Focus on the Family packed them in like sardines. At $35 a head, more than 1,500 teens, parents and youth-group leaders had converged on Colorado Springs from 21 states, Puerto Rico and Canada for the two-day Dare 2 Dig Deeper apologetics conference, aka the "Big Dig." A few dozen faithful lingered in the elaborate lobby of the campus's administrative building as the sold-out event got under way on Friday, August 26, hoping to be chosen from a waiting list that was 500 names strong.
Except for nine chairs labeled "media," there wasn't an open seat in the chapelteria. ApologetiX -- a Christian band that describes itself as "Weird Al Yankovic meets Billy Graham" -- warmed up the crowd with "JC's Mom (Has Got a Growin' Son)," sung to the tune of "Stacy's Mom (Has Got It Going On)." While the crowd clapped and bobbed, a cluster of groupies flailing around in the front row looked one guitar solo away from throwing their bras on stage. And when the Real Slim Shady morphed into the Real Sin Savior, the audience became a sea of white wannabe rappers.
May I have your repentance, please?
May I have your repentance, please?
Will you tell Him "Save me" and please stand up?
"The whole Bible is true, starting with Genesis I," the lead singer proclaimed. "You've got to believe it all, or don't believe it at all. A lot of that evolution stuff you're taught is really phony baloney." With that, he introduced "Monkey Scheme," a parody of the Monkees' theme song:
They say we were monkeys
I think their heads are stuck in the ground
'Cause they're too busy diggin' and putting the Bible down.
Alex McFarland, Focus's director of teen apologetics, set the tone for this first conference devoted to the branch of theology geared toward defending or proving the Christian doctrines. He assured the audience that the Bible is true, regardless of the sophistication and size of the opposition. "The majority of people say gay marriage is okay," he said. "There was a time when the majority of people thought tomatoes were poison."
McFarland introduced the evening's headliner, author Josh McDowell, as having given more than 23,000 talks on Christianity since 1964. (That's roughly 1.5 a day, which beats Wilt Chamberlain's 1991 claim of having had sex with 20,000 women at a rate of roughly 1.2 women every day since he turned fifteen.) This talk began with McDowell remembering the eleven-year-old boy who rejected God and plotted to kill the alcoholic dad who hurt his mom, a boy who grew into a man accepting Jesus into his heart, forgiving his father and helping lead him to Christ before he died.
When McDowell asked who in the audience was ready for a personal relationship with Jesus, four dozen young people accepted his invitation, moving to the aisles as their brethren clapped and cried. This joyous outpouring seemed the perfect place to end the evening, but McDowell pressed on. While traveling the world to talk about Christianity, he said, he'd asked more than 4,000 Christians face to face why they believe the Bible is true.
Only six had given intelligent answers. Most had offered things like "That's what I believe" or "Because it changed my life."
With that reasoning, McDowell noted, you could say the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Or the Koran: He'd met more than 200 Muslims who all said the Koran had changed their lives.
Tomorrow, McDowell assured his uncomfortable listeners, a lineup of brilliant minds would offer intelligent answers that they could use to explain why they believe what they believe.
Or they could find those answers in books by McDowell and other speakers, all available for purchase throughout the conference.
Nineteen-year-old Sheree Luttrell, looking cool and slightly hippie-esque, stood in the last row Saturday morning, swaying slightly with the mellow Christian rock music. She'd come to the conference hoping to learn things she could take back to the church youth group she leads in Los Angeles.
Asked why she believes what she believes, Luttrell stumbled nervously over her words, as if she only knew what not to say. "Not because it's been told to me," she said. "I made my faith my own. I've studied it. I'm not following everyone else. I have my own faith."
The day's seven-hour apologetics boot camp began with Erwin Lutzer explaining how his recent best-selling book, The Da Vinci Deception, proves that the New Testament is reliable and the Gnostic Gospels used by novelist Dan Brown as the basis of The Da Vinci Code were written by impostors. After that, the crowd broke into smaller groups for sessions on topics ranging from Islam to the media to Wicca.
Carrie Gordon Earll, Focus's senior policy analyst for bioethics, offered a talk titled "Life Is Sacred: An Outdated Viewpoint or a Timeless Truth?" She told her listeners that they live in a culture where life is negotiable, a culture increasingly hostile toward the Christian worldview, a culture where scientists race to develop and implement new technologies while ethicists are left to eat their dust. She showed a scene from The Matrix in which Keanu Reeves learns that machines have been harvesting humans as their energy source. "Science fiction or reality?" she asked.
She showed a slide of a mass of cells magnified on the head of a pin -- a human embryo. "Do you realize this could've been an early picture of you?" she asked, then explained that adult stem cells, taken from places like bone marrow and umbilical-cord fluid, can be used to treat more than seventy conditions. But embryonic stem cells, which require killing a human embryo, have a nasty habit of turning into tumors in mice, she said. The media has skewed that story, and also got the Terri Schiavo situation wrong.
A skinny kid in the back of the room raised his hand to pose the first question.
"Isn't abortion and stem-cell research the same as Nazi Germany?" he asked. Earll chuckled at that, noting that Focus founder Dr. James Dobson was recently criticized for likening embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi experiments.
Two girls in blue jeans and pink hooded sweatshirts scanned their cell phones for missed calls while other teens asked Earll how birth-control pills work and how to talk to their friends about abortion.
When the session was over, fifteen-year-old Amber Wagner and sixteen-year-old Stevie Wise explained that they'd come with their Castle Rock youth group to learn how to tell kids at their high school about Jesus.
"There's a lot of people there who don't know Christ," said Wagner.
"A lot," added Wise.
The girls said they couldn't understand why their scary, chemically altered classmates explode when they walk up to them and start talking about Jesus.
Asked why she believes what she believes, Amber let out an embarrassed giggle. "That's a hard question," she said. "I don't know."
"It's something you grow up with, something your heart follows," Stevie said.
"It's kind of like a gut feeling," Amber added.
After the dust settled on the Big Dig, McFarland had time to reflect on what had been accomplished. Apologetics has been around for centuries, but the concept has been gaining momentum and popularity in recent years, in part because of people like Lee Strobel, the journalist/attorney/skeptic-turned-believer whose 1998 book The Case for Christ sold about three million copies.
Strobel's talk, "Faith Under Fire & Final Challenge," provided a rousing grand finale for the conference. "I think we can be apologists and evangelists without being obnoxious," he'd said a few hours before delivering that speech.
And part of preparing teens spiritually for adulthood is teaching them not only what Christians believe, but why they believe it.
"To believers and non-believers alike, it's important to point out that Christianity is not just based on someone's opinion," McFarland said. "Christian claims are objectively true."
Or, as the Real Sin Savior puts it:
I'm sick of them born-agains
Walkin' around askin' if you know God -- speakin' of You Know Who
Yeah, but there's no proof, though
Yeah, probably got a couple of you who think I lack proof
But no worse than what's goin' on in America's classrooms
Sometimes I wanna get on TV and just spread the truth
But can't -- but the school can tell me we come from evolution
My mama was a fish -- my mama was a fish
And if we're monkeys, you might as well forget original sin!
And that's the message that we deliver to little kids
And expect them not to question on their own if God exists
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Of course they're gonna wonder if the Lord's fake
By the time they hit fourth grade
They got the Easter Bunny and Santa, don't they?