Michael Kruger: Surviving Religion 101
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Are your kids college-ready? Michael Kruger, author of Surviving Religion 101, examines how to prep teens for surviving religion—and keeping the faith.
Michael Kruger: Surviving Religion 101
Dave: So I did, you know, the Google® thing last night. [Laughter]
Ann: Oh no, that doesn't sound good.
Dave: No, this is/you know, I was thinking I want to get current research on the number of Christian kids that walk away from the faith after college.
Ann: What did you find?
Dave: According to Barna, 70 percent of high school students, who enter college as professing Christians, will leave with little to no faith.
Ann: Oh, that's so scary as parents.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: You know, as a parent in a Christian home, in some ways, we feel like our job is to prepare our kids to have a vibrant faith after they leave our home. And that's like: “Wow; that's not working”; so we need help.
Ann: Yes, we need some answers in: “What could it look like for us to prepare our kids?” and “Is there anything we can do that they don't walk away?”
Dave: Yes; I can't think of anybody better to come in the studio and give us some help.
Ann: Me too!
Dave: We've got Dr. Michael Kruger, President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, in the studio at FamilyLife Today. Welcome.
Michael: Thank you; it's so fun to be here and talk about this subject.
Dave: Yes; I know it's a passion of yours.
Michael: Oh, yes.
Dave: Obviously, you've written a book called Surviving Religion 101. Subtitle is just exactly what we're talking about: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College. Why did you write this?
Michael: This book is/got its own little story to it. It's really different than other books I’ve have written, because it's so much more personal. It’s personal, actually, in a couple ways.
One way it is personal is it's a little bit of my own story. In the introduction of the book, I tell how I ended up, as a Christian at a university setting, where I was in a classroom and was bombarded by claims from a professor that I didn't have answers for. It sent me down a whole new journey, figuring out whether I really believe what I thought I believed. I remember that vividly. Ever since that day, I thought, “You know, someone ought to write a book like this.” [Laughter]
It's real funny to think that I'm the one doing it; but then, that book has been percolating in the back of my mind for years. Then finally, my own daughter, Emma, heads off to college; and where does she go?—my alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill, which is exactly where I experienced that. As she got prepared to go off to college, I said, “You know, this is the time.” The book is part autobiographical and, obviously, part about my daughter’s own departure. It's very personal to me, and it's a subject near and dear to my heart.
Ann: Well, you were just sharing that, sometimes, you'll get a late-night call.
Ann: And you wondered like, “Oh, is that Emma?”
Michael: Yes; oh, those are really fun. Usually, it's about the time my eyes are shut, late at night, and I'm getting ready to go to bed. Of course, no college student is getting ready to go to bed when I'm going to bed. [Laughter] Phone rings, and I'll see—it's on my screen—I'll see that it's Emma and she wants to, you know, FaceTime® with me. She'll pop on the screen; and sure enough, behind her on the screen are like eight of her friends, all crowded into the video screen. She's like: “Dad, are you awake?!” I'm like, “Yes; what's going on?” She goes: “We’ve got a question for you.”
For the next 45 minutes, and I'm half asleep, we're down the rabbit trail of: “Does God predestine people?” or “What do we do about speaking in tongues?” or “What do we do when my Bible professor says that the Gospels are made-up fables or stories?” Whatever the issue of the day is, we're down it. They're all throwing in their questions, and it's a lot of fun. I love it. [Laughter]
Dave: How much of your time, even with Emma and her friends—and again, that could be expanded to all kinds of/hundreds of thousands of college kids—and not just college kids; we all have these questions.
Dave: How much of your answer is—I know you're a scholar on the Canon—I've watched you; and I mean, I don't think I'd want to go to anybody else in terms of, you know, the original manuscripts, and what we have in our Word, which is the Canon, which is where we get our truth from. But as you think about answering Emma, or people in that age, or any age:
- How much of it is intellectual?
- How much of it you think is emotional, or just the current world circumstances, or a college prof saying things that just target our faith?
- Where do you answer those questions? Do you go right to the mind, or do you go broader than that?
Michael: Yes; well, I think it's fair to say that it's: “Any question has multi dimensions to it in terms of its origins”; right?
Some are genuinely/have intellectual questions. I mean, one of the things I've learned over the years is there's a lot of people, who've never heard a good answer to the question they have. And as soon as they hear a good answer, they kind of have that shocked moment, like, “Oh, I didn't realize there was a good reason to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead.” And there's this sort of sense of epiphany. So some people do have genuinely intellectual questions, and they never heard a good answer. I think that says a lot about our current state of the church, probably.
But then there's others, who it's not just intellectual. It's maybe they had a bad experience in church; or maybe they, you know, had parents who went to church and abused them and were hypocrites; or maybe there's something that really bad happened in their life, and they can't get over the problem of evil, thinking that God doesn't really exist or couldn't exist. We all know that what we believe is not just intellectual; it's jumbled up together with our emotions, our experience, and our background.
One of the things I love about this book that I tried to do is to make it personal. You know, I wrote it as letters to my daughter. It's not just: ”Here's the intellectual data”; that's not that hard to do, actually, to give people data. What is harder to do is to give it to them in a framework they want to receive it. And so I tried to write this very personally, as a father to daughter; and I hope that comes across to the reader. Obviously, they're not my daughter; but they can get the sense that I really care about the person, not just the ideas.
Ann: Mike, what was your experience? You said you went to college: made you really start questioning.
Ann: What happened from there?
Michael: Yes; my story is obviously a key part of why I wrote the book. I arrived at UNC Chapel Hill as an undergrad in 1989. I soon found myself in a religion class called Introduction to the New Testament. And there I was—committed Christian, loved Jesus, grew up in a Bible-believing home with believing parents, taught the gospel at a young age—and I thought: “Oh, I'm fine here. You know, I had a good youth group. What more do you want?”—right? [Laughter] I had a youth pastor that was great; so therefore, all the world's fine.
I got in this class; and of course, the professor was funny, smart, bright, witty, brilliant. He started to just pick apart the New Testament in ways I'd never seen before. You know, showing me what he thought proved contradiction, showing me how historically unreliable, showing me how it has been changed over time by scribes throughout the generations. There I was—you know, what?—18/19 years old. I haven’t any answers at all.
I didn't realize, at the time, is that the professor I was hearing all that from would eventually become famous. His name is Bart Ehrman, if you know Bart Ehrman’s name. Bart Ehrman has written over 30 books now—and is still at UNC Chapel Hill—is one of the most prolific scholars today, and he's very critical of Christianity. At the time, he wasn't famous yet; I had him as a rookie professor. I didn't realize that I was having what would become one of the most famous critics of Christianity in the world today.
Of course, I didn't have answers; so I had a decision to make: “What was I going to do?” And what was curious was to watch other people’s reactions. Some of my fellow believers left the faith. Some of my fellow Christians just pretended it wasn't happening, just like: “I'm just not even going to engage. I'm just going to stick my head in the sand; pretend this isn't happening.” Others were looking for like, hybrid positions, like, “Well, maybe I can believe what I'm hearing in class and believe the Bible.” And there I was, like, “What am I going to do?”
The Lord used it to put me on a whole new trajectory. I decided I would go find what the answers are. That actually ended up leading to where l am today; where now, I’m a scholar myself. So it's funny how God used it—for hopefully—good ends.
Ann: Well, it's interesting because, as parents—I know what I could tend to do is—I'm fearful, and I don't want my kids in those situations.
Dave: —so you go bubble.
Ann: Yes, we go bubble; or we think: “Don't go to a secular university; that could be the death of your faith.”
Ann: But instead, you're saying that ignited your faith.
Ann: I think, even as parents, just to have those conversations. You may not be able to answer the questions; but we can, at least, have the conversations at the dinner table: “Tell me what you think about...”
Michael: Exactly; it's inevitable; right? So let's imagine you kept the bubble-thing going, even through college, and you said: “Okay, I'm not going to let my kid go to a secular school,” or “I'm not going to let my child have a religion class.” Okay, well that's not going to fix the problem; because first of all, even in so-called Christian colleges, we know that some of that stuff is taught. But then, okay, what happens when they’re 22, and they graduate? Now, they're sitting around the water cooler at work; and they’re hearing the same arguments.
I mean, do we really think that?—eventually you've got to deal with that. You just cannot exist in our world today in a perpetual bubble. I don't think anyone ever really thinks that through; and that's what hopefully, my book is designed to address.
Dave: Yes; I know my first day in seminary, working on a three-year Master of Divinity, one of my first prof’s said, “Hey, first thing I want you to learn is read other people; read skeptics, read antagonists, read atheists.
Michael: Great advice.
Dave: “Do not just read what we give you. You need to know what others are saying. You need to be able to prove they’re right or wrong. You need to defend why you believe what you believe. If you only stay in one little tribe, and never break out, you will never expand.”
I remember sitting there, thinking, “Nobody’s ever told me that before. I thought I was supposed to stay away from that.”
Michael: Yes, because the church isn't saying that to people; yes.
Dave: Yes; it was like a new thought, like, “What? You mean that's not going to hurt me? It's actually going to help me?” It's like: “No, this will help you.”
Dave: That's what you're saying. It's like you have to have the antibodies to be able to—
Michael: You do; you’ve got to get your immune system kickstarted, spiritually.
Dave: I remember when I was in college, Josh McDowell came to our campus—now, we've had his son, Sean, on our program—but I remember him saying this—I’d love to have your thoughts on this. I remember him saying, from the stage—and again, I'm not sure I got the number right—but I'm guessing he said this: 90 percent of men and women that come up to him, usually college students, and ask an intellectual question—it's not an intellectual question—it's a moral question.
He said, “I'll often look at a young man or woman and say, ‘Let me ask you a question. If I could prove to you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to your satisfaction, that Jesus Christ is who He said He was, and He rose from the dead, would you surrender your life to him?’; and they often say, ‘No, because I want to keep sleeping with my girlfriend’ or “…boyfriend.’”
Michael: Oh, yes; oh, yes.
Dave: And he says, “Well then, it's not intellectual.”
Michael: Exactly. It's true that people believe in some ways—not what the facts dictate—they believe what they want to believe, and they also believe what fits with their earlier- and prior-held beliefs. Whenever someone is presented with the evidence for Christianity, you're not talking to someone with a blank slate; right? You're not talking to someone who's neutral; they already have a set of earlier, more foundational beliefs by which they evaluate that claim. That's called a worldview/a system of thinking.
And so people are going to reject Christianity, not necessarily because its faulty; but because it doesn't fit with earlier beliefs they hold, which may or may not be true. Part of the goal in any conversation is to get people to question their foundational commitments. For example, if you give someone the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, and they're like, “Well, I don't believe that.” When you bore down to why they don't believe that, it may turn out because they have this anti-supernatural worldview: “I don't care how much you evidence you give me; miracles are impossible.” So you could have evidence as high as the, you know, World Trade Center now—the new one in New York City—and it doesn't matter; because: “If miracles are impossible, I’m going to dismiss it all.”
So people definitely have bias, and that's one of the main things that makes it hard to talk to them.
Ann: I'm still thinking about your anticipation and your excitement when you saw that Emma was calling;—
Ann: —because, you knew, like, “This is going to be rich.
Michael: Oh, yes.
Ann: “You know, these conversations are going to go deep; it's going to be great.”
I thought: “If I would get that phone call, and my kids were going to ask me some of these questions, I would be in a panic.”
Michael: Yes, yes.
Dave: She would do this: she’d go: “Here honey…”
Ann: No! You know what I would do? I would be like—I'm thinking for parents right now/I think: “You need to get this book”; that's what I would do. I'd get this book, because the things that you're talking about are the things that our kids are facing; like you're into:
- “What do you do when you have a really smart professor?”
- “Christian Exclusivity”
- “Hateful and Intolerant Christian Morals”
- “Hell Verses a Loving God”
- “Suffering and Evil”
Michael: Yes, I don’t dodge the questions in this book; that's for sure. [Laughter]
Ann: You're hitting all the things that our kids are being bombarded with and causing them to really think through: “How do I answer this question?” Do you think that is why kids are leaving the church? What's happening?
Shelby: That's Dave and Ann Wilson with Michael Kruger on FamilyLife Today. You're going to want to hear his response in a minute.
But first, let's talk about life—it can feel isolating; right?—doing all the things in such a connected world, but we still feel so distanced from one another. What do we do about it? Well, one of our past guests, Jennie Allen, was on a mission to search for that same answer and wrote all her insights in a new book called Find Your People. When you give today at FamilyLife, we’ll send you a copy of Jennie's book as our thanks. You can give online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that's 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Michael Kruger and his thoughts on why so many kids walk away from their faith at college.
Michael: I think what's happening is: lots of kids have shown up in college, and they've never had to wrestle with these questions before. I think what you're discovering is that we need some deep, sustained reflection, as a church, upon why we have generations leaving the faith. Some of that's inevitable, just on the way that the world works—but—“Are we doing an adequate job of preparing people for what they're going to face?” I think the answer is: “I think clearly not in the way we probably ought to do.”
You know, my book isn't written to parents; it's not written to churches on how to prepare kids for college. It's written to people actually that already got to college; right? But one of the things I found out in all the interviews I've done for this book is that people want to know how we got here, like: “What are we missing in the church that allows kids to go to college, and get creamed, and have no answers?” I think that's the real issue. It's not so much that kids leave, not believing; it’s they leave, not knowing why they believe. And if they don't know why they believe, they're going to get out there, and they're going to get crushed by the intellectual climate of most universities.
So part of my book is written to just deal with the reality I'm faced with—which is a lot of kids, not knowing the answers—I'm hoping to help. I think maybe a future book, or a future discussion, could be: “But what can we do to dial the clock back and think: ‘How can we get at this issue before we even send them out the door?’” Maybe that's a discussion for another day.
Dave: Yes, so is that what you think we've missed? And this wouldn't just be in the church—but it’d be even in our own family rooms, as parents—
Michael: Yes, yes.
Dave: —you know, laying down a foundation of why we believe what we believe/helping our kids understand that.
I know that, as a preacher for the last 30 years, 30 years ago, I could make a statement in a sermon why there's evil in the world, and a loving God, and give sort of a pat answer; and it wasn't challenged.
Dave: The last 15 years, I started to realize: “If I don't go deeper”—especially, the next generation, is literally sitting there, listening to me, pulling up their phone—[Laughter]—or they've already done research; they know what some of the top scholars, atheists think and write about—they're going to listen to my pat answer and go, “Dude, you're not even going near this question. I can answer this better than you.”
I realized, “Wow, as a preacher, if I'm worth what I'm doing, I need to give them”—and the parents would be looking at me, like, “Why you going there?”—and their kids are like: “Thank you; thank you, because I'm reading what everybody else is saying; and I don't buy it anymore.” That's what you're doing; right?
Michael: Yes; I think, you know, one of the things I've seen over the years is a lot of parents, and a lot of churches, have sort of this bubble mentality of raising your kids, like: “I need to protect them for anything that's challenging to them, protect them from getting any bad teaching, and protect them from anything that's false.” Some parents, honestly, do such a good job of that that, by the time their kids get to college, they've not really heard much of anything as far as an objection to the faith.
It's kind of like that parent, who's overly concerned about germs. They're always worried that their kids’ going to get sick so they, you know, have hand sanitizer everywhere, and like really proud that little Johnny never got sick for the first 12 years of his life. But they don't realize that, actually, because he never got sick in those early years, his immune system was never boosted; and then, he gets a lot sicker later, ironically. You think you're helping your kid, and you're actually hurting your kid.
Same thing true, spiritually. I think we need to get out of the bubble mentality as parents and churches, and start, in one sense, inoculating our kids, early, with these things by introducing them to these unbelieving things in small doses, so to speak, so their immune systems can be kicked in, spiritually; and we're not doing that. My book isn't designed to do that; because I'm getting them at 18,19, and 20.
But if we could start sort of dropping little things into their lives to help them think through this, all the better. I used to do this with the kids around the dinner table. I would pretend to be the unbeliever at the dinner table.
Ann: How old were they?
Michael: They were 10, 11, 12; I'd be like: “Okay, I'm going to tell you, as a non-Christian, I think there's no reason to believe God exists. Here's the three reasons why I'm sure He doesn't exist…Respond; what would you say to that?”
You know, their eyes are big, and they’re like, “I don't know.” They're just figuring it out; that's a great exercise. It forces them to sort of push through what they may not know and not just accept it at face value.
Dave: So what do you say to a parent, who’s listening, thinking, “Well, I'm not a PhD; I’m not a seminary prof.” [Laughter]
I've had this fun a couple times, where I'll be at a park or something—and this happened just a couple times, where somebody will come to share Christ with me—and I do what you just did.
Michael: Yes, yes, yes; pretend to be the bad guy.
Dave: I don’t tell them I’m a Christian. I'm like, “Yes,—
Ann: Wait! You haven't done that; have you, Mike?!
Dave: Well, that’s what he just said he did at the dinner table.
Michael: I do at the dinner table; they know I'm doing it. I'm not sure the guy at the park knew that for you.
Ann: Dave’s just teasing with people.
Dave: Here’s what I found though—yes; but I mean, I tell them later—but initially, I push back: “Well, here's why I don't believe that…” Here's what I found: they don't know why either.
Dave: And I can almost crumble their faith because they're not—they have no depth; they have no—it's just, “Well, the Bible says so.” It's like: “That's not going to work.” So I think there's a parent listening, going, “Well, I can’t do that dinner table; because once they push on it, I'm done.” [Laughter]
Michael: Yes, yes. Well, I would tell parents: “Don't feel like you have to have a PhD to be effective with this. If you're growing in your faith, and you're trying to learn, and you're trying to read—you’re dealing with 10-,11-, 12-year-old kids—you're not dealing with some philosophy professor at your table; right? If you just know some basic things about why you believe, you can really help your kid get there.”
The other thing I would encourage parents to do is: “Lean on other resources.” Maybe you don't have a PhD; fair enough:
- But maybe you could help them go to certain groups that are willing to do these sorts of things.
- Or go to a church that’s willing to expose them to these sorts of things and willing to challenge them.
- Or have them read books. Not to sound like a cliché; but the book I just wrote, hopefully, could help parents think through these issues so they could then talk to their kids about them.
Dave: Yes, I mean, I read it; and it's definitely not just for a college kid to read.
Michael: No, no; I hope it's not. I mean, what I've discovered, in many conversations across the country in the last year, is that a lot of parents are coming up to me and they're saying, “I gave this to my college student, and I'm reading it with them.”
Michael: There's this sense of which the parents and the kids are reading the book together. I'm like, “You know, that's exactly what I hope to see.”
Dave: I mean, there's nothing wrong, as a parent or a mentor, saying, “You know what? Great question. I don't know; let's find out together.”
Michael: Exactly. I think that's part of the panic; right?—a parent thinks: “If I don't have all the answers, I can't engage in the conversations,”—but it's not bad to show your kids you don't have an answer. You can say, “Look, that's a great question. Let's go together and find out what the answer is, in whatever source we need to go into.”
Ann: Have your kids read the book?
Michael: Yes, they—of course, Emma’s read the book—my son, John, has read—I think all three have read the book. Actually, to be fair, the book is dedicated to all three. Each chapter is: “Dear Emma,” because I had to—she was the one in college at the time—but really, in my mind, I knew that, then, John would be in college; then soon, Kate would be in college. The book is for all of them, and they've all read it. Of course, Emma’s probably read it the most carefully; because she's at UNC right now. They seem to really benefit/resonate from it, and we have these conversations quite a bit around the table.
Dave: Is there a question that comes up the most from Emma or college kids, you think?
Michael: You know, when I wrote the book—there's 15 chapters—and I tried to pick what I thought were the 15 most sort of vital questions. And you know, I'm picking 15 out of 500—right?—so who knows if I got/hit the mark properly.
One of the questions I think I've heard the most—and I think is a sticking point for people that they don't realize—you know, there's always the problem of evil; we could go there. There are always the sexuality questions; we can go there. And those were biggies, no doubt about it. But what I've learned, over the years, is there's one that's even bigger, that most people don't even know how to articulate; and that’s the problem of: “Why does it seem like everybody in the world, who's smart, doesn't believe?”
At a university setting, they go in, thinking: “Okay, so Christianity is true;”—if we're Orthodox Christians, we believe it's the only true religion—"and yet, most of the people at my university don't believe it. And then on top of that, most of the smartest people in my university certainly don't believe it. The people, with those letters behind their name, really don't believe it.” And then they pause and think for a moment: “What's the chance that all of them are wrong, and I'm right?” That one question is like a little sliver in your brain that, if you don't/you don't have any answer to that, you're going to/it's going to crumble you.
Ann: Oh, will you answer that for us? [Laughter]
Michael: Yes; well, I answer, yes; absolutely. I answer it in the book; and I've actually started a little bit to already answer it; which is, “That would be a very damning question for Christianity if, in fact, people form their beliefs on facts alone.” We tend to think they do. We tend to think that people just form beliefs in this white lab coat, scientific sort of way, where if you give them the right data, they'll reach the right conclusions. And so we think people form beliefs scientifically and in a linear way. Therefore, if most people believe something, it must be true. And if something is true, most people will believe it.
What happens when we say something is true, and most people don't believe it; what do we do then? Well, this is where you know everybody comes into the game, with a worldview/with predetermined ideas—and not just any old worldview—a fallen, broken worldview, that's at the core, anti-God from the start, due to the fall of Adam and due to the darkness of their heart. That colors why and what they believe. Now, there's more to be said than that, but that's part of the answer. I think people just don't have those categories.
Dave: You know this better than anybody—even when you bring that to light: show the worldviews, and there's brokenness, and there's baggage—even then, most people don't ever get through that worldview. Even though the facts point them there,—
Dave: —they'll look at; acknowledge it—am I right?—and they still go: “I'm not going to believe.”
Michael: That's right. And what it really takes for a person to believe is a wholesale overturning of the way they look at the world. If you give a person all those facts, are they going to necessarily believe?—no. What they need is a wholesale paradigm shift—we have a word for that in Christianity—it's called conversion. [Laughter] And that is a work that is ultimately done by the power of the Spirit. Is it apart from facts?—no. Is it apart from the Word?—no. Of course, those things play a role; but it's ultimately, the Spirit that does it. So therefore, I could spend all day long, giving people all the data; but ultimately, it's something that God has to do.
Shelby: You've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Michael Kruger on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Surviving Religion 101, and you can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Dr. Michael Kruger on how to help a child, who is having doubts about their faith. That's tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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