by Daniel A. Ashworth
As many others can probably attest, my experience with introducing apologetic teaching into the church setting has been a somewhat difficult, trial and error and enlightening process. Admittedly, part of the issue was a bit of over-zealousness on my part, in that I started too heavy, too soon. My first opportunity came when I was asked to teach our Sunday school class for a few weeks at our large church in Orlando, Florida. I started by teaching from the Bible the importance of loving God with one’s entire mind, and the Biblical importance of mind renewal. I also taught about how the Bible gives examples of knowing one’s surrounding culture in order to engage it, using critical thinking and logical argumentation.
Though the classes started out well, I transitioned into teaching on philosophy and how philosophical ideas filter down to shape and form the popular culture, at this point I nearly lost everyone. It is helpful to realize that, similar to the general public, most people in church have not earned a college degree, let alone specific education in humanities, theology and critical thinking. It helps to break things down in the smallest units possible and explain, explain, explain. It also helps to add stories, personal reflections and life applications to each topic you cover. Any time you use something that remotely smells of jargon, you must define and give a practical example in each instance. Graphics and illustrations help also. If something can be compared or summarized in a chart, table, diagram or image, then that information can be quickly grasped over delivering it in a long paragraph vocally.
Another self-criticism is in my use of quotes. I have found that if you read a quote, stop and explain what the author is saying in simpler terms, and give the implications of that quote with what you are teaching. If you read out a really long quote, that is probably more appropriate as a class topic in itself- so you have time to read the full quote first, and then re-read it in broken down form and show each point the author is making line-by-line and how it fits in the larger theme of what you are trying to teach. Explicitly pointing out where various authors agree or conflict with the Bible may also be an aid to understanding, especially if you couple the quote with a comparative Bible verse.
At my current church in Memphis, Tennessee, I was asked to substitute for my pastor in the teaching segment for our Wednesday night prayer meeting for a few weeks. This was another teaching moment for me as I tried to apply some of what I listed above, having learned from my experience in Orlando. However, this time, I felt I was covering too much too fast, and I could have broken the material up and explained things more. Also, it helps to know your audience. I realized the trouble I found myself in when I was teaching on evolution and Christianity, one woman in the group exclaimed “we are here to talk about God’s love only; we don’t care about animals, science or whatever”. I understood where the lady was coming from, and you could not totally fault her for her position – many believers and many churches, especially in the Bible Belt South, have taken their faith for granted and appear to rely more on an emotional faith. They are not used to having to ask and answer tough questions about Christianity. I used that as an opportunity to teach in the next meeting that Christianity and science are not in conflict, and that the early church fathers believed that “all truth is God’s truth”.
Looking back, I could have also responded with the fact that more teenagers and those in their 20s are falling from the faith now more than ever, in many instances because we have stopped trying to answer their tough questions and instead tell them in a well-intentioned way to “just have faith”. I would have also connected this with our neighborhood where our church is located, a neighborhood where more young and creative people are moving in, a neighborhood that is gentrifying and becoming more bohemian and “hipster”. These people outside the church we are trying to reach are going to want a more reasonable and rational explanation for why we believe Christ is truth, and that is what we as apologists are trying to provide. This event notwithstanding, these talks were received much better than my prior attempt in Orlando.
For the last several weeks, I have been teaching Sunday school at my church. This is also serving to be a great learning opportunity. In these sessions we go through Bible books at our own pace and study them in an expository and systematic way. Though the class is explicitly and almost exclusively focused on the Bible itself, I do find little opportunities to work in apologetic material here and there, without usurping the purpose of the class. In certain instances, I may find an occasion to teach the harmony of the Gospels, explain what may appear to be differences in the peripheral details between two or more Gospel accounts, give background on the beliefs of different historic people groups in the Bible or even explain why Jesus answered most questions with counter-questions and show why these are important examples for our evangelism. This opportunity is turning out to be a great and rewarding experience for me.
I have learned the best way to introduce apologetics into a church is in small bits and pieces with general audiences, just as I have explained with my Sunday school example. Moreover, apologetics-specific studies are probably best reserved for Sunday evenings, Wednesday nights and/or weekday early mornings, where the attendance is elective as opposed to having the normal “captive” audience on Sunday mornings. That way, the people who come to learn are really the ones who want to be there, and who are truly interested in the material being covered. For these specific audiences, I have filled in for Wednesday night studies in Orlando and in Memphis administered The Truth Project (produced by Focus on the Family) and provided assistance to Carolyn Horne in setting up, administering and publicizing the monthly meetings in the Reasonable Faith Memphis Chapter with success.
In the future, I plan to continue teaching Sunday school, working with Reasonable Faith and running more sessions of The Truth Project and other studies like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? book and DVD study and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries’ Foundations in Apologetics for my church. I am also interested in earning certifications through Reasonable Faith and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention for teaching apologetics. A long range goal of mine is to go back to school for doctoral study in Philosophy and Theology.
Teaching apologetics in church can be a tough assignment, and is often met with some level of resistance. If this is really your passion, you will need to remain patient and try your best to simplify and explain things, and most importantly, constantly reaffirm why apologetics is necessary in the first place. It is easy to criticize the average believer or the church itself as being anti-intellectual and points made regarding this issue are often valid. However, as Christians we are called to be humble, patient servants to our brethren no matter what the circumstances. Just as we should exercise forbearance with nonbelievers, weak believers or those with whom we disagree, we also should approach introducing apologetics into church settings in the same way. Studying God should be a humbling experience, not a prideful exercise, because we are trying to know an infinite God after all. I believe this servant’s heart attitude may go further than much I have written above.