The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Mark Mittelberg. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with Mark Mittelberg, author, speaker, and evangelism strategist. Mark was the Evangelism Director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago for many years, and he and Lee Strobel have been ministry partners for more than twenty years. He is a lecturer and an author of a number of books including, Becoming A Contagious Christian, Choosing Your Faith, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, as well as an updated version of The Reason Why Faith Makes Sense. The purpose of our interview today is to gain some insight from his experience as an apologist and Christian communicator. Also, to talk about his newest book, and get his advice for Christian apologists.
Thanks for joining me today, Mark.
MM: Great to be with you Brian. I’m so excited about your ministry, and check in on your website every once in a while to see what’s new, and I just think you guys are doing a tremendous service for the Kingdom.
BA: Why thank you. Mark, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, and the ministry that you’re involved in.
MM: Well, I’ve been a Christian for many years now, but when I came to Christ at age nineteen, I soon thereafter went to college and ran into the classic skeptical philosophy professor who challenged my faith. Not just mine, but I mean anyone in the class who happened to be what he called “a traditional Christian,” someone who believed in what he called “traditional views of God.” And he wasn’t an atheist, but he was from a very liberal theological perspective, and would, you know, put down “simplistic” views of the bible (what he considered simplistic views), and he would talk to us about how we needed to grow up in our understanding of who God is. He was actually a panentheist — into process theology, and Whitehead, and people like that. But, it really challenged me, and I already was studying my bible and theology, but I really realized I needed to go deeper with philosophy and apologetics. And kinda its the professors that grow up, in my understanding, but not in the direction he wanted me to, but rather to be able to defend against the kinds of things he was saying, and show, you know, why we trust the bible, why we believe in the biblical view of God, why we can be confident that Christianity is true. So, I began to study and look around, at that time (this is many years ago) there were no Lee Strobel books at that time, Lee was still an atheist, but I read a lot of Norman Geisler books and some of Josh McDowell’s materials, and became acquainted with John Warwick Montgomery, and just found great information, great answers to what I had been challenged with, and that was sort of one of my entree’s into apologetics, as well as just running into lots of people in cults and different sects and so on. And I just felt like God was putting me through sort of a street level training regimen of just running into lots of people from lots of different angles that all agreed on one thing and that’s that biblical Christianity was out of date, or out of synch with reality.
So, that helped me begin to really study, to learn apologetics, to go deeper with my understanding of my faith, and over time, developed into a mentoring relationship I had with Bob and Gretchen Passantino, out on the west coast of the US. Later, under Bob’s advice and tutelage, I ended up going to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and got my master’s degree in Philosophy of Religion. Being mentored by and becoming the graduate assistant to Stuart Hackett, who’s not known by a lot of people, but is just a brilliant philosopher of religion, one who influenced Bill Craig very heavily. And from then on, I’ve just been writing, speaking, partnering with Lee Strobel. Lee and I have been ministry partners for about twenty-four years now, and just I love to share the truth of Christianity, show why we can be confident that it’s valid. And not just convince someone with an argument, but with the goal of leading them to Christ, is what motivates me.
BA: Why thanks Mark. Now you mentioned there being ministry partners for such a long time with Lee Strobel, and for our listeners who may not know, he’s the author of a number of apologetics books, such as The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and many others. But, you’ve also been involved in the local church. You’re a Christian communicator, and in my mind, you’re really one who bridges the gap between a lot of the scholarly to the church-goer. Not to mention encouraging Christians to evangelize as well as reaching out to seekers. How would you describe your approach to apologetics hand in hand with evangelism?
MM: You’ve actually said it pretty well. First of all, in terms of apologetics, I view myself as an interpreter, much like when I go to Germany and speak, and I say something in English and I have an interpreter who puts it into German. Except in this case it’s in the reverse, I feel that much of the academic, really good apologetics that’s written, books that have been written, are powerful, but not to the average person because they just don’t think that way. They don’t use those words, they need an interpreter to, as Paul Little used to say, “To put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” And so, I view that as part of my role in apologetics. And yes, when you mention evangelism, I frankly don’t even quite understand apologetics apart from evangelism. I know the classic statement is that, “apologetics is the handmaiden to evangelism.” And I really view it that way. I’m not into apologetics just for academic reasons, or to prove that I’m smart, or know something someone else doesn’t know. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, I view it as a tool to help remove intellectual barriers, and bridge intellectual gaps to help people move toward the cross of Christ, and ultimately toward faith in Him. And I try to really advocate that relationship and that mindset with apologists, and those that I influence, because I think that’s what keeps it pure, I think that’s what keeps it practical, and keeps us from getting our heads in the clouds and become sort of a club that just talks to each other. I think it’s very important that we’re talking to real people, sharing real evidence and information and logic that can point them to a real savior.
BA: Well, I concur on every point there, excellent. Now, when we’re talking about the local church, talk about strategies for integrating apologetics into the local church. You know, that seems to be a barrier there where you talk about bridging the gap. What are some strategies that you see for bringing that in a way that people can really get into it without being turned off by it?
MM: Well, I think it has to permeate everything we do in the church. I want to get away from the mindset that apologetics is for a few intellectual egg heads that are off in the corner of the church basement somewhere catapulting each other into epistemic bliss. And rather say, if we’re called to go into all the word and make disciples, and that world that we’re trying to reach is increasingly skeptical and secular, then just by definition, our evangelistic mission must be girded up with apologetic information. We’ve got to be ready to, as the classic verse says, “Give an answer to everyone who asks for the reason for the hope we have.” So, when it comes to the local church ministry, that’s got to seep out in the preaching, and I would encourage any pastor who, many times pastors go to seminary and get their degrees and don’t get any apologetics. And I would just say to a pastor, “You’ve got to back up then and supplement your education with some reading you can do now.” And it’s enjoyable reading, we mentioned Lee Strobel. Books like The Case for Christ. Every Christian on the planet needs to read that book and similar books to it, and I’ve written a few that I hope they’ll consider as well, but just by reading a few books, I think it’ll arm pastors, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, with some exciting but fairly basic information that will begin to just naturally seep out as they preach, as they teach, as they put together lessons, even as they select books for groups to study and so on. Once you understand that this is accessible, powerful information, that isn’t contrary to faith, but reinforces faith, it helps aim our faith in a logical direction that is true. So, I’d say that the first thing is to just to get it broadly into the DNA of the church leadership, the teaching, the thinking, and to realize that if we’re not giving an answer to people in this culture, we’re not going to reach people the way we used to.
It’s no longer enough just to ring the church bell and then get up and preach from John 3:16 because we live in a culture where people go, “Alright, let’s start with that first part, ‘God so loved’, prove to me the ‘God’ part. Secondly, if He loves us, why is there so much evil in the world? And this idea, ‘He sent his Son’, is it really his Son?” They will attack at every point. We’ve got to be ready to say, “Those are good questions, we’ve got good answers. Grab a cup of coffee and let’s talk.” So that’s a first, long answer to getting it into the culture, it starts with leadership. Do you want me to go on?
BA: No, I think what you’re saying is great. You know, in my mind I see maybe how there can be alot of false starts with getting apologetics in the church where maybe a pastor goes to a conference, they hear an apologetics speaker, they say, “Ah, that’s we need in our church”, they get maybe a boxed curriculum for their home groups, they go through that for about six sessions, and then it kind of fizzles out, they move on to different things and then it’s, “Well, that’s done with. We don’t really have that integrated anymore.” So when you’re talking about it being a sort of cultural shift within the local church, I think that, yes, that’s the key, because it does need to be integrated at every level, and not just as a program that’s injected once and kind of filters out of the system.
MM: I agree, now, I would still encourage a church to do that kind of a program.
BA: Oh, sure, yeah! [laughs]
MM: Because it’s the dipping of the toe in the water and what they’ll find out is that there’s a vast amount of interest among most Christians hungry to say not just “What do the creeds say and what does the doctrinal statement teach me? But, how do we know this is true? I mean, I get battered by questions at work or in the neighborhood, or even in many cases by people in my own family. Help me, pastor! Help me teacher! Give me information that will gird up my faith so that I’m not just out there sounding like someone that bought into some fairy tale, but I’ve got reasons for my faith.” The other thing I would say, I actually wrote a book that addresses both the evangelistic and the apologetic values in a church. The book is called “Becoming a Contagious Church”, and I talk in there about how, as we’ve already said, it’s so important for leaders to own these values and begin to live them out in the church and spread them through the culture of the church. But I also think it’s vitally important for churches then to find a leader who would be empowered as kind of the evangelistic point person in a church who then will see to it that everyone in the church is getting exposure to good training. And included in that, good apologetics information and training, so that, as you said, Brian, this isn’t like a blip on the scale somewhere. You know, like “Oh, yeah, we did apologetics back in ’98. It was really good. Maybe we’ll try it again sometime in the next 10 or 20 years.” But rather it becomes led by a point person, maybe a layperson. In many churches, they can’t afford to hire this leader, but this is part of the model I think churches need is to have someone like you, someone like me, someone like a Lee Strobel, a Gary Poole, someone in the church who can kind of take the mantle and say “I will make it my role to make sure that this stays strong in the church culture, that we do practical, on-going things to train our believers and equip them with good answers, and then to do things that are outreach-oriented that will address our community and bring those answers to bear in ways that actually connect with the people that need them.
BA: Yeah, that’s good, and you mentioned some of the different resources and I’m so encouraged because I just see more and more great DVD resources and books that are coming out that can help facilitate these kinds of things. And speaking of books, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was your more recent one here, called The Reason Why Faith Makes Sense. And this actually was originally written by Robert Laidlaw, successful businessman in New Zealand, like a century ago.
MM: That’s right.
BA: So would you mind talking a bit about this book, and what about the impact of this book itself and why you chose to sort of rewrite it, or retool it?
MM: I’d love to. I’m so excited about this book. I first encountered the much smaller… well first of all this book is small even now, but the original version was about a third the length of this one.
BA: Sort of a booklet.
MM: Yeah, a booklet, almost a glorified tract. And it was written, as you said, by Robert Laidlaw, a young businessman in New Zealand who had started a chain of retail stores called Farmer’s Company. Most people in New Zealand I think just call it Farmers now. But this is the guy that started it and he became a Christian a few years earlier at the age of 18 down in a town called Dunedin, New Zealand, a very Scottish town – alot of sheep herders there, a very small town, I’ve been there. But he, at the age of 18, went to like a tent meeting to hear an American evangelist that was coming through and preaching named R.A. Torrey. And it was through R.A. Torrey (who was a preaching partner of Dwight L. Moody), it was through him that he first heard the Gospel and received Christ and very quickly became serious about being a disciple and growing in his faith. And then a few years later he started the Farmers Trading Company and this chain of stores. And in 1913, he really felt moved to write something down to give to his employees, which was a growing number of employees at that time, to explain his faith, in essence, to explain the reason why he was a Christian. So he wrote this little booklet, and he printed 5,000 copies, thinking that would last a lifetime, and distributed those to his employees, anyone that wanted to know more, wanted to understand his faith. Well, very quickly, he ran out of those copies and had to print more, much to his surprise. He just never thought that it would go anywhere. But that happened over and over again. And then came World War I and it became a tool for evangelism among soldiers, and then years later, World War II. And it became used by the millions. And, long story short, by the time this thing kind of ran its course, and it kind of fizzled out in about the 70’s and 80’s, but it had been circulated to the tune of 50 million copies.
MM: [laughs] I call it the mega best-seller that no one’s ever heard of. Because, you know, again it fizzled out, most people never heard of it. But a friend gave me a copy around the time I came to Christ and around the time I was being challenged in my faith in college. And I read it, and it was not like a deep, heavy, apologetics book, it’s more quick-hit, almost bullet point kinds of apologetic information, powerful illustrations that make the message clear and especially make the Gospel clear. So I read it, I thought it was great. When I started my ministry at Willow Creek in Chicago I had a class I taught each week called Foundations Class, that we would invite spiritual seekers and skeptics to and that class grew to two or three hundred people a week. And I gave away hundreds of those books to anyone with spiritual questions; I just thought it was so effective. The only problem was, I more and more got feedback and realized it was just outdated in its language and even in some of its arguments. It spoke to an early 1900’s mindset, and now, you know, here we are a hundred years later virtually. And there’s just alot of questions that people ask now that they weren’t asking then. So I had this vision, I’ve had it for about 20 years that someone ought to update that book and repurpose it for a new generation. And that’s finally what I felt God was leading me to do, so last year I took the time and greatly expanded it. It’s, as I say, about a fourth of the book I wrote now comes from Laidlaw, and I updated even that part. But then I added, kind of in the same spirit and tone of his writing, added alot more information and arguments and illustrations to help make the message clear.
BA: Yeah. Well that just goes back to emphasize this point about apologetics and evangelism going hand in hand.
BA: So this is a perfect tool for that. I wonder if someone’s looking through Amazon for this, they might see the author, Mark Mittleberg, but they’ll also see Ken Blanchard. But he actually just writes the Forward, but I think that’s significant, and I wonder if you would explain why you think that would be significant that Ken Blanchard has written the Forward.
MM: Yeah, from the beginning when I had this dream, well not the very beginning but years ago as I found out about Ken Blanchard, the famous author of The One Minute Manager and many other books– by the way, a few years ago amazon.com did a ranking of the top-selling authors of all time, and at that time they ranked Ken Blanchard as the 15th highest selling author of all time. So this guy has tremendous influence in the business community. He was witnessed to by Bob Buford and Bill Hybels and several people who were sharing the Gospel with him back, I think it was in the late 80’s/early 90’s, and he made a commitment to Christ and has spoken about that very openly. But the reason that it made so much sense is that I had heard the story that a few years later, maybe even closer to the time he made a commitment, his wife Margie was trying to figure out what to make of it and what all this meant. And they were skiing one day and she had hurt her knee so she couldn’t ski, it was right here in Colorado. And so a friend, Phil Hodges while they were going out to ski, he said to Margie, “Hey, I have a little booklet here called The Reason Why and I think it would help you understand what’s happened in Ken’s life and what this message is all about. Would you like to read it?” And she said, “Sure, I’ll take a look”. She was just sitting in the ski lodge that day, I think it was up in Vail. So they left, she sat down, she read the book and you can guess what happened. By the time they got back from a day of skiing she had become a Christian. And it was just the simple message in this little book The Reason Why that led her to Christ. So I thought if I could get Ken to tell that story it would be powerful. The other thing is, because the book has sort of a practical business bent, in other words it uses lots of ordinary everyday marketplace kinds of illustrations, I just thought to have Ken Blanchard do the forward would be appropriate. So I was thrilled to get that and I think it’s an important part of the book.
BA: That’s good. Now, we won’t go into a whole lot of detail as far as the arguments that are employed in the book. You talk about evidence for the beginning of the universe, design in the universe, information in the DNA code, and then you deal with questions in there about “can the Bible be trusted?” Alot of the, for those who are into apologetics, these are all the baseline questions and arguments that point to a Creator and the reliability of the scriptures. But then notably, I think, and this was what I think makes it unique, is that halfway through or so you come to a chapter called “Are We Accountable to God?” And it’s almost a leap from this evidential or making a case for the truthfulness of Christianity to “Here’s where you stand before God”. And it sort of shifts to Jesus and your relationship with God, and I think this is notable because alot of people might be reading along and think, “Hey, I thought this was a book supposedly proving Christianity to be true.” So why do you think the shift here is important in regards to the overall goal of the book?
MM: Well, the big goal of the book was to present the Gospel in a way that made sense, to kind of show the logic of the atonement for ordinary people. And so I really view The Reason Why in that the title of the updated version we added a phrase to the end: The Reason Why Faith Makes Sense. The real goal of the book was to present the Gospel. And I actually view it more as an evangelistic work than as an apologetics work, though in order to present the Gospel to people in today’s world I feel like you need to do both. But I had to be very intentional as I wrote it to say this is not the book that you’re going to reach Richard Dawkins with. [laughs] Or those that are really hardened in their skepticism because there are other books that go into much more depth to prove their points and wield lots of examples and information and evidence. This is, as I indicated earlier, more of a bullet point approach to kind of, in a broad sweep some of the big evidence that points to the truth of Christianity. But I had in my mind a seeker who was partway toward the cross already. I think there are millions of people in our world who have doubts but they’re not hardcore skeptics, and those were the people I wanted to reach hopefully with this book.
BA: Yes, some people, it’s not like they’re obstinately opposed to God. It’s like, “Yeah, I think there’s probably a God out there. I just never looked into it. But yeah, if you could show me some good reasons then yeah, I’d believe”. You know, that sort of a person, perhaps.
MM: And I think that’s probably the majority of the non-believing population. And so I’m all for books that go into great depth. But, [laughs] one way to look at it is, what I do in maybe two paragraphs in this book, Steve Meyer does with Signature in the Cell in about 700 pages. So there’s much more in-depth books that go into all those things, but I wanted this to be a quick read. The whole book is about 140 pages, it’ll fit in your back pocket. It retails at a low price so that people can get it and give it to their relatives for Christmas, you know, as sort of a spiritual stocking stuffer along with this new sweater they bought them or whatever. That was the vision, and as you said it kind of sweeps through the apologetics parts. And for some people it’s alot of information because they’ve never even been exposed to some of our arguments, but for an apologist it’s kind of a quick review. But what I really wanted to do was get to this message of the Gospel which I think for alot of people just does not make sense. They hear about a man dying on a cross 2,000 years ago, and then they hear that “If I pray and ask Jesus into my heart then someday I’ll go to heaven.” [laughs] And I think the average person in today’s culture who didn’t grow up in Sunday school, they’re scratching their head and saying, “You know, could you connect the dots for me? How does this work? Someone died on a cross – sounds like a tragic event. Very unjust. This innocent guy gets put to death. Now somehow I have this mystical belief or experience and then someday I’m going to be in heaven? Could you give me some logic for this?” And that’s really the heart to this book, The Reason Why Faith Makes Sense. The goal is to say, “There IS logic.” And I go into to the fact that yes, we are moral beings who fall short, not only of God’s standards, but even our own standards. We don’t even live up to even our own consciences. So even in our hearts it rings true that we are morally culpable for our own shortcomings. And of course the Bible makes that very clear in Romans 3:23 and 6:23 and I bring those verses out. So what that means is we’ve all incurred a moral debt that must be paid. So let’s talk about that. How do we pay this debt? Well first of all, what is the debt? I go into the biblical information that shows us that debt is actually spiritual separation from God for all of eternity. It’s what the Bible would describe as spiritual death. And in a very real sense we all owe a spiritual death penalty that either we can pay for all of eternity or we can let an eternal person’s sacrifice and payment suffice for us. And so that bring us to saying, “Ok, there’s a moral debt that has to be paid. That debt is death. Jesus paid the death penalty for us in a very literal way on the cross. And so when we trust in Him, we are trusting in His payment for the debt that we owe.” The other thing I really feel is misunderstood, you know there are so many attacks on the substitutionary atonement of Christ, even from church people these days, and they say, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair.” It’s like, as one person called it, it’s “cosmic child abuse”. We sin against God, God’s ticked off, so He, like some drunken sailor, He’s going to take it out on somebody ’cause He’s mad, and unfortunately, His Son Jesus happens to be walking by. And so God starts kicking His Son around and says, “You’re going to have to pay for this” and Jesus is saying, “What did I do?” and I think that’s the misconception, that’s the concept a lot of people have. Because, and here’s the key point that I go into in the book: they don’t understand who Jesus is. They think that He’s some outside by-stander, you know, some third-party who gets drug into the situation, and they say, “Where’s the justice in this?” And what I explain is He’s not an outside third-party, He IS the God we’ve sinned against. And so this isn’t some angry God saying, “I’m going to take it out on my Son”, this is a loving God saying, “I love you so much, but you’ve sinned against me and you deserve the penalty of death. And I love you so much, I’m going to come down and pay it for you in the person of Christ.”
MM: and I think that’s the missing key for so many people, to unlock the mystery and the meaning of the gospel, to realize a gracious loving God, an amazing demonstration of undeserved grace, was willing, as it says in Philippians 2, to stoop down and humble Himself and take the form of a servant. In other words, become a human, what we celebrate at Christmas, God Incarnate. Then, took the punishment, for what we have down upon Himself on the cross so that we could be forgiven, so we could do that great exchange where we hand Him our sin and He hands us His righteousness, and forgiveness and salvation. To me, that message that is being disputed in some theological circles is the message of the gospel, it’s the good news, and I know I’m preaching now Brian so thanks for bearing with me. But I think this is the message that is missing and it’s the message that has power. Romans 1:16 says the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, the Jews and Greeks, and everyone else. So, that’s what I really tried to make clear through a number of illustrations and examples, Bible verses, logic and evidence in this book The Reason Why.
BA: Well, it’s beautiful, and it would be my wish that everyone listening would go on Amazon or wherever, pick up like a dozen of them, stick two of them in their car glove box for apologetic encounters where they need to leave something with someone, and then take the other ten and, just as you said, put them in someone’s Christmas stocking or something and use them as evangelistic tools with an apologetic punch to it.
MM: That really is the vision I had for it. I give it to waitresses at restaurants and just wherever I have an opportunity. If I can just say a couple more things about this… one is, I ask a lot of pastors and church leaders, if you were going to give a short, really succinct book or tool to someone who you are trying to explain the gospel to, and something that would explain and answer a few of the basic questions about why we believe what we believe, but then get to the point and present the gospel, what would you give them? I find that many pastors, many church leaders, they just draw a blank, “I don’t know what I would give them,” or they will name a book that is a good book but its 400 pages and just way too much information and frankly too expensive to buy fifteen copies of. So, this is sort of my answer to that question. I say, well here is a book that does what we just said: it gets to the point, it answers some questions, it presents the gospel, and it’s a little old fashion. It even has a bit of an altar call at the end. I actually have a place at the end after explaining the message where a person can sign on the dotted line and say yes, today I want to receive the salvation that is offered through Jesus. But I think we need more of that. I think so often in evangelism we just don’t get to the point. In fact, if I could share a quick story… it was so funny, when I was first doing ministry at Willow Creek and I would be doing these foundations classes, I was very honored that a woman began to attend and pray for me and encourage me in my ministry, named Marie Little. She was the widow of Paul Little, who wrote the book Know What You Believe, and wrote the book Know Why You Believe, and just some great basic classics. Well, she was part of our ministry for many years but she came up to Lee Strobel and me once after one of our events where some people had just become Christians, and she said, “I figured out the secret to you guys and to your success in evangelism.” We’re going, oh, well that is an honor just to hear her say that, but I said, “well what is that secret?” Here is the classic quote, and this is exactly what she said with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “you guys are just dumb enough to get to the point of the gospel message.” I thought, well, here build my pride up, the secret to my success; I’m just dumb enough. But I took it as an honor because it’s really true. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The last thing I want to say is, and I found this in my own experience, when I stalk up the way you just said with a book like The Reason Why or I often buy the cheap versions of The Case for Christ, when I have something like that in my briefcase, or in my glove compartment, or in my desk drawer, I find that I get into more spiritual conversations with people because I know that I don’t have to explain everything. I’ll just think of one example: I had The Case for Christ with me in my briefcase and I was on the rental car bus that goes from the airport to the rental car place. Well, I knew this is a five minute, eight minute bus ride, but I got into a great, short, spiritual conversation with the guy next to me, and I was willing to get into it because I knew I didn’t have to finish it, and I knew I couldn’t finish it, but, I got into it enough to kind of pique his curiosity and interest. And, I said, “well, we have to say goodbye here in about 90 seconds, but I’ve got a great book right here called The Case for Christ that is written by a former atheist, I’ll give it to you if you commit to reading it.” He thought for a minute and he goes, “yeah, why not, what do I have to lose?” I said, “you’ve got a lot to gain,” and I gave him the book. I thought later, I don’t even know if I would have started the conversation if I didn’t have some spiritual backup in the form of a tool like that book in my briefcase. So, just speaking from an evangelistic standpoint, I encourage people to do that, and again, that is why I designed this book The Reason Why to do, because I think we’ll all get into more of those conversations if we know we don’t have to spend the next two hours explaining and answering every fine point, but that we can give them something to read.
BA: Well, good, I hope that they come in crates then [laughs].
MM: We can work that out!
BA: Well, I like what you said there: don’t over complicate it and get to the point. That is one thing that appeals to me when looking at this book, is that, it doesn’t leave out the gospel or tag it on at the end as a, oh by the way, this is what its all about, but it gets the objections out of the way for the honest “seeker,” and then it says, here is the gospel and here is why it makes sense, now what are you going to do about it? I think that’s great. I want to shift gears slightly and I want to ask you about the word seeker, because when we use that word I think a lot of people in their mind, the idea of being seeker sensitive comes to mind, and to some, the seeker sensitive phrase has got a negative connotation or ring to it, and I wonder why is that? What would you say is a common objection against churches being “seeker sensitive?”
MM: Well, first of all I agree that there are lots of mixed feelings and I think many misconceptions about that phrase, and frankly I don’t even use the term “seeker sensitive” anymore because of that very issue. In fact, let me back up first. Are there real spiritual seekers? I think there are, and I’m of course aware of the verse in Romans 3 that says no one seeks after God, but it also makes clear there, and in John 16 and other places, that God is out seeking people, that the Holy Spirit has gone out into the whole world convicting people of sin and righteousness and so forth. So, I would quickly acknowledge that when I use the term spiritual seeker that this is people who are in the process of figuring out spiritual truths in response to the drawing of the Holy Spirit. So, I think in that sense because God is at work throughout the world drawing people to Himself there are a lot people who are being drawn but haven’t said yes to Christ yet, and that many of those people are spiritually receptive and can be helped a lot with good information. So that is how I would define a seeker. But being seeker sensitive in my mind has always meant what a good missionary does in terms of contextualization where they go into a culture and say, I think people will understand it better if we put it in terms they relate to, starting with the most basic principle, Bible translation. I think when Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German that was seeker sensitivity to German people, thinking they would probably respond better to the message if we didn’t present it in Latin. So, that’s the kind of principle I look to, and that would include saying… let me give you an example of Jesus being culturally relevant – most of the illustrations He used were farming and ranching, agrarian kinds of illustrations. But Jesus was not a farmer or a rancher. He was a carpenter. He occasionally used carpentry kinds illustrations, you know, I’m the door, He would occasionally talk that way. But more often He would use the agrarian illustrations and I think it was Him being relevant to the people He was trying to reach who related more to that. Or, when He talked to fisherman who would use fishing illustrations. So, I think that is what I’m talking about, of being culturally relevant, of being culturally sensitive to the person I am trying to reach. It’s saying, what do I need to do so that I can make it clear, but never, never, never compromising the message, or holding back and acting like I can’t give them the whole truth because they would be offended. That was never part of the ministry I was part of at Willow Creek. By the way, I haven’t been at Willow Creek, as far as being on staff there, for many years. I’m not on a crusade to win people over to a certain church model, but I’m just saying the kind of seeker sensitivity that we were into at Willow Creek was saying how do we make the gospel clearer. As one pastor friend of mine said, we’re not trying to water the message down so people won’t be offended, we’re trying to put it in terms that are so clear that when we are done communicating, people know they have been offended. Because the gospel message is a stumbling block. It is an offense to people who aren’t ready to bend the knee and respond to Christ. We’ve got to make it so clear that that offense can even have its effect. So, that’s what I’m talking about. Surely it is true that there are churches that have compromised the message, and watered down truth or withheld information to try to be “seeker sensitive.” I’m not in any way endorsing that approach.
BA: Yes. Excellent. We talked a bit at the beginning about apologetics and its overlap with evangelism, and I wonder what kind of advice you would have for Christian apologists along that line of using apologetics evangelistically as opposed to only keeping it as an academic or, this personal pursuit?
MM: Well, I mentioned earlier some mentors I had who were very influential in my life, Bob and Gretchen Passentino, not well known names on a popular level but brilliant apologists who helped a lot of people in their ministries and I’m partly speaking past tense because Bob Pasentino passed away a number of years ago, his wife Gretchen is still active and a friend of mine and wonderful. But one thing they always emphasized to me, is they said when you are studying apologetics do not sit in a group of apologists and just talk to each other all the time, and don’t just sit in a library and read books, get out there and talk to real people. Interact with people who need the information, and find out how they react to the arguments that you think are so brilliant, because you’ll find out, some of what you thought really was powerful doesn’t even get a hearing out there, or people listen to it and they don’t get it. So you need to talk to real people, test your arguments, refine them based on how people respond to them and how people hear them and misunderstand them, and I would just pass that on, to say, whether you’re in a degree program studying apologetics or you are doing some kind of self-study course or something, just don’t do it in isolation but talk to real people who don’t believe what you believe, and that will help keep your feet on the ground and make it more real. I would also add, a very important mindset issue, that you look at those people not as opponents to debate or defeat, and show that they are wrong and you are right, but view them as lost men and women who are desperately in need of a savior. People who matter to God, people who need the forgiveness of Christ, they need to respond to the gospel, and the apologetics you are doing is with the goal of removing barriers and opening the way, kind of clearing the path so that they can approach the cross of Christ, so that they can reach that point. So, that’s always the way I view apologetics. I would urge our listeners, people reading this, I would urge them to take that same approach, and it changes the way you approach people. You’re not trying to defeat them you are trying to win them over. That will change the tone. That will help you do another thing I would advise, and that’s both halves of 1 Peter 3:15. We’ve had apologists over the years who are really good at the first half, and that’s giving an answer to those who ask, but a lot of apologists have stunk at part two of the verse, or in some translations its verse 16, where it says but do this, give this answer, these answers, this apologetic, do it with gentleness and respect. I think when we see the person as someone who God loves, who we love, who we’re trying to win over to Christ, it makes it a lot easier to respectfully interact with them, and I think that includes listening to them. I think of a Muslim friend of mine, hearing him out, why did he become a Muslim, well, he was abused in a Christian school that he was a part of, and he had horrible experiences with Christianity, and he ended up embracing Islam. Well, when I understand that I can be much more gentle, and look him in the eye and say, if I had gone through what you went through, I may be in the same place you are. Now I get it, now I understand why you are there. However, and then I go to part two and say, I’d encourage you to rethink your decision because I think you threw out the baby with the bathwater. You experienced some toxic forms of Christianity, but that doesn’t make the message, that doesn’t make Christ Himself part of that, you know, you need to kind of sort that out. But you only get there if you empathize, if you listen, if you respect the person, if you love them, and then I think your truth begins to come across in that way, sort of with velvet gloves on, and becomes much more accessible and interesting to the person you are talking with.
BA: Well that’s good. Now another question about advice, but, more broadly, and more succinctly, what kind of advice would you want to give to a room full of Christian apologists if you only had to say, one minute or two minutes to talk to them. Leave us with a parting thought here.
MM: Brian, all I can answer on that is what I’ve said already. Remember that our goal is to win people to Jesus, to present the gospel, and Josh McDowell said it years ago in his book Evidence That Demands a Verdict, give enough apologetics to clear out the barriers, and then get back to the point that Jesus is love, His forgiveness, His sacrifice on the cross, and the gospel message. You know, I’d rather lead someone to Christ who still has lots of confusion about various philosophical and theological sub-points – let him to Christ, let him be forgiven, let him be filled with the Holy Spirit, and then let them through the discipleship process sort out a lot of that other information – than to spend all my time debating every fine point and never lead him to Christ. So, make the gospel the centerpiece of what your life, ministry, and teaching is all about. I think God’s gonna use it, I think he’s gonna anoint you, I think he’s gonna empower your message and your teaching, and I think the end result will not just be people convinced by your persuasiveness, but people converted by your message of Christ.
BA: Very good. Well, Mark, I really enjoyed speaking with you today and I want to thank you for taking the time to do the interview.
MM: You’re welcome. Again, I just celebrate what your doing, Brian, in a very unique and powerful way you have managed to pull together lots of different ministries and teachers and resources in a way that is so helpful, and I just urge our listeners, everyone, to support what you are doing and to point people to your website. I think it is such an important and effective tool. So, thanks for your ministry to all of us.
BA: Thanks, Mark.