Dan Kimball: “I don’t think there ever has been a more urgent need to teach apologetics.”
I spoke recently about Jesus as the only way of salvation. I explained that it can’t be true that all paths lead to God. Now, this is a very anti-PC thing to be teaching. I didn’t want to just jump to a single Bible verse to say it. Instead, I walked through the biblical narrative of creation, explaining how in the beginning people worshiped one God. Over time, other faiths developed, and I showed how Jesus was the fulfillment of prophesy going back to the Garden of Eden. I stressed that it was not logical that all faiths could be right, since they contradict one another in major ways. I shared why I trust the Bible as the source of truth and put my confidence in Jesus as the One Way.
Afterward, a young woman told me she trusted in Jesus that night because she hadn’t ever heard a pressing argument that showed why the statement of Jesus as the One Way made sense. Obviously, there were many things leading up to that night, and God had been working in her heart for months beforehand. But it was having a “reason for the hope” laid out and explained that ended up moving her heart to full faith.
I have been in ministry for more than 20 years, much of it focused on youth and college-age, and I don’t think there ever has been a more urgent need to teach apologetics than there is today. Here’s why.
New generations do not know the story of God.
Judges 2:10 speaks of a time when “another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done.” This is increasingly the situation today. Many were raised without being taught the Bible, so they don’t understand God’s love and grace through Jesus. A local public high school teacher told me that in a class of 25 students, not a single student knew Jesus was associated with Easter Sunday. This illustrates the urgent need to develop systematic teaching and reasonable responses to the questions that inevitably arise from a generation unfamiliar with the Bible’s story.
Increasingly, culture portrays Christianity as a religion of hate, intolerance and ignorance.
Because people don’t know the Bible’s story, different stories have emerged, sometimes portraying Christians as hateful, Jesus as just one more teacher among the world’s religions and the God of the Bible as a jealous, violent deity. God is attributed with indiscriminately ordering genocide on entire people groups, endorsing slavery and demanding crude blood sacrifices from biblical worshipers. Neo-atheists and others take bits of the Bible out of context or use verses in isolation to portray God and Christians in these ways—and the Internet accelerates the spread of this alternate narrative to an ever-wider audience. Ironically, many of these arguments against God and faith are themselves based on Bible verses, making them doubly confusing. To counter these caricatures of Christianity, we must be proactive, using apologetics to teach what the Bible really does and does not say, and what Christians actually believe and why.
When we live on mission and people begin to trust us, they will have sincere but sometimes difficult questions.
If we are living missionally, befriending our neighbors and building trust out in the community, people will become curious about our faith, and questions will naturally arise. We need to be trained in how to respond to difficult questions. In this cultural setting, it may take longer to build trust and a curiosity about faith than it did in the past, but the trust will come, and with it, legitimate questions. Missional living certainly leads to apologetics.
This is a time of great openness to Jesus and faith.
Despite the lack of knowledge of the biblical narrative and despite the way Christians and the Bible are being portrayed, there is so much openness for discussion about these topics. When I hear someone say younger generations aren’t interested in apologetics, I wonder who they are talking about, because that has not been my experience at all. All around the country younger generations are experiencing a revival of interest in apologetics and learning theology. We must be prepared.
Now, it is easy to say, “We must teach apologetics to new generations,” but what does that look like in the church? Here are four suggestions.
Teach a series on tough questions every year.
Not just a class, but in the main worship gatherings of the church. When we teach apologetics classes, it seems the apologetics-heads come out. This is why it is important to teach it in all-church settings, so everyone gets taught, and it whets the appetite and mind to learn more. But don’t just select the questions yourself; ask college-age, youth and 20-somethings what questions they have. Create a survey to distribute or post online to determine the top five questions. When we do series on apologetics at Vintage Faith Church, we see attendance increase, with non-Christians coming on their own as well as being invited by others.
Create a safe culture where asking questions is understood as a good thing.
New generations are often suspicious of churches giving one-way teaching and unintentionally creating a feeling that it’s a bad thing to ask questions. Create an environment that encourages questions—even difficult ones. Sadly, I have heard many stories of those who have approached the pastor of a church with a question that may have been troubling them, and the leader treated them as though they were doing something wrong by even thinking of the question. In contrast, the people of the city of Berea (Acts 17) were seen as “noble” because they heard teaching but then looked deeper. In sermons and other public forums, specifically state that asking questions is a good thing. Encourage inquiry. And make it easy for people to raise their questions, whether through email, a question box at a kiosk or through social media.
Hold forums on difficult topics and theological questions.
Create opportunities for open dialogue on theology and apologetics. We have great success whenever we bring in theology or Bible professors and have open forums with them. During a teaching series on a topic, we sometimes end it with a theology forum of open questions. We sometimes follow a one-week Sunday teaching by a guest speaker with an afternoon or evening open forum with that speaker. We have done them in our church with professors on the difficult questions from the Old Testament, on the validity of the New Testament documents, on sexuality and the Bible, on the issue of science and the Genesis account, on the doctrine of hell and others topics. It is amazing to see the interest, the interaction—the positive response to a different way of teaching doctrine and apologetics.
Don’t offer simple answers if there aren’t simple answers.
I believe there are some apologetics teaching and books written that give overly simplistic answers to very difficult questions. It’s not enough to quote a verse or two to prove a point. A simple, take-it-or-leave-it, case-closed approach to difficult questions will quickly lose people’s trust. When we teach on difficult or sensitive topics, we need to make sure we are not dismissing challenging questions or understandable perplexity with simplistic, tidy responses. When there are clear answers, we should not shy away from giving them just because they’re difficult teachings. The flip side is that it’s not a weakness to say, “I don’t know for sure”; it actually increases respect.
Our primary “apologetic” is love. But we must also be ready to offer reasonable answers to this generation’s most difficult questions, both in our individual contacts with people and in the life and teaching of the church.