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Jeff Myers is president of Summit Ministries, which trains Christian students to think and act Biblically. Here are edited excerpts of our discussion in front of Patrick Henry College students last March.
Two decades ago you told me four disruptive questions to ask if someone is ranting in a debate: “What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong?” I’ve added two more: “How did you arrive at that conclusion? Do you think that’s the whole story?”
What do you teach Summit students who will face rants against Christianity? We don’t just say, “Here’s what the Bible says. Here’s how we know it is true.” We ask, “What barriers stop you from living a life that’s fully committed to Jesus?”
I suspect one barrier is pornography. For probably about 70 percent. We’ve got a generation that primarily identifies as consumers rather than as producers. They consume pornography and lots of other stuff.
Can people talk about this in church? We work with a generation of young adults who do not see church as a safe place. They do not believe they can really grapple there with the things that separate them from God’s kingdom work. I listened to a sermon of a famous older preacher trying to communicate about generational differences, but he did it by saying, “When I was a kid, the only thing coming out of a closet was clothes.” Thousands of people laughed and applauded. We encourage that in a big forum, but my thought went to those who were younger than 40, sitting in the room thinking, “If I were to say that at my workplace, I would be run off.”
‘People have trigger warnings and safe zones because they feel powerless against the ideas they’re facing, but when students grasp reality through a Biblical worldview they don’t feel powerless.’
Do Summit students, who mostly come from conservative homes, perceive the Trump presidency in a different way than their parents do? My students find Donald Trump to be abrasive, in the same way they sometimes find the things their grandparents say to be abrasive. I know some of their parents and grandparents, and the students will say, “Oh, Grandma, you’re just being a racist,” or “Grandma, you just don’t understand.” We’re getting used to these kinds of family conversations, so I had a chance to work with the students to say, “You need old people who can mentor you,” and at the same time say to the grandparents, “Let me share with you some ways to reach the hearts of your grandchildren.” It’s just no longer acceptable among the young adults I work with to say the first thing that comes to your mind. Most of them find him abrasive, and I’m afraid it turns them away from things that he’s doing that could really ultimately benefit them.
What do they think of Bernie Sanders? A huge percentage of our students loved Bernie Sanders. We spend a lot of time really grappling with socialism and Marxism as a worldview and helping the students come to an understanding of Biblical stewardship, but if you’ve got $100,000 in student loan debt and you’re working as a barista in a coffee shop, that’s a real problem. Someone who comes along and says this system is rigged has a lot of credibility.
We hear a lot in colleges about “trigger warnings” and “safe zones.” My tendency is to say, “Don’t be so weak that you can’t hear someone say something unpleasant,” but you probably have a better response. The students need to feel loved and safe. People have trigger warnings and safe zones because they feel powerless against the ideas they’re facing, but when students grasp reality through a Biblical worldview, they don’t feel powerless. They have a sense of how issues are playing out across campus.
When you say, “I am not Mr. Perfect. I haven’t always done everything right,” does that give them liberty to talk more freely about things they haven’t done right? I do believe that. I’m open about things I have done in my life that I regret. The instructors who are most credible with students are the ones who are open about their own past but who have a sense of hope for the future. They can express redemption in Christ because they’ve really experienced it.
You’ll talk about your own background? I was in a fraternity, and my fraternity brothers thought I was really cool because I would sleep around and pornography was always available. But then I got my girlfriend pregnant. Both of us had a pro-life instinct, but we became very utilitarian in that moment. I paid half of the abortion fee. Later I clearly realized I had hurt a wonderful person, ended a budding life, and had created for myself consequences that I would deal with for the rest of my life. Could you imagine talking to your children about such a thing, to say there was an older sibling?
So you talk about that with the students? They realize, “If he can share that, then I can deal with the things that are stopping me from living a life that’s fully committed to Jesus.” It’s enormously exhausting. It brings up more issues than you would ever think would come up at a worldview camp. But it is powerful to see the freedom students get.
What are some of the issues that emerge? Pornography use, rape, abuse, drug use, alcohol abuse, you name it. Christian students are not immune.
Parents are usually startled when we find our perfect kids have engaged in such activities? When I grew up, it was, “OK. You made a mistake. Just move past it. Don’t talk about it.” It took me a long time to talk about my girlfriend’s and my abortion because I lived in a culture that said, “It’s over with. Just move on”—but consequences are not so easily dismissed.
Do you see gender confusion growing among students? In 12 days at Summit we have 56 hours of instruction. I’ve been president for seven years. During that time we’ve gone from about four hours dealing with sexuality and marriage and gender to about 15 hours of that 56 hours dealing with those issues.
You’ve personally had a hard time. About four years ago or so, my marriage ended. Dealing with being a ministry leader, a dad—how do I do all of that? I went for a long run and felt overcome by a sense of despair. I tried to pray, but my prayer came out as, “God, why? Why can’t You see that I am down as far as I can go? Why are You still kicking me?” I ran for two hours grappling with this and accusing God of being a bully, then apologizing for accusing Him of being a bully. I wasn’t doubting that God existed. I was questioning, as many people do, whether He is good.
Where did you end up? I wasn’t thinking I can’t do today: I was thinking I can’t do this for another year, for the rest of my life. Scripture spoke powerfully in those moments. Lamentations 3:22-23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed”—for His mercy is renewed every morning and His faithfulness is great. I would say, “God, I can’t do six months of this. I can’t do a year. I can’t do this.” And it was as if He said through Scripture, “Let’s not do a year. Let’s do today.”