James W. Sire wrote a book titled Chris Chrisman Goes to College (IVP, 1993). In it he showed how the fictitious character, Chris Chrisman, grows up in an evangelical home with evangelical parents going to evangelical private school and attending evangelical church. When Chris goes off to secular college it isn’t long before his Buddhist roommate and atheist professors challenge his faith. Not being taught to think deeply or critically about Christianity, Chris’s commitment was in jeopardy and those he encountered saw little reason to embrace his faith. Sure he had a good idea what the Bible said and what his family, friends, and church believed, but he was not ready for the objections raised by alternative worldviews. Sadly, this could be the story of most in today’s evangelical churches.
TWO ESSENTIAL TASKS, ONE MISSING INGREDIENT
All Christian churches are committed to two indispensable tasks taught from the Bible: 1) evangelism and 2) discipleship. How these are defined and the degree of emphasis on each varies. But one thing is clear: Every church calling Jesus Lord and Savior agrees we must effectively communicate the gospel message. And yet to accomplish these two tasks one of the most important ingredients has been ignored. Like a pinch of salt in a recipe, our mindset is that we can either take it or leave it. Sure we occasionally include it, but typically we think of it is an add-on or an accessory not essential to the recipe. That missing ingredient is the discipline of apologetics.
This essay will show why apologetics is critically important for an effective ministry in evangelism. This is not a call to implement an 8-week program in your church only to move on to something else. Instead, it’s a challenge to radically refocus how your church does evangelism and discipleship. Rather than viewing apologetics as an intellectual exercise only for the highly educated who can afford to accessorize their faith with debates, studies in world religions, and lots of hard reading, it’s a call to integrate apologetics into the overall philosophy of ministry so churches can effectively prepare God’s people to engage God’s world with God’s message for God’s glory.
THE ROLE OF APOLOGETICS IN EVANGELISM
If St. Thomas Aquinas’s claim rings true that philosophy is the handmaiden to theology, then we could say that apologetics is the handmaiden to evangelism (Mark Mittelberg, “Implementing Apologetics in the Local Church,” 1992). In the same way that theology is grounded in a philosophical framework, so too is the gospel message supported by a solid apologetic ministry. It was only a few decades ago that believers could present the gospel and assume their nonbelieving neighbor or friend shared a basic Christian worldview, such as belief in God, a commitment to truth, or some notion of sin. Today, however, with the advance of atheism, apatheism (indifference), moral and intellectual relativism, secularism, consumerism, me-ism, and so forth, what was common in deep conviction has been replaced with mere difference of opinion. When it comes to religion, we may be speaking the same language, but we are using radically different dictionaries. Answers to questions about moral values, the nature of truth, the meaning and value of human life, or the existence and character of God are no longer shared with neighbors, co-workers, friends, or even family members. As Bill Craig says in his book On Guard, “the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the backdrop of the culture in which you’ve been born and raised” (p.17). We can no longer simply proclaim the gospel without first understanding the beliefs and values that shape our audience.
Before the good news of Christ crucified can be heard we must be prepared to respond to objections, answer questions, and value honest doubts about the Christian faith. Apologetics is God’s means of bridging this great divide between our culture and the gospel message. Peter’s mandate undoubtedly applies to every believer: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). Yet most churches fail to realize: If 1 Peter 3:15 applies to every believer, then it equally applies to every church, since church by definition is made up of believers! In today’s cultural climate, failing to integrate apologetics in church ministry makes all our evangelistic efforts anemic at best. Is there an intentional, consistent practice to think and speak apologetically in your church? If believers cannot give nonbelievers reliable answers about Christianity, then where will they turn? I would venture to say that most nonbelievers don’t talk about religion with believers, not because emotions become intense, but because irrational responses or dismissive attitudes are given by believers! Put differently, if believers offered rational, loving, and thoughtful responses when engaged, then “religion and politics” would cease to be the forbidden fruit of discussions (and it may develop an ethos where politics can be discussed with civility!).
FINDING USING COMMON GROUND
We must demonstrate to nonbelievers that we have common ground and use this common ground to advance discussions. While we may not arrive at the same answers, we do share the same questions. “Is there a God? If so, how might he communicate with us? Does God require anything from us? What’s all this fuss about life after death? Why can’t all religions be right so no one is excluded? Does my life really have ultimate value? How can I know my beliefs about religion are true and not just subjective opinions?” Although many believers no longer ask these questions (and tragically some never have!), they shout from the rooftops demanding a reply from every human soul. Apologetics is the gateway to finding meaningful, rational answers that are practical and helpful for living.
Another area of common ground governing our understanding about religion is that we share the expectation that all our beliefs are true. No one would purposefully hold a false belief. Whether or not our beliefs are in fact true, we think they’re true; otherwise we would not hold them. If I held a belief that was false, I would want to know it. The nonbeliever may not be willing to admit this, but they intuitively embrace the idea that their beliefs are true. This shared expectation is important capital we must cash in when encountering nonbelievers. Christians must be viewed as a knowledgeable, rational, and reliable source for answers to life’s most vexing questions. The only way for this to occur is if we are honest with ourselves and admit we too have many of the same questions and expect our answers are true. By thinking and speaking apologetically with nonbelievers, we show that we take them seriously in at least 3 areas: Honest questions, real doubts, and opposing beliefs. Here’s what I mean.
- VALUING HONEST QUESTIONS
Every human, regardless of belief, is made in God’s image. In part, this means we are all wired to think deeply and richly about the most important questions of life. I cannot think of a more effective tool to open doors or move discussions forward than genuinely showing you care about what others think. People want to be heard and understood. People need to be heard and understood. Conversely, if Christians wince at a caustic attitude behind a question or dismiss a question altogether as nonsense, an opportunity to present the gospel is at least diminished if not altogether lost. By listening to honest questions and engaging thoughtful comments we not only “love our neighbors as ourselves,” but are more likely to see minds opened to the truth claims of Christianity. In effect we’re saying “I care about what you think, and though I may not have all the answers, your question is important to me, too.” By valuing honest questions (theirs and ours) we connect with that basic aspect of the human soul made in God’s image that seeks understanding.
- VALUING REAL DOUBTS
Skepticism is an intellectual pandemic these days and doubt is a sweeping disease that infects our culture. People are crippled by any notion of certainty in beliefs and, consequently, reduce all claims of religious truth to mere opinion. And yet doubt can equally be used as a vaccine against skepticism. What I have found is that letting others know it’s okay to doubt and to question beliefs shows that I am willing to be corrected where wrong, or challenged to increase my certainty where right. When opponents see that Christians are serious about truth because we are willing to have our beliefs challenged, then nonbelievers are more likely to return the favor!
In fact, doubt can actually be a good thing and is not necessarily opposed to belief or to faith. Let me illustrate. Many years ago one couple in our neighborhood came regularly to our home Bible study. They asked a lot of questions that suggested they were likely not believers. So, I arranged to meet with them privately and, after explaining the gospel, asked if they had committed themselves to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Rather than answering they simply asked more questions, like “Why doesn’t God let everyone into heaven, even the atheist who lives a good life? If God is so good, how could he let a young child suffer an untimely death?” They finally admitted that there is so much doubt and so little certainty in religion. So, I asked if they had 100-percent certainty on their wedding day that their marriage was going to work out, or if they had some doubt about it. Of course they answered there was a measure of doubt. Yet because they had more certainty, they committed to being married. I was able to show them that this is exactly how faith works; it does not remove all doubt, but contains enough certainty to make a commitment.
Tragically, many Christians avoid doubt like the plague because they’re taught that it is antithetical to faith. But this could not be further from the truth. Doubt, as Rene Descartes showed, can be the fuel for certainty. Furthermore, when speaking with nonbelievers it’s important to show that not all beliefs are created equally. For example, it is only beliefs that refuse to be falsified that are 100-percent certain, such as self-authenticating beliefs (“My brother is not an only child.”) or incorrigible beliefs (“The pain of my headache is excruciating.”). Most of our everyday beliefs are evident to the senses (“The Arizona desert is hot in the summer.”) and lean on evidence for support. While belief in God is rational and can be held without argument or evidence (as Alvin Plantinga has shown), it is neither self-authenticating, incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. Believers, therefore, must demonstrate why it is rational to hold a belief in God, yet allow for some doubt to remain. The basic formula for belief formation is: Trust our basic abilities to reason, seek supporting evidence, and be open to contrary evidence. But, for this formula to be applied equally to believer and nonbeliever alike, we must permit some doubt and not see it as an enemy of faith (for more, see The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Religious Epistemology” and the section “Reformed Epistemology”).
It’s simply a raw reality that full certainty in religious belief is not easy to come by. Make no mistake: Nonbelievers can tell when you’re fearful of doubt, and, though it’s unwise to reject a message because its messenger is uninformed or unprepared (ad hominem), many nonbelievers are left to conclude Christianity is a joke because of our doubt about their doubts! Granted some believers are handicapped because they’ve bought into the myth that faith does not require reason whatsoever. But if apologetic thinking is part of a regular Christian diet received from the pulpit, the Sunday School classroom, Bible studies, and home groups, then believers would be better prepared to respond to honest doubts and Christians would not look like a herd of buffoons before nonbelievers. As Nancy Pearcey admonishes “Every time a minister introduces a biblical teaching, he should also instruct the congregation in ways to defend it against the major objections they are likely to encounter. A religion that avoids the intellectual task and retreats to the therapeutic realm of personal relationships and feelings will not survive in today’s spiritual battlefield” (Total Truth, Crossway, p. 127, emphasis mine). Finally, in The Sunnier Side of Doubt Alister McGrath notes that believers simply cannot comprehend all there is to know about God. Therefore, some doubt necessarily remains and serves to remind us of our human frailty and limitation in understanding (pp. 16-17). When nonbelievers see the transparency of our intellectual boundaries, then our common humanity demonstrates our shared quest for certainty in beliefs. Acknowledging the role of doubt can go a long way to continued and fruitful discussions with nonbelievers.
- VALUING OPPOSING BELIEFS
This is the hardest. It’s exceedingly more convenient psychologically and safe intellectually to remain on the sidelines than to engage opposition. But engage we must, and the first rule of engagement is to grant, for the sake of argument only, the truth of an opposing belief. Although many believers find this anathema, it is quintessential to gaining a voice and earning the right to be heard. If the beliefs of nonbelievers are not valued, then discussions will abruptly end. It’s impossible to honestly evaluate contrary beliefs if we have already made up our minds that they’re false. Therefore, we must genuinely value opposing religious belief systems by investigating them. In doing so, we show nonbelievers we take seriously the notion of truth in religion. Moreover, we’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain by assessing opposing beliefs, since it is the nature of a true belief that, if questioned, it can withstand scrutiny and still remain true. Still, demonstrating that opposing beliefs are sincerely valued requires unfeigned intellectual humility. Christians must be willing to be shown that we’re wrong; even if we’re convinced our beliefs are true. Once again, nonbelievers know if we’re feigning humility, since the hypocrisy radar is always on high alert. Intellectual humility takes on a noticeable posture, such as “If what I believe is wrong, I would want to know it.” Defenses are disarmed and nonbelievers begin to feel safe, let down their guard, and become malleable to consider the truth claims of Christianity.
Once, when teaching a mid-week class in my church, I compared Christianity to opposing religious worldviews. Each week I began by asking “What might Christians have in common with…” filling in the opposing religious worldview. When introducing Naturalism (the belief that only nature and the material universe exists), this introductory question was posed and, without reservation, everyone said Christians have nothing in common with Naturalism. I asked, “Are you sure? Nothing whatsoever?” In concert they responded “No, nothing. They don’t believe in God!” I argued that we do in fact have something in common and we’re standing on it. It’s the material universe! I argued we should start with that and ask some important questions, such as “How did the universe come to be in existence? Has it always been here? Why does it have the features it has?” The Christian worldview may indeed contain religious truth, but it does not follow that other worldviews possess none. The class got my point, which was not only to find common ground with an opposing belief, but affirm it by asking probing questions about it.
NOW THAT YOU KNOW THESE THINGS…
Jesus said blessing is found in doing, not in knowing alone (John 13:17). Knowing apologetics is necessary for effectively sharing the gospel message is important as I have tried to illustrate here. But, it is not sufficient. Failing to integrate apologetic thinking and speaking in your ministry is like trying to study physics without math. We must move beyond knowing and move on to doing apologetics in Christian ministry in order to show nonbelievers that we value their honest questions, real doubts, and opposing beliefs. Let’s not produce carbon copies of Chris Chrisman. Instead, let’s build warriors for the gospel message to carry forth the truth claims of Christianity in ways that are engaging, convicting, and convincing, and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Soli Deo gloria!