Apologetics in the Church—A Pastor’s Perspective
You have just read an inspiring book on apologetics. You have just returned from an exciting apologetics conference with some brilliant and engaging scholars. You just had a productive conversation with a skeptic and saw some real movement in their faith journey. You know that apologetics is vital for the local church. You make an appointment with your pastor to propose an apologetics ministry for the church, confident that the pastor will share your excitement for apologetics. You share your passion, you bare your soul to your pastor, pleading that he both approve the ministry and allow church resources to support it. Your pastor looks at you like you just suggested they start a Star Trek fan club at the church. What happened?
Many people have caught a vision for apologetics, have seen the potential impact on an unbelieving world, and have been deeply disappointed when their pastor and leadership have either rejected the notion or have given only half-hearted permission for you do something on your own. Why is this? Are pastors unspiritual? Unintellectual? Unevangelistic?[MP3 | RSS | iTunes]
So why are many pastors lacking in excitement when someone in their congregation suggests becoming involved in apologetics? You may live and breathe apologetics. You may immerse yourself in the books and conferences and podcasts. You are completely convinced of the power of apologetics to change lives. Your pastor is not coming at apologetics with such a focus. In addition to your plea for apologetics, there have been other people presenting worship ministry, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, children’s ministry, youth ministry, senior’s ministry, ministry to the poor, international missions and many more as the key to successful church ministry. The areas of ministry calling out to the pastor can be overwhelming, why should the pastor look at apologetics over any other area? Pastors are bombarded with “silver bullet” ideas that are going to transform everything and we sometimes seem apathetic when someone presents an exciting new idea.
There is another reason that pastors may be skeptical of apologetics in particular. Many pastors do not have much background in apologetics and are not completely sure what you are talking about. Most seminaries do not require a course in apologetics and few have them available even as electives. The pastor’s understanding of apologetics may be based only on witnessing a heated online exchange between a Christian and an atheist that seemed to be a waste of everyone’s time. It is obvious how helping the poor and visiting the sick fits with the church’s mandate. It is much less clear for some pastors with regard to apologetics.
Does that mean that you should keep your passion for apologetics to yourself and resign yourself to a church that refuses to engage the mind? Not at all. These things are shared to help you see the obstacles and to encourage you to find ways to overcome those obstacles. It could be argued that the charge of 1 Peter 3:15 is for all Christians and not just for those who self-describe as apologists. There is a very real need for apologetics in the local church. But you have some work to do to make that happen.
The first thing that you need to do is check your motives. Why is it that you want to see an apologetics ministry in the church? Is it because you absolutely love apologetics and you want your church to validate your hobby? Or do you see a real benefit to the church and to the people being ministered to by the church? Take time to work these things through.
Secondly, how practical is the apologetics idea that you have? For example, you may feel deeply offended by the theological errors of Islam or Mormonism and may feel strongly that the church should put its’ resources into exposing those errors. As a pastor, I would not be sure how that would fit with the purpose of the church, even if there is a place for Christians to participate in such activity. If you can tie your apologetic idea to your church’s vision statement, you will have softened your pastor’s heart.
Thirdly, be very clear as to what you are asking. If you just say that you think the church should start an apologetics ministry, you probably will not get very far. Be very specific. Is your goal to equip Christians to be able to articulate their faith and answer objections? Or are you planning on offering some events for skeptics, providing answers to their questions? You may want to do it all, but start with a very specific goal. You should be able to say in one sentence what you want to accomplish with your proposal. By the way, do not feel the pressure to include the word ‘apologetics’ in your request. If you want to work with Christians, describe it as discipleship. If you want to work with non-Christians, call it outreach or evangelism. It is not that you need to hide an apologetic motive but the word ‘apologetics’ will not add value to your proposal unless your pastor already has an interest in that area.
Fourthly, start small. Do not approach your pastor with the goal of closing every Kingdom Hall in your city by the end of the year. Make a proposal for one short-term small group, workshop, or outreach event. This is important on a number of levels. It is not just your pastor that you need to win over, it is the rest of the congregation as well. If your congregation refuses to participate, it does not matter how much support you get from the pastor. Let people get a taste for apologetics slowly, and do not assume that they are as immersed in the apologetics culture as you are. Also, by achieving something small, you build the confidence for the bigger projects.
Fifthly, encourage your pastor to preach apologetically. But don’t say it that way! Some pastors are open to requests for messages and others are not. It may not be natural for the pastor to preach a five part series on the ontological argument. However, a pastor may be very open to a request to preach a number of sermons on the problem of suffering, without realizing the connection to apologetics. There are many sermons that can be preached that are apologetics related but are far from a lecture on apologetics. Request a sermon on Paul’s ministry in Athens from Acts 17 or on Peter’s challenge in 1 Peter 3:15. While you are not free to plan out the pastor’s entire preaching year, many pastors would be open to the occasional request.
Finally, if you want to foster an apologetic culture in your church, tell stories. You might get excited about a nice clear syllogism, but most people won’t. Tell stories of conversations you have had with skeptics. Tell your testimony of how you became a follower of Jesus and how thinking through the hard questions played a role. Help people to see that apologetics is not about abstract theory, that it is not just a mental exercise for philosophers and theologians. Tell your stories so that people will know that apologetics is about helping real people understand the Jesus story by removing the obstacles to their faith.
As a pastor, I cannot promise that if you do all of these things, that your pastor will drop every other congregational priority and dive into apologetics. But if you take the time to understand where the pastor is coming from and if you express yourself clearly and present a concise and practical idea, you will have more success in getting pastoral support for an apologetics ministry in your church. As apologists, our job is not to be a distraction to other areas of ministry, but to encourage others in their called areas by increasing their confidence in the Gospel. The church is the front lines when it comes to the expansion of the Kingdom of God and apologists and pastors must work together for this cause.