by Tawa Anderson
What are such skeptics going to hear when you exposit the Word of God? How is your message going to impact the hardened skeptic? On the one hand, unless the Holy Spirit illuminates the skeptic’s heart and mind, it does not matter what you say – it will have no impact. But, on the other hand, this is no excuse for eschewing the hard work of biblical exegesis and contextualization. When Paul ascended Mars Hill to share the Gospel with the Athenian elite (Acts 17), he framed the good news of Christ’s atoning death and bodily resurrection in terms and contexts comprehensible to their pagan worldview and background – even quoting Greek poets instead of Old Testament texts to introduce their need to know the one true God. The message and the truth did not change, but the way Paul presented it changed in accordance with his audience.
Can you reach all of the people all of the time? My dad always reminded me that “you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.” Similarly, in crafting a sermon and preparing to present God’s Word to our congregation, you cannot reach all of the people all of the time. The Apostle Paul sought to be all things to all people so that in all possible ways he might save some (1 Corinthians 9). But he didn’t try to be all things to all people at the same time. Rather, to the Jews he became like a Jew, in order to reach them; to the Gentiles he became as a Gentile, in order to reach them. Our message must be contextualized in order to reach the particular audience that we have. Unless you preach exclusively at the local Humanist chapter, you can’t make every sermon a purely apologetic appeal to skeptics to embrace the reasonability of our faith. Still, that’s no reason to never preach with skeptics in mind!
Are you preaching to the choir? It would have been far easier for the apostle Paul to craft his sermons always with Bible-believing Jews in mind. They shared his monotheistic worldview (God as the Almighty and All-just Creator), his trust in the authority of the biblical text, and his expectation for a Messiah. But Paul didn’t – instead, he preached his apologetic message differently when addressing Gentiles. Have you ever considered how a skeptic or atheist or member of a different religion would respond to the sermon that you are about to preach, or just preached?
A key element to incorporating apologetics into your preaching ministry is to consciously engage non-believers in the pew. This does not come naturally or easily. It is far easier to preach to the choir – to craft and develop your sermon with the thoughts, challenges, needs, and troubles of the faithful gathered saints in mind. As in most spiritual things, however, the easy way is not the way to maturity and Godliness. Broad is the road and easy the path that leads to preaching to the choir (and missing the skeptic); small is the gate and narrow the road that reaches the seeking skeptics in your congregation.
Have you walked a mile in the skeptic’s shoes? While preaching to reach the skeptic as well as the saved is neither easy nor comfortable, it is relatively simple. Put yourself in his place. Ask yourself – if I had a ___ worldview (fill in the blank accordingly – naturalistic, Mormon, Muslim, agnostic, atheistic, New Age, post-modern), what questions would this passage/text/topic raise? What doubts about Christianity would I have that directly impinge upon this message?
For example, imagine that Easter is approaching, and you plan to preach on the grand resurrection narratives of 1 Corinthians 15. You could simply affirm the glorious truth that Jesus is indeed raised from the dead, and that death is conquered and contains no power over us. That in itself is a powerful sermon, and needs preaching. But I would suggest that Easter Sunday is one of two times throughout the year that you are quite likely to have a large number of non-believers amongst your congregation. If you put yourself in their shoes and consider how they might respond to the resurrection narratives, then there are numerous questions which you could consider addressing. How do we know that Jesus truly rose from the dead? What are the historical evidences that support our resurrection faith? In a post-Enlightenment world, how can we affirm that God raised a dead man to new life? Are such miracles possible? Or are they ruled out by a scientific, mechanistic worldview? Was Paul’s resurrection encounter the same as the other apostles’, or qualitatively different? On what basis do we trust the eyewitness accounts of the resurrection? If you preach through 1 Corinthians 15, proclaiming the wonderful good news that Jesus is raised from the dead and that we have glorious assurance of our own victory over death through his, then I suggest that skeptics amongst your congregation are going to be profoundly unpersuaded and even disaffected.
Obviously you cannot address all of these questions in one (or even a series) of sermons; furthermore, you would be remiss in your duties to only address apologetic questions about the historicity of the resurrection, and never draw any implications from it. Nonetheless, if the Easter season comes and goes and you never address any of the skeptical issues, I would argue that you have missed the boat. The seeking skeptics in your congregation have not been given any tangible reason to believe the truth of the resurrection that you so confidently presuppose. Furthermore, any doubting disciples or besieged brothers in the church are not given reasons for the hope that they still (but more tentatively) hold. Remember (see my earlier article ‘An Apologetic for Apologetics’) that apologetics is not only for non-Christians; it also helps to confirm the truth of the faith for those within the body of Christ who have serious questions or doubts. The questions I mentioned above are not random questions – they are on the hearts and minds of people in the pew, Christian and non-Christian alike. The questions are raised by their own reading, reflection, and philosophizing; they are also forced upon them by the anti-Christian arguments of other authors, teachers, and friends.
Bottom line: the questions are there, and if they are never addressed from the pulpit, then questioners will eventually assume that there are no (good) answers to the questions. And again, note that Paul does not hesitate to supply such reasons to his audience. In 1 Corinthians 15, he begins with a presentation of evidence for the resurrection – a creedal summary of what happened to Jesus, and a list of eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, including himself. If Paul eagerly shares evidence and reasons for the Corinthians to believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, why would we avoid doing the same?
So, my brothers and fellow preachers, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy and grace, to walk a mile in the moccasins of the seeking skeptics, doubting disciples, and besieged believers in your pews. Consider the questions that they would raise, and seek to address them. Rather than preaching to the choir, intentionally incorporate apologetics into your sermons.