There’s a common perception in our culture that religious faith is irrational, that people who believe in God do so on the basis of feelings or emotion, not evidence. Atheist Daniel Dennett even goes so far as to compare belief in God with belief in Santa Claus, suggesting that Christians are infantile and simply need to grow up.
A moment’s thought would reveal the problem with that idea. How many people do you know you have come to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood? Yet hundreds of thousands of people become Christians as adults after careful consideration of the facts and evidence. You see “faith” does not mean “believing something for which there is no evidence”. In the Bible the word “faith” is actually a verb: it means to put your trust in something or somebody. And if you are asked you why you have put your trust in God, you should be able to give reasons:
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
The phrase “give a reason” is the English translation of the Greek word apologia, from which we get the word “apologetics”. Apologetics is simply the act of giving an answer, a reason, an explanation for why you believe what you believe. The Bible says that every Christian should be able to do this — it’s not optional. But the prospect of being asked why we believe can often make Christians a little nervous — we’re afraid of looking foolish, of not having an answer, even of letting God down. So I’d like to share with you eight tips I’ve learnt over the years that can make apologetics much easier.
Prayer is vital. How should we pray? First, pray for opportunities. Pray that God would bring non-Christians across your path and that he would open up natural opportunities for you to talk about your faith with them. Pray that they would ask you questions, that they would see something about your life that intrigues them.
Second, as you engage in conversations with people, begin praying intentionally for them. Ask God to put the name of particular family members, friends or colleagues on your heart and pray for them every day. Pray for more opportunities to talk with them. Pray that situations would arise in their life that would cause them ask deeper questions.
Third, pray for wisdom. In John 14:26 Jesus tells his disciples that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to instruct us and to remind us of Jesus’ own teachings. God asks us to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have and then he promises to give us the resources to do just that. Whenever God calls, he provides.
2. Talk and Listen
One of the most powerful evangelistic tools I know is simply this: talking to people. To most of us, this comes naturally. Learn to be interested in people and their stories. Get to know your friends, neighbours, colleagues and family members better. And as they talk, learn to really listen. Hear what’s being said, what your friend’s concerns, interests and passions are. And as you listen, pray silently, that God would help you find the opportunities to weave the gospel naturally into the conversation.
3. Learn to Ask Good Questions
You may be surprised to learn that apologetics is not primarily about having the right answers, it’s as much about asking the right questions. Questions like “Why do you believe that?” or “Why do you think that?” can be very powerful. If somebody expresses a negative opinion about the Christian faith, gently asking “What’s your evidence for that?” can crack open the conversation. Questions can expose hidden assumptions, shed light on motives, and show whether somebody really believes what they have just said, or if they are just repeating something they heard on television, for example.
Often the key is asking the right question. Neil Postman tells the story of two Catholic priests who wanted to obtain papal permission to smoke whilst praying. The first priest wrote to the Pope and asked: “Is it permissible to smoke while praying?” He received the answer: “Absolutely not, prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention!” The second priest wrote to the Pope and asked: “Is it permissible to pray whilst smoking?” and received the answer: “Yes, one should pray at all times.” The story illustrates the point that often the form of a question can generate very different answers. For example, the question “Do you believe in God?” may generate a very difference answer from “What do you believe?” or “What do you think the purpose to life is?”
4. Study the Bible
I used to work for a leading evangelical theological college in the UK. Every fall, we would survey incoming students to see how much basic biblical knowledge they had, so we could structure the initial courses accordingly. Over the years we saw a steady decline in how much the average undergraduate knew about scripture. This is a common trend, alas, in evangelicalism as a whole — we’re simply spending less time reading the Bible than we once did. The distractions and busyness our culture throws around us are everywhere. As a friend once quipped: “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that our neglect of the spiritual disciplines was not from lack of time.”
If we are going to share and defend our faith, we first have to know our faith, and thus we need to ensure we are immersing ourselves in scripture — not just the parts of it we’re familiar with, too. So read the Bible deeply. Study it at length. Invest in a study Bible that will help explain complex ideas to you and show you how biblical passages are connected. Consider committing to reading the Bible through once a year, every year, so you that you become more acquainted with the whole of scripture.
5. Read a Book
There was a time when apologetics books were hard to come by but we now live in what some have called “The Age of Apologetics”. There are incredible books being published every year by very gifted men and women who have spent the time researching some of the toughest questions of faith. Why not begin by tracking down books by people like Lee Strobel, Tim Keller, Ravi Zacharias, or William Lane Craig. Dig into some of the classic works of apologetics, those by thinkers like C. S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer. Keep an eye on websites where the latest books are reviewed and discussed, such as Apologetics315, a blog that has regular book reviews, articles and interviews with leading apologists.
6. Take a Course
If you want to get serious about being more effective in sharing your faith with friends, colleagues and neighbours and be better equipped to answer their questions, why not take a class? For example, if you live near to Toronto, RZIM’s Engaging Culture course runs every few months on a Saturday morning. It’s a great way to learn practical tools, dig deeply into topics, and meet new friends. You may also find that a local church or Bible school has evening classes you can take.
7. Teach Somebody Else
It’s often said that the best way to be sure that you understand something properly is to try explaining it to somebody else. This definitely goes for apologetics. Take every opportunity to answer questions about faith — why not ask a friend or colleague for their questions? If your church runs something like the Alpha Course, consider volunteering to be a table host. And if you are ever asked to teach a Sunday School or discipleship class, offer to teach something on apologetics.
8. Stay Humble
In all of this, remember that evangelism and apologetics is ultimately God’s work. Indeed, 1 Peter 3:15, which I quoted earlier, begins with the phrase ‘in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord’. Unless our apologetics is rooted firmly in Christ’s lordship, then ultimately it will be ineffective.
Remember, too, that apologetics is not about trying to win people for Christ through arguments. A clever argument can’t make somebody a Christian — only God’s Spirit can ultimately do that work in somebody’s heart. But what an argument, a reason, a conversation can do is clear away the debris that prevents somebody from seeing Christ clearly. If the bushes have grown up preventing me from seeing the view of the lake from my cottage, what I need is something to clear those bushes away. The chainsaw won’t create the lake view, but it can let me see the view clearly.
This view of apologetics does two other things. First, it makes evangelism possible. If you get the idea into your head that making somebody a Christian is your job, it will break you. You cannot carry the weight of that responsibility, only God can. Second, it will keep you humble. Somebody who thinks they have all the answers runs the risk of becoming not more godly, but insufferably proud. In contrast, realising that apologetics is a calling for all of us, but one in which we desperately need God’s help, empowerment and leading, keeps us humble. C. S. Lewis, arguably one of the greatest apologists of the twentieth century, wrote this prayer:
“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”
What people ultimately need is not a clever argument, but to see the greatness and attractiveness of Jesus. Our task — the task of apologetics — is simply to present him as clearly as we can, and then simply to get out of the way.
—————————————————————————————————————————————- Dr. Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director and Lead Apologist for RZIM Canada. Andy is a visiting lecturer for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, London School of Theology and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Andy has a BA (Hons) in Theology and a PhD in Islamic Studies from London School of Theology.