Last week, a young adult I pastor came into my office to ask about something he’d seen. It was a video of a deconstructionist influencer on TikTok “proving” that the Gospels are unreliable. He wanted to know what I thought. The video had shaken his faith. Videos on social media like these have millions to hundreds of millions of views. If you pastor younger generations, you’re likely already aware of this new reality. If you’re not, welcome.
The thought of those in our ministries being drawn away by a stranger through a screen is gut-wrenching. As I’ve talked with friends who pastor junior high through college-age students, many feel daunted by this new trend. “We’re only with them a few hours a week, these accounts are available to them all day every day!” “Should we start accounts where we combat these videos?”
What is a pastor to do? How do we who’ve been charged with shepherding younger generations respond to this new reality and the threat it poses to those in our care? Before I try to answer that, let me first tell you what the answer is not.
As much as we might feel the need to, the response is not to go on TikTok or Instagram and watch every video we can find to know all the gauntlets being thrown. One reason is because the sheer amount of content out there is just too much for any pastor to try and get a hand on. To try to do so will only exhaust and discourage us. While some familiarity with the posts is wise, too much focus on them will distract us from who truly needs it—our students and young adults. Rather than the trend, they must command our attention.
Moreover, focusing on the content isn’t the right response because the questions being asked aren’t new. Sure, there are new angles and implications because of the new realities of our day–like LGBTQ+ issues; but the foundational questions underneath every point being raised by Exvangelical, deconstructionist, or atheist influencers are ones the Church has been asked and answered for nearly 2,000 years. It’s the medium that’s new, not the questions. The Church has a treasure trove of answers in its attic. We just need to open it up and familiarize ourselves with them.
At the same time, while old answers are what we have, new ways of putting them are what we need. Pastors should seek fresh presentations of old answers to fresh spins on old questions. Thankfully, we have contemporary resources just for that. There are plenty out there that you can find via YouTube or TikTok. These resources are a great help to both pastors and students because they answer the questions being raised in ways that most resonate with our context.
All of that being said, I strongly believe that familiarizing ourselves with the available resources is only secondary work. Worth a measured dose of our time? Absolutely! The most vital response we should have? Not by a long shot.
A Tried and True Response
So, what should we do? I want to propose the blueprint Paul gives in 1 Thessalonians 2:8:
“We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
This latest Christian-adverse social media trend is tricky to deal with, but I am convinced that the primary response must be life-on-life discipleship. What this moment demands of pastors of younger generations is that we keep doing what pastors have done since the dawn of the church. In our teaching, across coffee tables, at In-N-Out, by hospital beds, on drives home from youth group, we give the gospel and we give our own selves. The “answer,” as it has always been, is life-on-life discipleship.
Why is this the particular solution to deconstructionist social media? Because we have something the influencer on a device doesn’t: physical proximity. This means we have the unique opportunity to validate the truth of our words by our lives, to offer a front row seat to the gospel enfleshed in us. Through intentional, life-on-life discipleship, we let our lives verify the gospel.
This was Paul’s strategy. Multiple times in his letters he appeals to his in-person life among those he ministered to as the validating criteria of the gospel he shared with them (Acts 20:18; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 1-12, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10). That’s exactly what he does next in 1 Thessalonians 2. Right before and right after he tells them he loved them so much he shared not only the gospel but his very self with them (v.8), he says:
“For we never used flattering speech, as you know, or had greedy motives — God is our witness — and we didn’t seek glory from people, either from you or from others. Although we could have been a burden as Christ’s apostles, instead we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children…For you remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers. As you know, like a father with his own children, we encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to walk worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:5-7, 9-12)
Paul viewed and pointed to his tangible, in-person living among the Thessalonians as the case-in-point evidence for the genuineness of his love for them and the reliability of the gospel he had shared with him.
The same is true for pastors today. Life-on-life discipleship remains our authenticating witness to the gospel–and the effects are salvific. That’s exactly why Paul exhorts Timothy to “pay close attention to your life and your teaching.” Because, “in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). A pastor’s life among his people is the greatest apologetic he has for the Word he teaches, and by it people are brought to and kept in the faith. But in order for that to happen we must step off the stage and out of the office and get around our people so that our lives can be seen.
What is needed of pastors today amidst a rising tide of anti-gospel social media content? Answer our students’/young adults’ questions. Resource them. Train them to defend the faith. But above all else, share with them the glorious gospel of the grace of God and your very own self through run-of-the-mill, every day, your life on their life discipleship. That is the primary way pastors must respond to this latest challenge to our students’ and young adults’ faith.
Our More Compelling Witness
Here are just a couple of ways of doing this that my wife and I have tried and seen fruit from that you could easily start doing this this week:
1. Make space for students/young adults to pose the questions they and others have. This could be in a teaching series, but I think the most fertile ground for this is less from a stage and more so while sitting at a table. Here’s how I’ve tried to practice this: After our Sunday night gatherings, our young adults ministry goes, without fail, to In-N-Out. While we’re there, I will occasionally ask what TikToks they’ve seen lately that run counter to Christian teaching or what’s a question their friends have about Christianity. After they tell me, I ask them what they make of it, how they would respond, and then I give my own response or affirm theirs. These conversations assure them it’s ok to ask good questions, while also opening a door for good answers to be given to the questions they’ve come across.
2. Invite your students/young adults into your home/family life. Not only is this an incredibly vulnerable practice in our privatized culture in the West which is compelling in itself, but it also lets them see that the life you lead doesn’t vary depending on the turf you’re on. By demonstrating you are the same person everywhere, you adorn the gospel (Titus 2:10) with a validity the influencer on their phone simply can’t. What’s more, this act of vulnerability may give them the courage to ask questions they might feel less confident to ask in a group setting. But maybe most importantly, what better way to give yourself to them than to make space for them in your home/family life? This can look a million different ways. You can invite a student to help you get the heavy thing your wife bought off Facebook Marketplace. Your wife can invite a young lady over to help with the kids or in the garden. You can invite students to come watch your daughter’s soccer game with your family. The possibilities for opening our home/family life to students and young adults and the fruit that will come from doing so are endless.
So pastor, be encouraged. As your young people watch you handle the word and live it out by the Spirit’s power; as you invite them into your home where they see how you care for your wife and kids; as you show up at soccer matches and swim meets and dance recitals; as you do late night TacoBell runs after small group; as you make space across coffee tables for honest questions; as you invite them to go on a grocery run with you; as you hold them in hospital ICU rooms as their worst nightmare is unfolding before them, the validity of the gospel they’ve heard from you will be confirmed. Your life-on-life discipleship of those in your charge is the more compelling witness the Spirit will use to save and grow and keep them. You don’t need a social media presence. You don’t need a clever strategy. You just need to be around them. That will be your greatest and most Spirit-laden apologetic against which no question can stand.