When it comes to sharing the Christian gospel, many believers take a rather simplistic approach. "All we have to do," it is said, "is tell them to believe in Christ." Then, it's up to either God (if your a strong believer in divine sovereignty) or man (if you tend to push personal responsibility) to decide whether the recipient of the truth actually responds to it. Of course there is great wisdom in both of the points just mentioned. God's sovereignty is the ultimate determiner of all things. Likewise, the person who hears the gospel will surely be held accountable for what he does with it. However, none of these things should cause Christian witnesses to neglect the very important task of seeking how best to communicate the message of Christ. Along these lines, there are numerous factors to consider. One of these concerns the tactics believers use in efforts to reach the lost. What principles can aid us in doing apologetics? This question will be the subject of this paper.
Military battles, political campaigns, and athletic contests—they all have this in common: The most successful participants are those who have a strategy, a plan of attack.
Christian witnessing is no exception to this rule. If believers are to be successful communicators of the gospel, they must think through the basic principles which undergird this task.
Believers are to be "truth tellers." They are to share the biblical message with those they encounter. But not all people are willing to take the Bible's message seriously. Sometimes, unbelievers have objections of one sort or another. Other times, their perception of Christianity is a mere caricature. All too often, they fail to see the relevance of God's Word.
This is precisely why Paul defined his ministry in terms of "the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (Philippians 1:7; 16). It is also why Peter urged all believers to "make a defense" of their hope (1 Peter 3:15).
The effort to defend and show forth the beauty of the Christian worldview is often termed apologetics. Though there are numerous facets to this discipline, the primary purpose of apologetics is to provide reasons why non-Christians ought to believe, and govern their lives by, the truth of Scripture.
But how do we go about doing this? How do we convince others that they ought to turn to the Savior? Well, whatever else is involved, it essential to discover what the Bible has to say about such matters. The principles gleaned from God's Word undergird a truly Christian apologetic. Indeed, even when we are not directly quoting one passage or another, our overall perspective should reflect the broad parameters God has revealed.
Along these lines, Kelly James Clark provides some methodological recommendations, noting that Christian apologists can benefit from a recognition of factors that influence belief. Clark notes, "the scales can fall from the mind's eye in a wide variety of means: on a mountain top, while listening to a sermon, through a humbling experience, or by reading The Chronicles of Narnia . . . I believe we need to pay a lot more attention to how actual people acquire beliefs."
Now, it is important to guard against confusing mere sentimentality with genuine conversion. Working someone into a spurious faith is certainly not the goal of Christian witnessing. At the same time, there may be a number of factors (emotional, cognitive, psychological) that contribute to a solid application of God's Word. These factors can play a role in developing strategies for reaching non-Christians with the gospel.
The strategies delineated here will be of a general sort. Specifically, we hope to discuss a number of ideas that are conducive to successful apologetics. Some of these are geared toward our modern situation. Many of them are reflective of timeless biblical concepts. Each of them is intended to properly influence the perspective of interested readers. Here, then, are some principles for doing apologetics.
1. The form and style of the worshiping community should be conducive to apologetics.
When discussing the truth with non-Christians, it is desirable to have them eventually visit a place of Christian worship, spending time (formally and informally) with the people of God. It is certainly sad that some believers are embarrassed when it comes to their church's lack of ability to meet people where they are. Put bluntly, the atmosphere of many Christian assemblies is (to believers and unbelievers alike) something less than appealing.
This is not to say that the church ought to have as its first priority a desire to entertain the world. Nor should believers be found frantically attempting to mimic secular culture. On the other hand, there is no reason why Christians should avoid legitimate factors that might attract people to Christ. If there are certain practices and styles that might facilitate Christian outreach (especially, if a segment of the church already enjoys these same practices/styles), it only makes sense to utilize them. Take, for instance, the subject of music. While there is something to be said for the great hymns of the past, many younger congregations would benefit from a more contemporary approach.
As an extension of this thought, there is a type of church that has been termed "seeker sensitive." In some cases these assemblies have been known to do demographic studies to determine a given community's likes, dislikes, and tendencies. However, certain "conservative" elements within Christendom have reacted strongly against such groups. The disapproval often centers on the lack of doctrinal emphasis and the seeming "worldliness" of these seeker-oriented congregations. While some of this disagreement is warranted, this might be a case where the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bath water. Of course doctrinal matters are essential; and, yes, Christians ought to be wary of getting overly entangled in the web of cultural correctness. But this does not eliminate the fact that the people Christians encounter will likely remain in places where they feel at home.
If the church is able to make reasonable appeals to the modern person, cultivating an atmosphere that is safe, enjoyable, and relevant, it would be wise to do so. Indeed, this researcher believes that a good measure of the church's future success is contingent, humanly speaking, on its ability to display true holiness in truly contemporary ways.
Apologetics will work more effectively, drawing from the resources of the larger Christian community, if Christ's followers learn to portray Christianity as it ought to be—committed to the Savior and separated from sin, yet also appealing to society.
2. Sometimes, it is just as important to show that Christianity is embraced by intellectuals, as it is to demonstrate specific intellectual arguments.
Not every person is concerned about detailed apologetic arguments. Some are looking for something much simpler. They are not so much interested in carefully analyzing the evidence as they are in the fact that there is evidence in the first place. A well-organized defense of the faith is not their goal; they are merely concerned that such a defense exists.
As a parallel, one might consider the subject of national security. There is much that goes into protecting a country, and some people are quite intrigued by the actual hardware that is utilized to that end, the planes and tanks and number of soldiers. But many others are not. The details, for them, do not much matter. What they are looking for is a general assurance that their country is safe.
It can be the same in doing apologetics. It is important not to lose people amid a myriad of evidences they are not particularly interested in. For many individuals the cosmological argument is too deep, and philosophical discussions are not impressive. It is enough that Christians are able to simply point out that there are scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals who accept the Bible as true.
3. Though Christianity is a call to a "higher" life, transforming a person's perspective and priorities, it is still a human life, resembling, in many ways, the life of the past.
Some people have funny ideas about what it means to become a Christian, thinking that it involves a complete rejection of nearly everything to which a person is accustomed. Certain legalistic groups have fostered this idea with their extra-biblical rules on what Christians can and cannot participate in. These can relate to many areas, from length of hair and style of clothing to brands of music. Sometimes these extra-biblical standards are explicitly stated, while in certain cases the "rules" are part of a subtle legalistic attitude.
What is unavoidable and quite sobering is the thought that non-Christians naturally assume they are being urged to be like those who are witnessing to them. How sad, then, when believers portray Christianity in a rather odd fashion. In contrast how refreshing it is to find a Christian who knows the difference between divine truth and human tradition. Believers should reject harmful things and embody love. But weirdness simply must be avoided.
Conversion certainly does entail a radical break with the world. Sin must be rejected; all idols are to be disowned (1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 John 5:21). Furthermore, Christian commitment is such that even harmless things must not be allowed to take the priority they once did (see Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18-10; Luke 8:14).
At the same time, there are numerous ways in which a convert remains unchanged. Believers still have hobbies, enjoy sports, and look forward to vacation. They feel, laugh, and cry. Often they are tempted, and sometimes they doubt.
While it is true that repentance leads to a fundamental spiritual reorientation (2 Corinthians 5:17), many things remain outwardly the same. Thus, inherently evil matters are turned from, and the overemphasis (worship?) of innocent things is guarded against. But a large part of the Christian life entails not so much external alterations but a looking at the world through Christian "lenses." Work, family life, leisure activities, and a whole host of other categories are elevated to a higher plane; everything takes on eternal significance. So far as apologetic strategy is concerned, it is important to correct the wrong perceptions many have about Christianity. Repentance is a turning from sin and self-centeredness, but it is not a rejection of one's humanity. Quite the contrary. As many have said: Life really becomes living when one comes to know life's Author.
4. Becoming a Christian involves a recognition of the cost of discipleship, as well as the anticipation of a joyful new life.
Make no mistake about it; the Christian is called to "take up his cross daily" (Luke 9:23). And since he has different priorities than the non-Christian, it is inevitable that friction will occur between the two parties. Jesus warned about this: "A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20) Paul said the same thing, emphasizing that the pursuit of godliness will inevitably lead to some measure of difficulty (2 Timothy 3:12).
But becoming a Christian is not all struggle. Those who embrace Christ enter a wonderful new experience (Ezekiel 11:19; Colossians 1:12-14). Fellowship with the living God is made accessible (Hebrews 6:17-20), and heaven's blessings overflow. Suddenly, there is purpose to human existence, and the future is filled with hope (1 Thessalonians 5:13- 18).
It is essential that these pleasant and difficult aspects of conversion be balanced. To mention only the blessings of faith is to neglect the hard realities of living in a fallen world; potentially, this could lead to a misrepresentation of Christ's Lordship. At the very least, it might cause the uninformed believer, when confronted by hard times, to despair. On the other hand, if only the difficulties and duties are highlighted, the beauty and peace associated with conversion will be lost. This, too, can lead to discouragement.
Believers in Christ are expected to persevere amidst adversity that cannot be completely avoided. Likewise, they are to bask in the infinite wonder of knowing God. The right approach, therefore, is to communicate both facets of kingdom life. A biblically balanced apologetic can do nothing less.
5. Apologists should exude and promote hope.
In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter urges his readers to "give an account for the hope that is in [them]." While many apologists rightly emphasize the need to provide support for Christian hope, not as many elaborate on hope itself. What the apostle is saying is that the believer's hope should be so obvious that non-Christians feel compelled to inquire about the nature of such certitude and excitement.
In the ancient world, there were many reasons to be discouraged. Persecution, and even martyrdom, was common, and life was not easy. It is with good reason, then, that hope played such a vital role in the life of the church. Though perilous times may come, a wonderful future is certain because of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; 1 John 3:1-3).
Believers today also experience many trials. Though the extent of persecution in the West nowhere approaches that which is encountered by Christians in foreign lands, all true believers have encountered heartache of one sort or another. With all the sadness that abounds, it is good to have a sure hope, to possess something that lasts. This is precisely what the Christian gospel announces. Through the redemptive labors of God's Son, there is forgiveness and joy now, but the best is yet to come.
What do people in a fallen world long for? Among other factors, they desire stability and assurance. Biblical Christianity explains where these are found, providing hope for a better tomorrow. It is thus legitimate to draw attention not merely to a catalogue of general evidences but to the fact that these give weight to what Christianity is all about, a wonderful and substantial future. As Peter implies, hope is a powerful witnessing tool.
6. In speaking with unbelievers, apologists must learn to balance evidence and mystery, certainty and ignorance.
It is important to realize that Christianity is not merely one of a number of legitimate belief systems. Christians have long maintained that it is the only completely true worldview. Nothing explains life as the Bible does, and nothing transforms living more profoundly than an encounter with the living God.
Furthermore, Christianity gives the best and fullest explanation for matters that most puzzle human beings. Subjects like the problem of evil are most helpfully understood from the perspective of Christian truth.
However, as many have discovered, not every objection to theism in general and Christianity in particular is easy to handle. This is why Reformed Epistemological apologists have often pointed out that Christians should be humble in their presentation of arguments. Some things, frankly, defy complete explanation.
It is at this point that many Christians begin to struggle. Believers are often given to one of two extremes. Some cower in fear when unbelievers raise their objections, thinking that answers are unavailable (or pretending that they are irrelevant). Others go about in an almost proud fashion, acting as if their formulation of the evidence easily satisfies every person, naively assuming the arguments they provide somehow wipe away all of the pain and doubt of all the suffering people throughout history.
Communicating the truth is not always an easy task, much less convincing others that they too must believe it. While the believer is not ultimately left in the dark, some things remain puzzling, and certain objections to Christianity can only be answered tentatively.
Therefore, the right approach is to balance optimism and ignorance. Since God has communicated His will, Christians have every reason to proclaim it. At the same time, there is no reason to make believe one has answers that are not yet (fully) available. In other words it is proper, even desirable, to be both forceful and humble in the doing of apologetics. This, it seems, is what the Bible requires, and it is certainly what many people appreciate.
7. Christianity's unique features should be highlighted.
There are many people who believe that all religions are about the same. They are but different avenues leading to the same God. It is not so important what religion one chooses; it only matters that some path is taken.
Now, the ridiculousness of such a position ought to be evident. How can viewpoints that are in direct opposition to one another be seen as parallel? It may be convenient to believe in a type of religious pluralism, but it is hardly sensible.
If God exists, and if He has revealed Himself, His Word and ways would likely be discernible. Among a plethora of religious ideas, the living God would stand out from the crowd. In keeping with this assumption, Christianity makes unique truth claims.
One prime example is found in Jesus Himself. As the God-man, no other figure in human history can bridge the gap separating man from his Creator (1 Timothy 2:5). No one else made such claims to deity and then backed them up with miraculous displays of power (Mark 2:1-12; John 8:53-9:41). No other person is so like us (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15) and yet so dissimilar (Mark 2:1-12; 4:35-41). Truly, He is one of a kind (John 3:16). Next, there is the fact that Christianity alone, among the world religions, provides access to God for free. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, men and women need not attempt to earn God's favor. All that is required is simple faith, a childlike reliance on God's Son to provide a right standing before the bar of heaven (Romans 3:21-28; Galatians 3:26; Philippians 3:8-9; 1 John 5:9-13).
There are other aspects of Christianity that separate it from its competitors. Those listed here merely illustrate the distinctness of a biblical worldview. While many would accuse believers of arrogance in making the claims they do, the fact of the matter is that Christianity is unlike any other religion or philosophy. One key apologetic strategy, therefore, will be to highlight its unparalleled features.
8. There is a cultural benefit to be gained from engaging secular society with a strong apologetic.
One factor that is usually missed in an apologetic encounter is the broader influence it can have on a culture. There is a type of residual effect in any intelligent presentation of the truth. "Even if few are converted through apologetic arguments, still such arguments help to shape an intellectual milieu in which the gospel can still be heard as a credible alternative." This is especially the case when the apologist reaches a wider audience. By means of a television interview, a debate, a well-written letter to a local newspaper, and a variety of other avenues, a subtle message is sent to those who encounter an apologist in action. Christianity has answers. It is believable. It makes sense of life. Indeed, it is attractive.
Perhaps, over time, a number of non-Christians will be more prone to listen to the Christian message because of the reputation built through the efforts of thinking Christian communicators.
9. It is important for Christians to consider ways of reaching non-readers.
The best teachers of the Bible are themselves learners. This learning is facilitated through a variety of resources. Yet, however one comes to grow in the knowledge of God's Word, it would be difficult to overstate the value of the written medium. It is often through literature that Christians are exposed to truths, both theoretical and practical, that shape their lives and ministries.
As a result of this helpful emphasis, the tendency among many believers is to utilize the printed word in reaching the lost. But what should a Christian do when witnessing among those who seldom or never read?
It is this very question that numerous apologists have ignored. Some would rather ridicule the illiteracy of individuals than seek ways to reach them. For others, the preferred method involves coercing non-readers, "force feeding" them literature.
While there is a place for encouraging people to read, it will also be important to reach out to those who are not likely to pick up a book or pamphlet. Michael Green offers this analysis:
I am not aware that anyone has really mastered the art of effective and life-changing communication of the gospel with people who rarely read. But it is absolutely vital that we try. After all, the first Christians were for the most part illiterate. In many parts of the world today in which the gospel is spreading fast, people cannot read.
Green suggests, among other things, that apologists can benefit from story-telling, visual aids, and the sharing of life experiences. These and other strategies will have to be employed if Christians expect to have any real impact among those who are not literature driven.
10. Christians must learn the art of indirect apologetics.
A quick survey of the New Testament reveals that there are a variety of ways to communicate the gospel. Sometimes the best approach is direct, simply telling people what they must do to be right with God. Peter's Pentecost sermon is one such example (Acts 2:14-40), as is Jesus' dealings with certain individuals (John 12:44-50). A direct approach entails a straightforward announcement that non-Christians must repent, believe, and follow Christ.
But in some situations, the best approach is more gradual and indirect. Think, for instance, of Paul's ministry in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). Paul did not bombard the Athenians with truths they could never have assimilated. Instead, he began in their world and led them gradually toward Christ. Jesus often used this same strategy. By asking questions, telling stories, and simply rubbing shoulders with His contemporaries, He was content to share broad ideas with them (e.g., Mark 4:1-34; 7:1-23; 10:13-31, 46-52; 12:1-44). These ideas were certainly the outworking of a biblical worldview, but Jesus often refrained from proclaiming Himself in a direct fashion. Therefore, the indirect approach involves meeting people where they are, seeking common-ground, and applying biblical principles in an incremental fashion.
Now, if all of this is true, it is imperative for apologists to think not only in terms of direct proclamation (though this is certainly needed) but also in terms of indirect communication. There are many facets of life that can be dealt with in a Christian way, without stuffing the gospel down men's throats. Some people are not ripe for hearing the message of God's Son. But this does not mean they are unreceptive to everything that is biblical.
Interestingly, the world has long used this indirect method. While there have been numerous frontal assaults on the kingdom of God, it is often the subtle influences that have the most powerful impact. When a television sitcom merely assumes that premarital relations are normal, no one makes much of a fuss. Yet, over the long haul, many observers are indeed influenced by what they watch. Suddenly, sexual activity outside of marriage does not seem like such a bad thing. This is further complicated when the television characters, those involved in these inappropriate relationships, are portrayed as otherwise nice people. What has happened here is that an indirect message has been provided, and those who "hear" it are led, step by step, to simply accept this message as true.
Christians can utilize indirect communication in numerous ways. In the realm of politics, biblical principles can be implemented. When it comes to life's hardships, a Christian attitude often catches the eye of onlookers. Various kinds of relationships can be governed by truth. Homemakers, teachers, factory workers, and countless others can conduct their lives (morally, intellectually, and verbally) in such a way that those who are watching see what genuine Christianity looks like. Then, in God's grace, a word spoken about Jesus might not seem so foreign or disingenuous.
The intention here, of course, is not to avoid direct methods when they are appropriate. The goal, rather, is to show that the gospel can be communicated in numerous ways. Jesus told His disciples they ought to be as "shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Whatever else this entails, it surely clears the way for indirect apologetics.
Christians are privileged to be emissaries of the living God, heralds of hope, and defenders of divine truth. This is why it is imperative for them to approach apologetics in an intelligent fashion.
Certainly, a good portion of this effort will involve the discovery and implementation of important apologetic strategies. Some of these have been delineated here. May the Lord Himself enable His followers to apply His Word with accuracy and relevance. And may we all be filled with an increased awareness of and excitement about the task of defending and promoting the truth.
1. Steven B. Cowan, ed., Five Views of Apologetics, The Counterpoint Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2000), 273.
2. The concept of entertainment has often been criticized by evangelical thinkers. Instead, it is said, the church must preach the truth. Obviously, there is much wisdom here, and many contemporary churches do allow hype to take precedence over substance. Clearly, the church's duty is not simply to amuse people. On the other hand, entertainment can refer to cordially receiving someone as a guest, capturing and maintaining their interest. Thus, while entertainment has often been rightly criticized, there are times when a more compelling style is precisely what the church needs.
3. What is in view here is cultural conservatism, not hermeneutical or moral.
4. Five Views, 282-283. Also, see Kelly James Clark, When Faith Is Not Enough (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), passim.
5. Consider, for instance, the problem of evil. While Christianity gives the most plausible and hope-filled explanations for pain and suffering, certain situations are very difficult to grasp. Why does God allow evil to sometimes dominate the lives of His children? Why do little babies die? And, in all of this, how can a sovereign God remain free from blame in events He controls? This is not to say that the Bible is silent on these issues. Rather, with all the helpful counsel it provides, there are still some intellectual difficulties.
6. For an analysis of and a Christian response to pluralism, see D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
7. Of course many people simply assume some sort of universalism. With such individuals, it will be necessary to introduce into the discussion an accurate view of God and man. To the degree that one places the true God alongside of depraved man, some sense of human culpability and divine justice becomes evident. While universalistic thought (or something bordering on it) is both popular and convenient, it does not face up to reality. One of the apologist's duties, therefore, will be to clarify these matters.
8. Five Views, 288-289.
9. Michael Green and Alister McGrath, How Shall We Reach Them? Defending and Communicating the Christian Faith to Nonbelievers (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 217.
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