Thursday, September 16, 2010
Take the Scenic Route by Peter Grice
How do I get apologetics in my church? The short answer is… take the scenic route.
Let’s face it. Apologetics is out of favour with the church today in many quarters. The situation is no different here in Australia. But churches are nonetheless participating in apologetics without intending to, tacitly responding to reasonable concerns with a subtle message that they do not matter. In this dismissive climate, any attempt to allay sceptical questions is undermined and rendered feeble. The whole enterprise is arguably doing harm to the cause of the gospel. [MP3 | RSS | iTunes | Table of Contents]
Yet according to Philippians 1, the gospel has both a proclamation and a defense, as opposed to a proclamation and A LOUDER PROCLAMATION, STUPID! The latter is certainly how it seems to those whose questions are met with constant reiteration of what the Bible says, in neglect of the more basic question of why that is credible. When pressed, many unapologetic Christians respond with a serving of fideistic platitudes that fail to satisfy.
I could go on grumbling about the problems here, and give a pretty impressive analysis of the historical causes and cultural exacerbations. But I won’t, and I suggest you make that your resolve too, if you’re intending to affect change in your church. Nobody likes a grumbling critic, which remains true even when we are right in our criticisms. We must be patient with others, and find positive ways to overcome the barriers. It is ill-advised to create new ones.
What we did first in our church was to set up a formal ministry called Think Christianity. It remains very much independent of our local church, but we have always sought to operate within church ministry structures. The name sends a clear message, but we knew it would play to the stereotype. That was our first hurdle: the fact that apologetics has at times been too cerebral, via the proxy term for this in church circles: “head knowledge.” Had we called ourselves Heads-on-Fire or Awesomegetics, perhaps Feelings-for-Faith or even Minds-Abandoned, then obviously we would have gained more traction in those early days.
We finally figured out that the problem is not that Christians completely reject knowledge, or thinking, or apologetics. Instead, it’s that many define it as an appendage to faith, and that’s how they keep it at arm’s length. It’s worthwhile, perhaps, for specialists who might make some progress with purely “human” efforts. And appropriate, because sceptics are being equally unspiritual. But it’s not nearly as good as a more spiritual approach, such as just praying harder and longer for our sceptical friends. Despite this caveat, our fellow Christians are very charitable, even genuinely happy for us that we’re “into that kind of thing.”
You can address this stereotype by making the important distinction between generalist and specialist. The fact that there are gifted, specialist evangelists, does not obviate the rest of us from the general responsibility to share the gospel. Hardly anyone would disagree with that, yet apologetics is really no different. So we can help people to understand that 1 Peter 3:15 (as a classic biblical reference for apologetics), is a clear injunction to all believers generally – not just apologetics-types who are “into” it. The verse has the Greek term “apologia,” as many readers will know. Faithful believers will respond appropriately once they can better appreciate the biblical mandate. Making the above distinction and emphasizing the generalist role, commends apologetics as a core church pursuit.
I referred at the outset to taking the scenic route. What I mean by that is an indirect, creative, adaptive approach that transcends barriers and constraints. For instance, we must come to terms with making serious, weighty subjects as practical, fun and interesting as possible. If you feel that’s too much compromise, and would rather people rise to your specialist level, perhaps it is you who are undervaluing the biblical call to generalists! Harry Blamires wrote of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian,” and I can empathise with the desire to enjoy special interests and high-level conversation with others. However, not everyone is like that. Maybe they can move in that direction, but it takes time. Intelligence is not a virtue, yet it is virtuous to always do our best.
If you’re going to persuade someone with a different point of view, you first have to communicate effectively. That means contextualising your points; entering their perspective without adopting it as your own. We can accommodate a vocabulary of misconstrued terms by avoiding them altogether. So for example, instead of saying “do apologetics,” speak of “answering questions” or “giving reasons.” Talk about the importance of “persuading” others and “commending” the Bible as trustworthy. Side-step any negative connotations of “knowledge” by simply referring to “understanding.”
With all that in mind, one of the first things Think Christianity did in our church was start a discussion group for generalists, as interesting and accessible as we could muster. It ran reasonably well for a couple of years, although interest eroded gradually each year. You can learn from our experience: think twice about running something for an indefinite timeframe. Once people figure out it will always be on, they start attending just whenever they feel like it. That creates increasing unpredictability in the sessions, and things eventually grind to a halt. Those observing from the sidelines see this as confirmation that apologetics is only for the so-inclined.
Even better than contextualising your terms and concepts, would be to contextualise your whole subject. Associate it with Evangelism (after all, apologetics is a form of pre-evangelism). Or wrap it up in “Worldview.” Actually, apologetics broadly understood is akin to worldview rightly understood. When we pursue a consistent, reasonable, applied worldview set upon Christian foundations, we are living an apologetic life. With this preparation and ethos, every natural (non-forced) conversation is saturated with apologetic potential.
Combining the two insights of shorter, fixed timeframes and not teaching apologetics in isolation, we created a six-week introductory “Crash Course in Christian Apologetics and Worldview.” The latter stage was dedicated to an integrated application dubbed “Worldview Apologetics.” The course was very well received, and represented a bite-sized package that works well in a cell-group environment. On that note, you may find that your church leaders are more open to apologetics than you’d realised, and that any reticence could have more to do with how your plans fit existing systems and structure, such as cell-groups. My advice would be to approach those who oversee various ministries, and ask them what kinds of resources and formats they would find practical. Then take your scenic detour as you tailor your offerings, returning with a real solution.
I still need to tell you about our biggest project and how it evolved through the lessons we learned along the way. Perhaps this will help you think outside the box, or maybe what we’re offering could assist your own efforts.
We developed a year-long worldview-based course for teenagers, and ran it for several years during Sunday morning sermon times. It went reasonably well, too. Irregular attendance was a significant challenge, however. In practical terms, it meant that some of our educational structure broke down: with each new session we couldn’t build much on previous learning, because most students hadn’t attended for several weeks. Our other problem was waning attendance over the course of each year. We attributed this to a vibrant youth ministry, where teenagers would gravitate toward Friday nights and a Sunday evening church service, with Sunday mornings being reserved, presumably, for leisure or school work. We also wondered whether, had our church leaders promoted the program occasionally, parents would have been more aware and valued it more.
So we took another detour and went to parents directly. We had developed a Student Journal that extended our material between Sundays, thus transcending some constraints such as limited contact time. We wrote a letter to encourage parents to take an interest in the journal, discuss with their teenager what they were learning each week, and encourage them to keep coming along. Perhaps it helped, but we still experienced a similar irregularity and waning attendance.
The challenges we experienced over the years were teaching us how to work around church barriers and constraints: first in adapting our language and concepts, next by couching the whole subject of apologetics in other contexts that are better-received, and then with adapting our materials and approach to incorporate life between church services.
In our case, we needed to take one final scenic detour before we were ready to return in strength to pursue apologetics in our local church. We began to see the broader potential of what we were offering. After all, aren’t local churches part of a larger Christian movement that includes the efforts of Christian education in schools? And what about the potential for online delivery, direct to students? We realised that each area had its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, online delivery suits self-paced learning and facilitates social networks but lacks relational and experiential depth, which is where a typical Youth ministry excels. Also, while churches struggle with limited contact time and sporadic attendance, schools have a captive audience.
We also realised that we had the makings of a fully-fledged high school curriculum, and the desire to have it deployed in a holistic way, enriched with various activities and events. We decided to carve out a niche alongside churches and schools, in partnership with them, combining their strengths with our own and the advantages of internet coordination. We applied for some additional funding and were able to hire a marketing manager. We ended up with the TELOS Program, a maximally flexible, open, extensible public ministry operation. The thrust is full, sustained development of a community of students over the long term, incorporating at least one full year of apologetics study and training.
I’d like to tell you of its explosive success, but we are only just beginning to release details and hit the market with a series of launch events. However we do know that we are better positioned now to succeed with churches, because we have been learning and regrouping, becoming smarter and stronger. Finally, we are enjoying a lot of early interest and excitement, which tells me that the detour is both worthwhile and almost over.