministries has been doing with students for decades: immunizing them against bad ideas and preparing them for challenges to their faith. The results are measurable and impressive.
An independent 2020 survey of Summit alumni showed that just 40% felt able to defend their faith against challenges before attending a student conference. After attending, that number skyrocketed to nearly 90%. Before Summit, only 44% claimed a strong commitment to Christianity. Afterward, 77% did. And, almost 97% of Summit alumni indicate they are currently attending a church that holds to the truth of the Bible.
Chuck Colson called Summit Ministries “the gold standard” for training young adults in Christian worldview. I agree. I’ve personally witnessed and been part of the transformation that happened at Summit. Each 2-week student conference—held at Covenant College in Georgia and at the Summit headquarters in Manitou Springs, Colorado—shapes a robust, biblical worldview in young people while also preparing them for divisive topics like abortion, doubt and deconstruction, evolution, gender identity, God’s existence, sexuality, and more. (A 5-day online version is also available.)
If you know a student who needs to attend a Summit conference this summer, visit summit.org/student, and use code “BREAKPOINT” to receive an exclusive discount.
The numbers speak for themselves. Passing on a Christian worldview to our kids requires much more than just telling them the truth. It requires us to help them love the truth and gain spiritual immunity against infectious bad ideas.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
This Breakpoint was first published on 2.18.22.
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