We in the apologetic third column (as Greg Koukl likes to describe it) know what it is like to be disappointed when it comes to local church training. We desire to see and show brothers and sisters in Christ what we discovered for ourselves: Christian Apologetics is incredibly empowering both evangelistically and devotionally. It is frustrating when you know you have good evidence for the Christian worldview yet the evangelical church almost refuses to take notice. Of course, my friends, we all see it coming. We see the tide turning one church and community at a time. We have at our fingertips remarkable materials and speakers that when utilized correctly can equip believers and make them effective ambassadors for the faith. One of the ways we can add to the movement in our local communities and churches is through apologetic events. I have personally organized five or six events to this point and I have more coming in the near future. These events range from small to large churches and from local community settings to state-wide events. I am starting to understand where these apologetic events are useful in terms of our goal of equipping saints to defend the Christian faith. Yet, before I go further, I want you all to remember my earlier announcement: if you must lead something, do so with a humble spirit and do it all for HIS glory!.[MP3 | RSS | iTunes | Index]
It might seem trite to mention, but leadership is key to any apologetic event organizing. Every event, no matter the size or scope, needs a point person to direct and protect the overall vision and help in the overall plan of action. Leadership comes in many different forms, but overall I think event organizing needs someone with the ability to organize and effectively motivate people towards a similar goal. Now, I do not consider myself the best organizer, but I am very skilled at keeping people connected to a shared goal. I lean on others in my group to help me with details. I start with organizing broad objectives to make them clear and easy to understand. Leaders should spend a good portion of time thinking about the overall purpose of the event and ask questions that will sharpen the focus of what is trying to be accomplished. Good pre-event questions are:
- What is the overall goal of the event?
- Whom are we trying to reach?
- What are the estimated costs?
- What kind of help will I need?
- Should we host the event at a church or public community center?
- What are the church’s concerns in terms of this event?
It is important for the answers to be clear and easily communicated to others. A good rule of thumb is that if it is not clear in your own mind, it will be equally or more difficult for others to understand. Do your due diligence at this point to think of objective-type questions and get the answers to those issues before you do anything else. Trust me, it will help in the long run!
Also, remember that if you are allowed to organize an event at a local church you are beholden to keep the lines of communication open to the church staff and be mindful of their hospitality. They are the ultimate leaders of their congregation and you are on their turf. I am very blessed since everyone I have dealt with has been gracious with their church calendars. These leaders have given me free reign of their facilities. Giving up church time and facilities is a great gift from those in church leadership. Do not abuse the gift and be mindful of their generosity.
Ultimately, the leader of an event needs to keep the vision and objectives clear. His primary purpose is to keep people on the right track and focused on the shared vision. Force yourself to keep these broad goals in mind. But, what are these broad goals? What do leaders need to keep in mind when working through the pre-event planning, the event itself, and post-event objectives? There are a myriad of important objectives that a leader needs to consider. Since this is not meant to be an exhaustive guide, I will consider five common, practical aspects of event planning including topic and speaker selection, marketing, calendar and date planning, event logistics, and post-event activities.
Choosing a Topic and Speaker
There are two ways to go when dealing with apologetic events: either start with a topic in mind or choose a speaker before a topic is considered. When it came to my first event in Montgomery, I had Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries in mind before I even began to think about subjects for him to teach. I, like many others in the apologetic world, have followed Greg and his massively successful radio show for over ten years. His style, manner and knowledge fit perfectly with my goals and objectives for the event. I spent weeks thinking about my target audience and I came to the conclusion that I wanted to reach believers who desired to think and communicate clearly the Christian truths both at home and in public. Of course, I had to assume that I was starting at square one when introducing apologetic training, so I wanted to keep things simple. In the beginning, apologetics can be a complicated and very confusing topic for most believers. Through communication with Melinda Penner, the director of operations at Stand to Reason, we decided to let Greg teach a modified version of his Tactics training on Saturday, preach his sermon Credo on Sunday morning, and host a question and answer period on Sunday night. I tried to pair the church and community to a speaker who had an approachable personality and understood that the average Joe probably did not want to listen to a three-hour lecture on the ontological argument. In my opinion, failing to connect the right speaker and topic to the community is a common misstep within the apologetic community. Know your audience! I understand your desire for others to understand solid evidences for the faith. However, it takes time for people to assimilate ideas, especially if they are foreign to their usual Christian perceptions. You can take the apologetic movement in your area back a few years if you are not careful. Instead, go with speakers that can relate with your audience. If the setting is a university or college then go with someone who can relate to students and professors. If your audience is a rural church in Alabama, go with someone who can relate to those circumstances. The good news is that we live in a time where there are many professional apologists willing and ready to speak on a whole variety of topics.
Now I know marketing is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love communicating with people and giving them proper scope about what I am trying to accomplish. Now notice I said “proper scope”. We are not in the business of selling products or events just to get people in the seats. However, we need to do a better job selling the benefits of apologetics. I do see some out there promoting the right way by using ingenious titles as well as being creative with advertising. In fact, I would say that other than coming up with the title most of the promotion portion of event organizing is easy. Now the title for your event is another matter. While I like titles with “reason” and “defend” in the marquee, it is becoming a bit tired in my opinion. I understand it’s difficult, but try and come up with something that is not only creative and fun, but something that clearly identifies the purpose the event.
I think the most underutilized way to promote an event in a community is radio. I have a great relationship with Christian radio stations in the state of Alabama. Faith Radio in the Montgomery area is a not-for-profit radio station that has been more than willing to help me promote Tactical Faith’s events. The amount of people that listen to radio is enormous, so do not be afraid to call local stations and see what they offer in terms of promotion. If it is for a church or community event, many stations will write off the amount for advertisement as community service, so again it is worth the effort to give your local radio station a call.
Nothing—and I mean nothing—beats word of mouth promotion when getting an event noticed. I enjoy going around and getting to know pastors from different churches, so this part is easy for me. My default practice is to start three months ahead calling local church pastors and denominational headquarters about an event. The time will vary according to the amount of territory you are trying to cover as far as communicating the event itself. I have a statewide event in the near future that needs at least 11 months, but for a regional event I think two to three months will suffice. I call local pastors and denominational leaders and tell them that I would like their help in getting the word out to their congregations. More often than not, they are happy to make their congregants aware (as long as the event is not on Sunday). This is also a great time to network with the community at large and promote apologetics as well. People are very receptive to it when you act cordially and humbly describe what it is your group is trying to do. Be open to the fact that this is a wonderful time to connect with your neighborhood, because you never know what helpful connections you will make. For example, my friend Mark Tucci and I just recently met a pastor while promoting an event whose son is attending Biola for apologetics training. You could see in his eyes how proud he was of his son and through him was very aware of the apologetic world. I have lived in Montgomery for three years and had no clue a pastor, literally one mile from my home, had a connection like that to apologetics. This episode reflects the fun of promoting by word-of-mouth marketing strategies. Be prepared and open to make new friends and connections. These connections will probably serve you well during your next event.
Calendar and Date Planning
More than likely, most readers of this article will be working outside of a church staff and will lead apologetic groups/events in addition to their family and job duties, akin to Paul’s tent-making. This juggling act can make the event planning process very difficult. One of the hardest hurdles to cross is choosing a date that coincides with both the church and the community’s calendar. I wish everyone would just go along with my plans and visions! However, the reality is that I am nowhere near the master of my own calendar much less anyone else’s. Despite these complications, choosing an optimal date for your event is crucial if you desire to reach the most in your church or community. Always remember, keep the local cultural calendar in mind when organizing any event, especially in smaller communities. For example, in the South, do not schedule anything during the fall unless it is a Monday or Tuesday night (Mondays are not optimal either). Why not, you ask? Down here, football is king and the turnout will be low. We have coordinated events in other parts of our state and even in Alabama; there are still variances when dealing with annual community calendar. Even with keeping in mind the cultural calendar, it is still difficult to find that perfect window for apologetic events. For our first event with Greg Koukl, we chose the third week in January because there was nothing going on in both the community and church calendars. High school and college football ended a few weeks earlier and other than the occasional avid hunter, most citizens around our area were in a post-football season lull, looking for something to do. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons we had over 450 people attend a Saturday Tactics training with Greg.
Also, think about the calendar and use it to your advantage. Are you doing an event where the topic is about the resurrection? Try to work with a church to offer a weekend training session near Easter. We had Dr. Gary Habermas come to Montgomery two weeks after Easter in 2012. The resurrection is already on the hearts and mind of God’s people, so it is a great time to introduce the minimal facts theory.
I know this title sounds like a bad UPS commercial, but in reality it is the heart of this whole article. What I am dealing with in this category is the event itself. There are multiple things about a region or statewide event that one has to factor, so don’t be surprised if you miss something your first couple of events. However, allow me the opportunity to give you a little insight from my failures and maybe you can gain something from my mistakes. The actual event will clearly show the small or large weaknesses of your pre-event organization skills. What are the big glaring ones that you can avoid? For starters, watch your money and costs. I made the mistake of just “guesstimating” what things will cost outside the speaking fees, lodging, and airfare and forgot about all the small things that might come up. Decide beforehand what your meal allowances will be for the speaker(s) and put that money on a prepaid Visa card(s). Give it to the speaker when he first gets off the airplane. Explain that the card is for food money and any miscellaneous items they might need while in town. Also take out a few twenties and carry it around in your pocket just in case something comes up that needs immediate attention. I am serious about this part guys. Things come up and you might as well be prepared for it rather than spending time handing out your debit card or going to the ATM at a moment’s notice.
Second, watch the speaker like a hawk. What I mean by that is the speaker is your guest, so make sure they are taken care of fully and do everything you can to make them feel at ease. Trust me, when they get off the plane or out of the car they are not there for vacation. They have to get themselves in a frame of mind in order to speak. Keep in mind, they are usually out of their comfort zone, so this is a stressful time for them (especially if this is their first time in your community). If you have multiple speakers then assign a person to each speaker (their “handlers”, so-to-speak) for as long as they are in your town.
Keep a sheet with you of their speaking schedule and a daily or weekend schedule and be ready to keep them clued into where they are supposed to be. When the speaker feels like they have someone in their corner, it makes them feel at ease. I brought Brett Kunkle from Stand to Reason to Birmingham and Montgomery on a whirlwind youth apologetic tour last year and absolutely put him on a brutal speaking schedule. I think by the end of four days he had spoken to over 1400 people total over two cities and multiple locations in each city. He took it like a champ but was incredibly exhausted by the end. I knew I was asking a lot of him, so I tried everything I could do to keep him energized and clued in on his topics and locations. I would have the schedule always at hand with a backpack full of water always handy for him.
When it comes to the speaker try and make them comfortable in your community. On your way to an event clue them in on your cultural quirks. Believe me, I live in the south. I understand we southern folk can be a bit… oh how can I say it… unique. The first thing I try to do now for a speaker is to tell him the lay of the land in terms of what to do and not to do. Are you bringing a California reformed speaker to a Wesleyan church? Then do him a favor and tell him not to bring up soteriology. In some areas of the country it is fine to go out and order alcohol with a meal. In parts of the south that is a big negative, especially if you are in some denominations. But how is your speaker supposed to know these things if you do not tell him beforehand? Do him a favor and tell him these things so that he does not unknowingly offend someone.
Finally, go through the whole weekend in your mind right before the event starts. Try and think about everything you have organized at this point and preemptively try to tie up loose ends. Does the speaker have a table for his resources? Is there someone assigned to that table to sell his product? Who is taking the speaker out to eat after this event? Who is driving him from his hotel to the event? Please ask yourself these questions and have an answer long before the speaker(s) arrive! Also, take the time to write down the whole weekend on a sheet, moment by moment, and have the event memorized so you can recall everything at a moment’s notice.
Post-event reflections and Conclusion
When the event is finished, your job is not over. Take the time while the event is still fresh to reflect on the totality of the whole process from start to finish. Sit down in front of your computer or with paper and pen in hand and jot down your thoughts. Ask yourself questions on what you would or would not do again and turn these thoughts into a log to save. I go back constantly to my computer file that is devoted to my pre- and post-event notes. I take notes constantly before, during, and after an event. These thoughts remind me of what works and does not work for my community. I do this so that I can find better ways to get apologetics to my local church and state.
I am in this for the long haul and I want to help my brothers and sisters grow in the Christian faith. I love organizing apologetic events, big and small, because God has put the fire in me to help equip HIS people. I honestly find myself sitting around and thinking of new topics, new speakers, and new ways to get apologetics to the state of Alabama. Call me a nerd… heck, call me the worst of apologetic nerds. I will clear the air right now and confess, “Hi my name is Matthew Burford and I am addicted to apologetics. In fact I am addicted to organizing apologetic events.” So go out there my friends and add gasoline to the apologetic movement by organizing an event. Just remember, do not do this for your glory. Go out there and make HIM proud of you.