Author Tim Barnett
Published on 04/24/2023
Tactics and Tools

How to TRAIN Youth: Test Students to Engage Interest

Tim Barnett explains how we can motivate students by identifying what they don’t understand.


If you want to engage the minds of your students, you need to start testing them.

Here’s one of the things we do, typically, when I get invited to a church to speak or invited to speak to a youth group. I ask if I could start with an atheist role play. This is before the students know who I am. I get invited in, and usually the youth pastor says, “Hey, this is my friend, Tim. He grew up in the church, but he is no longer a believer. He’s an atheist, and he’s going to share his view with you.” And so, I get up there, and man, I got a full presentation. I do 15 minutes of arguments for atheism. I say, “How can you believe in a good, powerful, loving God? Look at all the evil in the world. Seriously. You believe in a good God?” I say things like, “Oh, you trust the Bible. You mean that book that is full of contradictions? Let me show you a couple. How many women went to the tomb? Well, it depends which Gospel you read. Let’s talk about Christianity for a minute. The Trinity. How many gods do you believe in? God the Father. God the Son. God the Holy Spirit. That sounds like three gods, but you’re saying you believe in one God. Don’t you know that three does not equal one? I don’t need a PhD in math to know that. What about the incarnation?”

So, I walk through all these kinds of arguments, one after another—like eight arguments in 15 minutes—and the kids are wide-eyed: “What are we doing here?” And then I open it up. “Okay. Let’s talk. I’ve been talking at you for 15 minutes. You got any questions for me? Challenges?” And these kids—I mean, God bless them, they are trying, but in most cases, they are not doing well. They come alive when I reveal that I’m a Christian, but when I’m doing this, I’ve had people stand up—like leaders who didn’t know I was a Christian—and yell at me, “Everything you’re saying isn’t true,” and then grab their group to leave. The youth pastor invited me to a conference, and he didn’t tell the other pastors that I’m a Christian, so one of the pastors yelled at me, grabbed his kids right in the middle of my thing, and started heading for the door. So, the other the guy who knew me went and met him at the door, and actually, he came up and apologized and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to protect my kids.” And he went total isolation mode, like a mother hen.

I had a group of girls sit in front at one of my things, and I’m just being funny, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact with me because I’m the atheist. So, here’s the response I got from this group when I tell them I’m a Christian: “I knew it!” Give me a break. Seriously. They didn’t know it. All right? These kids think they know everything. And this is part of it, right? You get to show them that they don’t know everything. One of the things we’re doing when we do this is we’re exposing. We’re helping the students identify what they don’t understand. When they’re trying to explain an answer to the problem of evil, can they do that? Do they understand how evil fits into the whole Christian story? Do they understand basic Christian theology—the nature of God, the Trinity, the incarnation—these kinds of things? I want to see what they know and what they don’t, and then, when we figure out what they don’t know, let’s start training them there. That’s where we’ll start.

The other question, though, is how do you get kids motivated? We’re challenging their ideas. So, you better believe after I’ve spent 30 minutes role-playing the atheist that there are kids in that room who maybe did not care at all about apologetics, and now, they are totally interested in finding answers to those questions because now they’ve had their back against the wall, and they didn’t like that feeling, and they want to be able to respond. It motivates kids. That’s one of the challenges we have. The biggest problem in the church isn’t atheism; it’s apatheism. It’s not belief that there is no God; it’s getting kids to care about this stuff—care that God exists.