At its heart, apologetics is beautifully simple and intricately connected to the heart of the gospel. As I’ve wrestled with people’s questions, I’ve learned there are a number of basic principles that apply time and again, no matter who I’m talking with.
1. Know what you believe
This is a challenge for those of us raised in the Church, or who have been Christians for decades. Too often we give how-shaped answers to why-shaped questions. If somebody asks you why you are a Christian, giving a narrative of how you became one isn’t always helpful. Many of our friends want to know why you’re a Christian now, today, with all of the challenges to your faith that daily attack you. What’s your elevator speech for Christianity?
We’ve tried to reduce evangelism to formulas or methodologies. But the most powerful form of sharing the gospel is talking to people. Learn to ask your friends what they believe (or don’t believe). If a colleague at work is a Muslim, try saying, “I’ve never really talked to a Muslim before. What do you believe?” Or if a friend self-describes as an atheist, respond, “ ‘Atheist’ tells me what you don’t believe. But what do you believe?” (As an aside, I happen to believe that “atheism” is for many people, a worldview in its own right; but asking that question can open up the conversation).
Don’t ignore objections. A few months ago I met Alex, a young university student, who introduced himself to me as an agnostic. “I used to be a Christian,” he explained, “but I was raised in a fundamentalist family.” Questions about religion were forbidden in his family and church. Alex began to read atheist books and eventually abandoned his faith.
“But you introduced yourself as an ‘agnostic,’ ” I said gently. “What happened?” Alex explained he attended a local atheist group, and discovered that they were, in his words, “fundamentalists too.” Questioning was not allowed there either. Alex told me he didn’t know what to believe or disbelieve any more. Then, he asked me if I thought he was lazy. I replied, “There are two types of agnostics. A lazy agnostic is somebody who can’t be bothered to find the answer to the God question. An active agnostic is genuinely searching for the answer, but just hasn’t found it yet.” We talked long into the evening and slowly began to deal with some of the questions Alex had buried for so long.
That sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but a good deal of our problems in the Church stem from forgetting. We’ve allowed the gospel to become tangled up with political positions, culture wars or moralism. As an atheist friend once put it to me, “I know what you Christians are against, but I have no idea what you’re for.” A brilliant, if tragic, observation.
Conclusion: Clearing the Ground
Ultimately, the task of apologetics is largely one of debris clearing: removing the obstacles so people can see Jesus clearly. Arguments can’t bring somebody to faith, but they can help create a climate in which faith is possible. Ultimately, what people need is not a clever argument, but to see the greatness and attractiveness of Jesus. Our task, and the task of apologetics, is simply to present Him as clearly as we can. And then get out of the way.
This was extracted from my longer article, ‘Apologetics Without Apology’, the cover story in the March/April 2015 edition of Faith Today magazine. You can read the full article online , or download a PDF of it here.