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CONWAY–He put on his “atheist glasses.”

Nationally known apologetics speaker and author Sean McDowell stood on the University of Central Arkansas Ida Auditorium stage fielding questions from over 800 college students, high school students and young professionals. McDowell spoke March 3 at an apologetics/leadership conference called Lead>Defend.

“Once I put these glasses on, I am role playing as an atheist,” he said. “Ask me any question you want.” About 50 hands went up.

“Do you believe in absolute truth?” asked one student.

“Define what you mean by absolute truth,” he said.

“Why do you feel guilty about your sin?” asked another.

“Who said I felt guilty about my sin?” McDowell shot back.

“What’s after death?”

“No soul exists. Once life is over, you’re done.”

After the Q & A, McDowell asked the audience about how they thought those questioning the “atheist” treated him. Someone coined a term to describe the atmosphere:  “hos-mental….a cross between hostile and judgmental.” McDowell quoted 1 Corinthians 13:2: “If I have the gift of prophecy…but do not have love, I am nothing.”

“This is one of my favorite things to do; I could do this every day,” said Andrew Hood, a Russellville High School junior. Hood said he saw McDowell do this same atheist encounter routine at Super Summer 2017. “I never realized how many viewpoints an atheist can have. It makes you think deeper. I have an atheist in my first period (class). This has helped me see that to set an example is hard.” Hood said it shows what a “grave affect” his witness can have on others. “I do not think about it enough.”

The Lead>Defend Conference is designed to teach students three things: how to easily transition from high school to college, how to be a leader on their perspective school campuses and how to defend their faith in Christ. “The great thing we can do for college students is to teach them to think Christianly–with a heavy emphasis on thinking,” said David James.“Many of our students are Christians, but many students don’t think critically.” James is Team Leader of the College + Young Leaders Team of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention which sponsored the event.

Teaching his youth to think critically is the main reason one interim pastor came. Sam Chaney, 24, whose church runs about 30 “on a good Sunday,” brought four high schoolers this year.

“Coming from a place like the Delta, traditionally people believe in God but don’t know why. It’s just how they were raised. In this culture, we’ve got to get past, ‘I’m a Christian because my parents told me to be a Christian,” said Chaney, who pastors Barton Baptist Church in West Helena.

Chaney attended the conference in 2013 as a college student. What he remembers most are the breakout sessions relevant to cultural issues. This year he called the breakout sessions “spot on.”

Students chose three out of 16 topics including, “Race and the Gospel;” “College 101: How to Successfully Start Your College Career;” “Porn, Lust & the Image of God;” “Worldview: Are All Religions Basically the Same?” and a new one this year: “Before You Marry.”

Courtney Scott, a sophomore from Southern Arkansas University Tech, chose “Does God Hate Homosexuals?” because she has a few friends who are homosexuals.  “Homosexuality is just a big topic in today’s society,” she said. Scott said her aunt told her the Bible mentions homosexuality, so she came to the session to find out for herself.  “I was surprised,” she said, he (the session leader) went over multiple verses.”  She learned that God does not hate homosexuals.

Another college sophomore said one breakout session “Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design” covered “more of what you see on campus.” “People question intelligent design,” said University of Arkansas at Monticello student Jessica Birkhead. “You run into quite a few who believe in evolution. They try and use science to see why they don’t believe the Bible.” The session reminded her “ultimately, science points to God.”

Birkhead said she appreciated the in-depth, factual conference in a “meaty,” one-day format. “Me–being a college kid–I don’t have enough time to research and study apologetics,” she said.

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