Sharing our faith requires us to answer the questions people are actually asking, not the questions we think they’re asking
A few days ago, I was on a car journey with my wife and two young daughters. Anastasia (aged nine) piped up: “Mummy, how do we know Jesus is real?”
It was clear that she wanted an answer from her doctor mother not her theologian father. My wife answered by saying that Jesus was a historical figure, only to be met by the riposte: “But Hindus think that about their gods – how do we know ours are real?” Slightly flustered she replied: “We know Jesus is real because he lives in our heart.” Our pre-adolescent interlocuter didn’t seem convinced. Afterwards I teased my wife, saying: “Well, you failed apologetics 101!”
There are many today who think apologetics is a thing of the past and should be consigned to the dustbin. The very word itself is cause for suspicion. From the Greek ‘apologia’ meaning reason or defence, the practice is to give a reason or defence for the Christian faith against alternative or prevailing worldviews. Some argue that this smacks of the culture wars we wish to avoid, plus, doesn’t the whole thing sound horribly cerebral, when actually what matters is the experience of being a Christian, not arguments about doctrine and truth? But as the story about my daughter illustrates, there is something deeply human about asking questions.
When I reflect on my ministry as an evangelist, I can recollect scores of occasions when I have sought to engage with intellectual objections to the Christian faith. These have been genuine barriers that, once demolished, have enabled people to put their faith in Christ.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
One of my favourite satirical definitions of apologetics is this: “An apologist is someone who answers questions that nobody is asking.” While humorous and containing a certain amount truth, it is important to acknowledge that the practice of apologetics needs to change to reflect the seismic cultural trends we are seeing both nationally and globally.
Classical apologetics can be divided into different genres, three of the main ones being Evidential Apologetics (that seeks to prove the truth of Christianity with reference to certain events, particularly the resurrection of Christ), Biblical Apologetics (seeking to prove the authority and, therefore, reliability of the Bible) and Philosophical Apologetics (seeking to prove the existence of God). The problem with each of these types of apologetics is that they are not the starting point for many people in our post-Christian culture. People are generally not asking: “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”, “Does God exist?” and “What is the rational basis for theism?”
I believe we still need apologetics, but if apologetics is to be missionally effective today, then it needs to be expressed in a way that resonates with our culture and seeks to answer the kinds of questions people ruminate over right now. There are three types of the ‘new apologetics’ that seem to connect with our culture presently, and which can therefore be a powerful means of sharing the gospel.
1. EXISTENTIAL APOLOGETICS
Just before lockdown, I led a university mission in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. During a phone conversation to plan the week of events, the leader of the Christian Union said to me: “We don’t want you to preach the gospel.” In all my years of doing university missions this was the first time I had received such a directive and I was slightly taken aback. He went on to speak about the post-Christian secular context of the Netherlands and to explain that what was needed, in his opinion, was starting much further back, addressing themes that were relevant to the secular students on campus and demonstrating how the Christian faith relates to these.
This is sometimes called existential apologetics. Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of existence, which it does by emphasising human experience. John McQuarrie says, in his book Existentialism (Penguin), that humans are “not merely the thinking subject but the acting, feeling, living, human individual”.
When it comes to evangelism, context determines content. We need to examine carefully our cultural contexts, which differ from nation to nation and regionally. Contemporary sociologists state that in the Western context, culture now diversifies in terms of people who define themselves by ethnicity, credal affiliation, hobbies and interests, and lifestyle choices.
PEOPLE ARE LOOKING FOR AUTHENTICITY
In proposing to engage in this kind of apologetics at Erasmus University, I worked with the Christian Union to figure out what were the kinds of questions being asked among the students in their particular demographic and at that particular time. The late John Stott commented that the task of the Church in every generation is to apply the unchanging word of God to his ever-changing world. One issue for these students was identity, and so I did a talk on ‘Our search for identity – I am who I say I am?’ Another was to do with the question of whether it is possible to know anything for certain: ‘Our hunger for knowledge – can we know anything in a post-truth world?’ Another common experience was loneliness and disconnection and so another talk became: ‘Our yearning for community – can I be accepted in a time of societal fragmentation?’
These questions may well be different if I were to go back next year and do the same mission. The point is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach simply won’t do, and we need to do the difficult work of contextualisation if we are to be effective in connecting the culture to Christ.
2. ETHICAL APOLOGETICS
When the futurist Gary Marx wrote 21 Trends for the 21st Century (Editorial Projects in Education) he predicted the hallmarks that would be significant for any organisation to succeed in the emerging cultural milieu. He began his book stating: “Change is inevitable. Progress is optional. The question is not when will things get back to normal, the question is what will the new normal look like?” It is interesting that, while not writing from a Christian perspective, Marx predicted that ethics were imperative for future progress (Trend 17). He states that “scientific discoveries and societal realities will force widespread ethical choices”.
The emerging younger generations have a strong moral sense, but it is very different from a traditionally inherited one. Two decades ago, apologetics talks would typically include a talk on ‘sex and sexuality’. Not only is this no longer on the menu, but questions on this topic are the ones that many apologists actually fear, given the cultural divergence in the West away from traditionally understood Christian morality. This is not to say that the Church should vacate the space and cease to have a voice in this area, but we should acknowledge that talking about sexuality is not going to be the most effective starting point from a missional perspective. If ethics matters to the emerging generation, then we need to focus on points of congruence as a way of commending Christ.
TALKING ABOUT SEXUALITY IS NOT THE MOST EFFECTIVE STARTING POINT
One point of congruence came at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when an event sparked a global reaction that changed the world: George Floyd was killed in an act of police brutality, leading to demonstrations calling for racial justice on an international scale. Such was the strength of feeling at the time, that I witnessed people on my Facebook deleting others as friends simply because of their failure to speak out on the issue. While the Church lamentably has a mixed record on racial justice, we can all agree that the biblical tradition is clear that racism is a sin and that all human beings are made in the image of God. This is a global ethical issue that isn’t going to go away any time soon, and as Christians we have an apologetic that can speak into the debate.
3. EMBODIED APOLOGETICS
We need to practise what we preach. 1 Peter 3:15 states: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The Greek word translated as ‘reason’ here is ‘apologia’. The exhortation to speak with “gentleness and respect” is vital and communicates the truth that we are not just to preach good news but to be good news. We need to treat people with love and courtesy and eschew any methods that are manipulative or coercive. The interesting thing to note from this verse is that Peter states: give an apologia “to everyone who asks you” – he presupposes that Christians are living lives that call forth questions.
One of the reasons for the success of courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored in recent years is that they are highly relational – as well as hearing the gospel, people can take time to observe the lives of the speaker and group leaders and see if they are the real deal.
There will be many who we engage with who, when we share that “Jesus is the truth and that the truth has set me free”, will want it to be true. At that point you and I will be exhibit A, in terms of them establishing the voracity of our claims. This is not to say that people are looking for perfection, but they are looking for authenticity. Sadly, the Church has often been closely associated with the opposite of authenticity (hypocrisy). There is much work to be done in this area.
As we enter the third decade of this third millennium, I’m convinced that apologetics is as important as it ever was. It has always been a cultural discipline and, as such, needs to change to be fit for purpose for the emerging culture.
If it does, I believe it can be a powerful tool in our evangelistic armoury and a way of pointing our friends to the one (even though they don’t yet know it) who can fulfil the deepest yearnings of their heart.