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Why The Role Play?

Yours truly, at a recent role play...with the 'atheist glasses.'

“Why this role play thing you have going now? What’s the end game?” I get asked that a lot. The question often is paired with a skeptical side-eye. Well, many reasons, turns out. Grab a chair… First, what, exactly, is a “role play training”?

In a role play, I adopt the character of someone from another worldview--usually an atheist, but it can be any number of characters. After a brief “deconversion story” (ie, I grew up Christian, but walked away in college after having my eyes opened. I now follow the evidence, not faith.), I move into a time of dialogue with the audience. Folks can ask me questions or present challenges to my beliefs, and I respond, allowing for a back-and-forth conversation. After giving the questioner in the audience a few chances to respond back, we move on to the next questioner in the audience. It’s as if they are having a conversation with a non-believer on spiritual/religious issues. The only difference is that the conversation is with a whole audience, rather than one on one.

This proceeds for 30 minutes or so, then I come out of character and begin a debrief time. I walk them through some of the challenges I put before them in character, and we converse about questions like “how did the dialogue go? What was going on in your heart as the conversation progressed? Were you anxious/frustrated? Why? How did you treat me as a non-believer in the conversation? How did you handle the challenges?”

I end by laying out a message of motivation: challenges like the ones I put before them can seem daunting and intimidating to the unprepared, but for those who have spent the time and energy to develop their intellects--form a deep Christian mind--they see the challenges for what they are--paper tigers more than anything else.

The idea for role play trainings didn’t originate with me. Other men who work with Christian youth started doing it a few years ago, and I rubbed shoulders with them. What I saw from their ministries convinced me that this should be a thing.

The biggest reason why I began doing role plays is that apologetics, worldview training, and developing the life of the mind are so, so key to helping Christian students develop resilience against the culture. We have a formation problem in the church--for the most part, we are simply not doing a good job forming our young adults and preparing them to stand faithfully for Christ in the world. The data speak for itself: 60%-80%, depending on the study, leave the faith fairly quickly when they leave home. Most of these are not nominal students. This is a problem.

I see this almost daily in my job as a teacher. I’ve been teaching in public schools for 15 years now, and have worked with Christian youth in one capacity or another for longer than that. As an English and Philosophy teacher, I get to have conversations on the big issues of life quite often. What I see is deeply, deeply concerning. Most Christian students pretty much think in lock step with the culture, and are simply not prepared for the challenges they face in school and the challenges they will face once they leave home. Too many parents and church leaders have underestimated what their kids face.

I see it on the ground level every day, and have the receipts to prove it.

It doesn't have to be this way. They walk away not because Christianity is weak; we have an embarrassment of riches in our tradition. In every age, the Church has had a deep bench of thinkers that stood toe to toe with the best secular thinkers, thoroughly answering the questions and challenges of their day. They took the best punches the culture could throw at them, and they threw haymakers back. It is no different today, but many don't know that.

My own testimony confirms this. I was a new believer once I got to college, and all this stuff hit me square between the eyes. Apologetics was a life vest for me. Without it, I would have walked away. Thank goodness I had some strong male mentors at that time who took my questions seriously, who directed me to solid resources.

A thoroughly developed Christian mind, that can answer the culture’s challenges and lies, is one bulwark against all this. Not the only, but it is one key. Not addressing the intellect is to leave students vulnerable to the culture.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s a tough sell, both for students themselves, and, unfortunately, it’s a tough sell for a decent number of pastors too. Most simply think all this stuff is just for the super-nerds who are naturally into it and perhaps can’t get a date.

But they are wrong.

Others might devote a short series to apologetical topics every now and then but do not grasp the depth of training students need. Don't get me wrong: plenty are doing great work. But to really stem the tide, we need more. Many more.

The Bible mandates it. Experience likewise shows that it is essential. It is a necessary component of faithful discipleship. Thus, it is for every believer.

Just telling students/parents/pastors this, though, bears limited results. You can talk to them all day about all the places in the Bible that confirm this, and they’ll simply nod and walk away unchanged. They need to *feel* the need.

The role play helps the audience connect with the felt need.

In a role play, many students are stopped short. They think they have the answers and can talk with someone about them, but then they get into a conversation in a role play, and come up largely empty. This often brings up feelings of anxiety in their hearts. They start to get agitated and frustrated. Some do fine, but most really get tongue tied.

What’s more, the confidence I put on display as the atheist sets them back a bit.

All this is good. They need to feel this. They need to feel it when inside the church, in an atmosphere of safety, so these gaps can be addressed under the care of the Church. And it's not just students that need this! Any group in the church--young adults, young marrieds, parents, etc--all could use a little "shaking up."

A second, and related, reason for the role plays is that they are very sticky teachings. Christians are used to “talks,” sermons. Talks are fairly passive exercises: sit quietly, listen, maybe take notes. Some talk about the content later. But for this kind of teaching, the engagement level is somewhat low, so most don’t remember much of the content. Honestly, I have a hard time remembering the sermon from 2 weeks ago. The fact of the matter is that the sermon style teaching is boilerplate in evangelical culture, so its easy for the material to go unnoticed.

This is why I like to get at least a little back and forth in my teachings. In the role play, an active back and forth conversation--often a lively one--is no small is the main course. Thus, the life lessons “stick” easier. When the students get beat up a little bit and someone is up there pushing back against their staple pat answers, they sit up a little straighter and take notice.

It’s different than what they are used to, and that’s an advantage.

Third and finally, it’s fun...maybe not for them so much, but definitely for me. :)

It actually ends up being fun for them too, in the end. After being in character for a while, I come out of character and “debrief”--I walk them through some of the challenges that came up and I end with a message of exhortation and encouragement. That is when it is fun for the students--when they get to breathe easier and do a little play-by-play “film study.”

In sum, students need motivation to develop their minds for the challenges that await, and they need a good shot of courage that the job can be done. Pastors, teachers, and parents around the globe are doing hard work giving students just that. The role play is a bright, unique tool that can play a key part in the discipleship endeavor.

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