Tony Jones feels uncomfortable when fellow Christian leaders tell students to stand "against" American culture. He doesn't know if that's even possible anymore.
Instead of standing at the ledge of the pool – or mainstream culture, in this case – Jones suggests that Christians jump in and create waves – in other words, contribute to culture.
"You shape culture from within, not outside of it or over against it," he said in an interview with Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary. He thus posed, "We're neck deep in culture; how can we roll up our sleeves, get some dirt under our fingernails and get busy in the culture?"
Jones is a popular author and speaker on the emerging church and youth ministry. He is also national coordinator of the controversial Emergent Village which some have criticized as undermining doctrine and truth.
His recent talk with Powell comes as the Fuller Youth Institute, formerly known as the Center for Youth and Family Ministry, is in the midst of its three-year longitudinal study surveying high school seniors and their life transition into college. The study is expected to confirm much speculation among youth workers that students who enter college are leaving the church in droves.
But for the most part, it isn't the academic world or the college environment causing students to leave their faith.
Earlier research from the three-year College Transition Project showed that most youth group graduates (70 percent) disagree with the idea that their college professors make them confused about their faith. Almost three-quarters of students report that other students respect their beliefs and overall, most do not experience college as an overtly threatening place for their faith.
So as youth workers try to equip students and strengthen their faith in the years before they depart for college, Jones believes youth leaders and parents shouldn't be scared to see the kids off to a bigger campus.
In fact, being scared shows a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit and its ability to guard the faith of the young, said Jones, whose faith was strengthened while attending a secular university.
And he doesn't feel it's his or any other youth worker's responsibility to bring or keep a student in the faith. Ultimately, it's the Holy Spirit's responsibility, he noted.
"We can strengthen their muscles ... teach spiritual disciplines ... [but] you only get good at prayer by praying, not only listening to youth pastors talk about praying," he added.
For now, what youth leaders can do to help prepare students is first understand that they have to grow into new generations of faith, considering their elementary and middle school faith is not big enough for them when they go into high school and then college, Jones suggested. And part of that growing process includes allowing students to question those beliefs they held as absolute truth when they were much younger.
Allowing room for doubts and questions, however, doesn't mean they're turning their back on Jesus, Jones assured.
"It means that the way that [students] embrace the authority of Scripture is going to be more nuanced and more paradoxical and more complex than it was when [they] were in middle school," he noted.
Youth workers and Christians overall should also "get back into the business of culture making," Jones emphasized.
As CEOs, doctors, or musicians, today's generation of young people are going to be culture making, Jones said, "and to do that from a Christian perspective, I think, is really the call of youth workers to impress upon the kids."
The only way to shape culture is to be in it, according to Jones.
"That kind of language is probably much more attractive to most teenagers than trying to come up with this posture that we're outside of [culture] and we're judgmentally looking at how horrible American culture is."