Training for Christian Apologists
Written by Michael Green
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
I would like to present five suggestions, which I offer only because I have found them helpful in my own ministry in apologetics!
Begin where the person you are talking to is now
We should have the flexibility to use any starting-point, and any road as a path to Christ. It does not matter where we start from. If we are thought to be producing some carefully prepared sermonette, it will be disastrous. Evangelism is all about personal relationships, personal sharing in an honest and real way. So we must learn to begin where the person we are talking to wants us to begin — where the conversation springs up from.
We must also learn to take our opportunities when they occur. If we defer them to a more convenient time, that time will not happen! And let the other person make the running. We do not have to lead the conversation. He is seeking direction for his life; let him take the lead. Follow him sensitively and helpfully, as occasion offers.
And do not mind in the least if the conversation wanders off spiritual things. It may well wander on again, later in the evening. Or maybe it can be picked up another time. What will prove injurious for the relationship is pressure by you if the other person does not want it. But if you find it possible to be as natural when talking about God as when talking about cricket or baseball, you will find that your friend will be only too willing to return to a question which is, after all, one of the most fundamental in the world.
Do not be embarrassed to open your Bible
‘Oh no!’, I hear you say, ‘that will put them off for ever!’ No it won't!
It all depends on how you do it. If you speak from authority, the authority of the Bible, then you can expect a strong reaction in this very anti-authoritarian age. But if you use it in a non-authoritarian manner (although believing passionately in its authority yourself), you are likely to be well received. ‘Well now, that's a very interesting question you asked. Let's look at what Jesus had to say about that, and see if it helps at all.’
Or maybe your friend has been making some astonishing assertions about what he or she thinks Christianity is about, and you can say, ‘Well, it's fascinating to swap ideas about this, but why don't we get back to the original source-book, the New Testament?’ And invariably the person will agree. It is the academically respectable thing to do in all such endeavour: get back to the original source. That is all you purport to be doing.
But actually you are doing something more. You know, though your friend does not, that the Word of God is sharp and powerful. You know that its words can get through to places your words can never reach. So you want your friend to be exposed to the laser beams of Scripture. It will have its effect!
This open-ended and non-dogmatic approach is very necessary. You are showing that the Scriptures are perfectly intelligible if you come to them with an open mind, assuming only that the witnesses who wrote them were honest men. You are showing that Christians do not make up their faith as they go along, but that they go back to the original teaching of Jesus. And you open their eyes to what that teaching, that life, death and resurrection mean.
What is more, you begin to give your friend the suspicion that there is something unusual about this book, something that has a ring of truth about it. They feel, ‘Here is a book which understands me, which speaks to my condition’. When they recognise that, they are well on the way to conversion!
Major on Jesus and the resurrection
That is what Paul did with the Athenians - so much so that the untutored among them thought that he was wanting to add two new deities to their pantheon, Jesus and Anastasis (Acts 17:18). I doubt whether anyone could misunderstand the contemporary apologist so badly! But I have found that these are indeed the two cardinal issues to concentrate on. The person of Jesus is the most attractive in the world. And the evidence for his being more than just a man is overwhelming. I love to face enquirers with that!
And then I encourage them to go away and read the five accounts of the resurrection, to see how it reverberates from practically every page in Acts, and then to attempt to argue against it. It is a formidable case to dismantle, and they do not succeed. God has not given us the answer to all manner of questions we would love to have unravelled. But he has seen fit to provide very strong supporting evidence for the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the fact of his resurrection from the dead.
And those two points are almost enough. I well remember a young medical postgraduate in one of the Agnostics Anonymous classes I ran at Oxford University. He had come to the group in order to examine ethical issues with which he knew he would inevitably be caught up in his profession. He had gone away the week before to study the evidence for the resurrection. And as he came into the room the following week he said to his friends: ‘Well, I'm not a Christian yet, but I am persuaded that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.’ Before he left that evening, he asked me when the next ‘Discovery Group’ (for new Christians!) started. ‘I think I can't hold out any longer’, he said, `I'm committed.’ He is an active Christian doctor today!
Distinguish between smokescreens and real problems
This distinction is crucial, though not always easy to make. If a person has a real problem, and you solve that problem to their satisfaction, they should have no further reason for holding out against the truth of Christ. But if what purports to be a real reason for hesitation is in fact a smokescreen behind which your friend is wanting to hide, then a very different situation emerges. Solve that problem, and they will assuredly produce another. Solve that, and another will grow. It will become apparent that their heart is unwilling to move, and so their head is devising rationalisations in support.
The difficulty is that sometimes what is a real problem for one person can be a smokescreen for another. Take the problem of pain and suffering, for instance. That is the classic thing that Christians cannot fully answer: it is therefore an excellent stick to hit the Christians with. So your friend comes up with the question ‘Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?’, and sits back to watch you squirm as you attempt a lengthy answer. For them it is probably only a smokescreen; and if you answer it they will move on to ‘What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?’ or ‘What if there is life on Mars?’
But another person might produce precisely the same issue, the problem of suffering; and for them it is not an academic problem to keep you at arm's length. It is a desperately painful hurt - because only last year their mother died in great pain of cancer. If you treat an excuse as if it were a real reason, you will find that another one grows in its place, and at the end of the day nothing is accomplished: you need to puncture an excuse, not feed it. But on the other hand, if you treat as an excuse what really is a genuine problem, and seek to puncture it, you will hurt the questioner very deeply.
Remember too that some people have a whole constellation of genuine problems, and to regard their second, third or fourth problem as mere evasion would be quite disastrous. All of which goes to show how sensitive we must be in dealing with questions which are raised. If possible, we need to see what lies behind the question and why they ask it. Only so can we answer it in a way that will really help that particular person. But the distinction between genuine difficulties and mere excuses is vital to grasp if we are to engage at all effectively in apologetics. We must understand the distinction, and act accordingly.
Here again I can hear someone saying, ‘But that will put people off’. That is what I was told by some Christians when I came to Canada. ‘Be very oblique and laid-back, Michael. Canadians will not take directness.’ I believe I have evidence sufficient to show that this advice, though well meant, was quite wrong. Canadians are very polite, but they appreciate directness just like anyone else!
The religious scene is bedevilled by endless talk. It is like a breath of fresh air when someone comes and speaks about Jesus, his cross, his living presence, and his claims on our lives - and then asks us what we are going to do about it. Of course we need to use tact. Of course we need to be sensitive to the wind of the Spirit, and only follow where we sense he is leading. But directness does not alienate if it is allied to love. Love someone, really love them, and you can afford to make endless mistakes, to drop barrow-loads of bricks, and you can still get away with it. The point is that you love them, and they know it. You want the best for them, and they know it. And so they do not take umbrage, as they certainly would if that vital ingredient of love were missing.
The gospel of Christ concerns matters of the utmost importance, matters of life and death. We dare not beat about the bush and hedge every statement with a thousand qualifications. We need humbly but clearly to tell it like it is. In the last analysis it comes down to the question Pilate had to face: `What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?' That is the question we must help our friends to face, with love and with directness, once we have penetrated their mindset, which may well be very different from our own.