Greg Koukl Interview Transcript
The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Greg Koukl. 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, I’m speaking with Greg Koukl. Greg is the president and founder of Stand to Reason, an apologetics ministry focused on equipping Christian ambassadors with knowledge, wisdom, and character. Greg also hosts a weekly radio show, Stand to Reason. He is an adjunct professor in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and he’s author of a number of books, including Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, and his most recent, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing your Christian Convictions.
The purpose of our interview today is to learn a bit more about Greg, his ministry in equipping ambassadors, and gain some insights from Greg’s experience.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Greg.
GK: Well, Brian. I’m glad to talk with you. You know, you’re on the other side of the pond, so this is kind of interesting for me. You got a great operation going over there, and I’m glad to contribute.
BA: Well, thank you. Now I’m sure many of our listeners are already familiar with your ministry, but how did you actually get started in defending the faith?
GK: I heard a speaker once say that if you’re not in the ministry before you go in the ministry, you won’t be in the ministry when you get in the ministry, and that’s really characteristic of my own life, Brian. I became a Christian in 1973 and then very, very soon after that, I started getting discipleship and training. I mean, within a couple of months, I was able to connect myself with some people that were really helpful in getting me going. I found that for my disposition, my spiritual gifts, whatever the mix happened to be, I just naturally gravitated towards these kinds of things.
Now, I don’t think that defending your faith or being thoughtful about your convictions is just something for the engineering types—you know, the pocket protectors and everything, the kind of Christian blockheads who are into that. I think everybody oughta be thoughtful and careful. But I do think that some people kind of have a natural affinity for this, and I did. When I first started to learn spiritual things or talked to others about my own convictions, it was kind of with an apologetics bent, and the people that I gravitated toward and began to read, these were the people that had an influence on me. I have to say that I got into it, not by design, if you will, but by temperament and by personal interest. It’s just the direction that I happen to go. I wasn’t so much drawn to the affective side of Christianity, but to the thoughtful side, not that the other isn’t important, but that’s just my particular story.
BA: So that would probably a key for those considering which direction to go personally. Their personal gifting and temperament plays a large role in that, you’d say.
GK. Yeah. I really do. That’s really huge.
My view of ministry is that God distributes ministry not by calling. This is a little controversial in some circles but because the common view is, “What is God calling you to do?” Well, this notion is almost completely absent in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Some other notion, however, is advanced quite aggressively and that is the idea of gifting. So, God distributes ministry by distributing gifts in particular ways, and then people are to pursue their gifts and develop their gifts.
I actually think that spiritual gifts are a fairly broad thing, not just a list necessarily, as we see in 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 12 or whatever. But I think that there is a kinship certainly between one’s natural disposition and natural temperament and natural interests and the spiritual gifting that God gives them. This isn’t always the case, but it would make sense, you know. God’s not gonna give you natural capabilities through His sovereign…you know, working in your life before you became a Christian then jettison all those, and in my case, there’s a fit there.
So I think for people who are thinking about being more involved intentionally in the area of apologetics and thoughtful Christianity, that they have an interest in it and some maybe a native capability to traffic in the world of ideas. It is a good indication that that’s where they should be spiritually spending their time. I don’t think they should be getting introspective about what they think that God might be calling them to do, because I don’t think that’s a biblical motif. What they ought to be doing is thinking about where their interests lie, where their capabilities lie, where their giftings lie, and then work at developing those things.
BA: When you were starting out, what sort of apologists or books were most influential to you?
GK: Well, there’s two different categories here: one is informing and the other one is influencing.
When I became a Christian in 1973, Brian, apologetics was not a well-developed field. Basically, Josh McDowell and Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? and, you know, a couple of things like that but not much more. Now, Josh made a tremendous contribution in broadly in the area of historical apologetics, but it wasn’t like we had this tremendous field like we do now, so I picked up what I could pick up. John [Warwick] Montgomery was in the game back then. Still is. There were books out there that I could draw and get some information from, but there were also, over time, especially in the beginning, a couple of authors that have had the biggest influence on me.
I have been well-informed by Lewis, by the way, and he’s got a tremendous great work available for us. Arguably the greatest Christian apologist in the 20th century, but I was most influenced by Dr. Francis Schaeffer who had founded L’Abri. I actually spent a couple of weeks up in that area. I spent a little time there in L’Abri. I didn’t study there regularly, but I was very familiar with his Trilogy, which is his main contribution, and I think Crossway Books now publishes the Trilogy under one cover: The God Who Is There, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, and Escape from Reason. Francis Schaeffer, more than anyone else, I think informed my trajectory as a Christian thinker. His insight into the modern mind, because he’s speaking to a modernist way of thinking then, was tremendously prescient I think in anticipating a post-modern mind. So everything that I learned from Schaeffer, in the middle of the 20th century, is useful.
Now here, in the beginning of the 21st century where we have quite of a different mindset, but post-modernism, it still applies. And his idea of upper story leap, and the point of tension, and all of these different things that were essential parts of his way of understanding how people think and also then informing how he approaches them evangelistically have deeply influenced my life and have paid tremendous dividends over the years.
The other thinker that has had, not just given information, but the greatest influence on my life; that is, they bring to the table a kind of looking at things that is so helpful, has been J.P. Moreland. In Jay’s case, I had the pleasure of knowing him for many years. I took a Master’s degree under him in Talbot in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, and so I was able to, in many ways, internalize a certain mental pace that he has through being with him, listening to him, and reading him in addition to benefitting from the tremendous information that he was able to provide.
Those two men have done more in terms of my intellectual life than anyone else in influencing my trajectory, and I highly recommend them to everyone. A lot of people know. J.P. because he is still in play. I hope that as time goes on that Francis Schaeffer is not passed over because he’s a man of the last century, and therefore, his contribution gets neglected, because it’s really been sensational in my life.
And, by the way, there are a number of writers now that are writing under his influence as it were: Os Guinness an example. Nancy Pearcey, who has written a lot with Chuck Colson, and now is writing under her own is another example. Chuck, himself, is deeply influenced by Francis Schaeffer, and many more that I have talked to that have been in play for a while that I talked to. I made a new friend, Brian Godawa, who is a film writer and critic. He’s written on Hollywood Worldviews and other things. Great resource. We had dinner the other night. He, too, has been deeply influenced by Schaeffer.
So, those are the people that have not just informed me, but actually have influenced me in kind of my whole paradigm as I approach the issue of carefully thinking about my convictions and conveying those convictions and worldview to this culture.
BA: Over the course of time, your ministry has grown and it’s been extremely helpful. I appreciate it a lot.
BA: The ambassador approach is something that you emphasize, and you have three factors that go into that. Could you describe that and how you think those are important for Christians?
GK: Sure. Since I know that you’re interested in kind of broad strategic concerns and the broader principles that can help mentor those who are thinking about being more deliberate and intentional about developing their thoughtful Christian life and having an impact in the culture that we’re in, let me just try to give all these questions a little bit more background here.
When I started Stand to Reason, I had some general goals, and I wanted to be an apologist. I wanted to offer information, but we wanted to teach people, not just what to think, but how to think. So we wanted to be able to offer them some insight into the process of being careful in our thinking. (This is where J.P. Moreland has helped me tremendously as I mentioned.) But it was actually like three years, I think, into the organization, which started in 1994, that I was able to dial down in a much more precise way what would be the unique kind of contribution or perspective that Stand to Reason would offer, and that’s when I realized I’m working with these different concepts in my mind and I’m thinking, ‘Well, we wanna train people with information, but we want to be able to maneuver well, too.’ There’s a tactical element here. We also want there to be less shrillness and to have a more appealing face or voice or whatever than what a lot of people are used to. If we wanted to look more, as I say now, “Diplomacy, not D-Day”.
I had a piece of paper out, and I was just playing around with words that would capture categories, and I was trying to find something that would capture my ideas but also kind of catchy in itself, you know, and I came up with this idea: Well, ambassador! That’s it. 2 Corinthians 5:20: We’re ambassadors for Christ. This is where the three concepts came from. I can still see in my mind’s eye, Brian, that piece of paper with all of this stuff written all over it. I was kind of brainstorming by myself and dumping this stuff out onto the paper as we have been in motion as an organization now for almost three years or maybe a little bit more than that and that’s when these three categories just crystallized on the page. That was clearly the work of the Holy Spirit, coupled with my work.
Incidentally, this is another one of my philosophy and ministry items. It is 100% God, but it is also 100% me—meaning that God is 100% responsible for His side of the equation, and I’m 100% responsible for mine. So I can’t just expect to sit there and pray and have God feed me all of this stuff. There’s a process of effort and work and diligence that goes into these things. There’s a craft involved, and I’ll talk more about that later.
So, anyway, this came in. The three areas then were (1) knowledge, (2) wisdom, and (3) character. If you think about being an ambassador, which is the motif that we’re focused on now as you pointed out. In other words, we just didn’t wanna give people information, but we wanted to build a certain type of individual. So if there’s an incarnational element here—that individual being an ambassador—well, an ambassador who’s sent by the president or some other sovereign gotta know a few things. They’ve got to have some foundational knowledge of the message and the ability to contextualize the message in terms of the individual culture they’re going to reach—speak the language, understand the ideas, that kind of thing. So there’s a knowledge component.
Secondly, an ambassador doesn’t just dump the information. He’s got to maneuver in a diplomatic way. This is what I call wisdom and is really at the heart of the entire tactical approach which folks can find in the book that was released last year (which you gave a very nice review to, Brian) and that is Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussion Your Christian Convictions. So tactical wisdom is the second component, but I realized even if you have a lot of knowledge and you’re clever at maneuvering in conversations, you know, if it turns out that you’re nasty and unpleasant and rude and you bring all these other personal vices to the table, you can see how your character now is going to undermine the message, and that was the third element.
The way I characterized it, you can see it in our website at str.org. Right at the top, there’s the banner, and it says “Ambassador: Knowledge, Wisdom, Character” and underneath it are the characterizations. That fell quite neatly for me, and I was glad, because you like things to be catchy. “Knowledge is an accurately informed mind, wisdom is an artful method, and character is an attractive manner”. All the M’s work together, you know, and I was really happy with that, that my hard labor just kind of fell together and when it did, I said, “That’s it. That’s what I’m after.” And that motif, the three elements there—the attractive manner, the artful method, and the attractive manner—these things have become the central feature, a guiding light for us as we carry on our enterprise as an organization, but also as I carry on my enterprise as a follower of Christ going out into the culture. So this is a model for everybody as far as I’m concerned.
BA: Well, I do like the use of the term, ambassador. For one thing, of course, it’s Scriptural, but you know, many times, when I think of apologetics and trying to witness to people or sharing Christ with people, I think, “Well, this is apologetics or that’s apologetics” and I started thinking of it all falling under that category, and I think, “Wait a minute. This is just being Christ-like ultimately.”
GK: Right. Right. And I think there’s a liability for us who defend the faith because defenders defend, you know, and them’s-fightin’-words kinda thing, you know. You circle the wagons, you pull up the drawbridge, you know. ‘Those are the bad guys, we’re gonna fight them’ kinda thing. So it’s built into the notion. I think it’s a certain liability. This is what I’m trying to do in the Tactics book and through the whole organization—is to try to change that flow so that if there’s a whole different feeling about our engagements with people, again “Diplomacy, not D-Day”. I found that to be, not only effective for me—and by the way, I needed it. People will say, ‘Well, great. You’re so patient with people.’ I say, ‘I’m not naturally that way.’ I mean, I’m a bit of a short-fuse fireball, you know, so I still have to watch that. It’s a learned capability, but it has made my engagement with others much more effective, and I’ve had feedback from so many others as they changed their approach in light of their tactical concerns that it has made things easier for them, too.
BA: Speaking of character development, what do you see are the practical things, say, on the day to day basis or the long-term habits that an apologist can do to cultivate the character of Christ-follower?
GK: Well, this one’s a hard one to answer, and I think probably the thing that’s most necessary is vigilance—that is, being watchful of ourselves as we engage other people, as we present ourselves in public. It’s actually quite easy to forget about how we’re supposed to be and then get caught up in the moment if we’re engaged with someone who disagrees and then fall into bad habits or just be not aware that an ambassador’s on 24/7, so even the casual interactions with people matter.
I was in New Orleans last fall for a conference, and we have had just bad experiences there in New Orleans, a multitude of them, and I just didn’t care for the city at all; so I was up at a window ordering a pizza to take back to the hotel room for my wife and daughter, so we’re just gonna hide, and I got to talking to somebody standing next to me, a woman, and I start crabbing about New Orleans. Then she said, ‘You from out of town?’, ‘Yes’,
‘Where? Well, what are you doing here?’ She started to get a little annoyed. ‘What are you doing here?’ Then I realized I gotta tell her I’m here because I’m going to a Christian conference. So now she’s connecting this kind of annoyed, nasty, grumpy person with the Christian enterprise, and she picked up on it. She gave me a hard time about it. ‘Well, yeah, of course, you Christians are like that.’ Blah. Blah. Blah. And then I realized, ‘Oh man, did I make a mistake here.’ I wasn’t being vigilant. I wasn’t being aware that, ‘Hey, I still represent Christ even when I’m buying a pizza for my family’, and when I started opening my mouth, that what I say reflects on my God and my Christian family. And so vigilance, I think, is a big part.
Those who go to our website at str.org, if you go to one of the drop-down menus out there, you’ll find a thing called The Ambassador’s Creed. I might make more reference to this in a few moments, but these are virtues that are intellectual and character virtues, ten of them. So, you know, the Boy Scouts’ Creed: They say ‘thrifty’ and ‘thoughtful’ and all these other things. I can’t remember. It’s been a long time since I was a Boy Scout, but they were these specific things that we had to learn and memorize when we were Boy Scouts and to remember like the kinds of things we can be vigilant to do and help care for towards our life. Every single month, I have it on my schedule to read The Ambassador’s Creed to remind myself of my moral and intellectual responsibilities as ambassador, so I can be more vigilant to be effective as a Christ-follower, as you said.
BA: This question might just be almost very similar to the one I just asked, but what sort of habits would you want to see cultivated, whether spiritual or educational, in the next generation of apologists.
GK: Yeah, it is connected, because one of the things that immediately comes to mind is The Ambassador Creed. There is this character element that just can’t be—I hope people will go to the website, print it, and hang it up, because there are things there that are really, really important. They’re not just words. They’re words with descriptor. I’ll explain exactly when I mean and how this all plays out.
Because in the Scripture, we’re enjoined to defend the faith. First Peter 3, for example, Peter says to give an answer for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence. So it’s not just ‘be ready to fight the battle’, but you gotta fight in a certain way and that is the way that is winsome and attractive. He uses those gentle, reverent kind of characterizations, and then if you go to 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that the Lord’s bond servant shouldn’t be quarrelsome. In other words, not somebody who is out to pick a fight but rather patient when wrong. So this is one side of the enterprise, Brian, is that being vigilant. Again, that last question about the way we come across. Winsome and attractive are two words that we use a lot in Stand to Reason. We wanna be winning in our approach—the way we communicate—because we are attractive. So those are connected. That’s half of it.
The other half, though, in answering this question is the—so you have the virtues: intellectual and moral virtues of the good ambassador, but then here’s something that’s really, really neglected, and so I’m happy to pass it on to your listeners: You want to cultivate an attitude regarding what you’re doing that you are a student of your craft. Let me emphasize this word, craft, and explain it a little bit.
There is not just a science, in a sense, to apologetics. What I mean by that is the objective things—the answers, the lists of ontological arguments, cosmological argument, answers to the problems of evil, and all of these things that you need to get in place—but there’s also an art to it. There is an aesthetic element. It is a craft just like being a woodworker’s a craft or being a painter is a craft, and what is unfortunate is that so few are intentional about approaching their enterprise as a craft—that is something that they give effort to become more skilled at. So when I think of the craft there in apologetics, there is certainly some informational element. I wanna keep learning.
One of the details of The Ambassador’s Creed says that the good ambassadors are never stopped by the same question twice, so we’re aggressively seeking answers. But in so far as our discipline, apologetics, is a discipline of engagement in the world of ideas. We are also learning how to be more effective to communicate those ideas. So we communicate in two ways: through writing and speaking.
So at Stand to Reason, our speakers—I don’t care how long they’ve been on board; in other words, how long they’ve been public speaking—we talk about the craft of communication and public speaking. I go to their events, and they go to my events, and we give each other feedback. We say, ‘Well, that was good but this is where you stumbled and maybe you could’ve done this better or this is a little unclear or that kind of way of joking didn’t work. Maybe there’s another way to do it’. We take it seriously as a craft, and we do the same thing with our writing. We’re getting feedback back and forth, so we become better and better at our writing. There are very specific things that you can do, you can put in place that will make you more effective in those things; and so we’re very aggressively trying to do that.
I am actually amazed, Brian, at how many people I meet on the circuit (I said we’re out there) speaking who have some native gifts, but they make the most amateurish mistakes as public speakers. They carry the day because they’re pretty clever already, but it’s almost like their natural gifts are an excuse for not improving. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I’ve been doing it for 10 years’ or something like that. Yeah, well, you’ve been doing it in some ways wrong for 10 years, too, you know, if this is the habit that you have. I look at them and I think, ‘Oh man, if they were just teachable, they could be sensational instead of just good.’ That is, they could take their natural gift and they could then match a commitment to the craft and developing a better skill, and they can really improve if they can just change a few things.
I don’t offer my advice usually unless it’s asked for, because that could be a little bit awkward, but when it comes to our team, we’re working together in a very intentional way to develop our craft as communicators and develop our craft as thinkers, and this requires that we be teachable with regards to each other. And frankly, Brian, if I came to England and did a talk for you, you and I would be talking after the whole thing was over about how things went. I’d wanna know your feedback and whether I connected with the group or maybe I stepped on some toes or something like that. This is an ongoing practice for me.
BA: That’s excellent. I think that’s extremely helpful.
Seeing that the area of defending the faith is such a broad field, what sort of study habits would you recommend in particular that would be helpful, to be not only well-versed but kind of well-rounded and knowledgeable across the whole scope.
GK: Yeah, that’s another tough one. When I look at my own life, I think now, for example, I don’t—you can’t tell anybody I said this, but I actually don’t study that much right now. Of course the whole world’s listening, but the point is, there was a long season of my life and also shorter seasons since then where I did a tremendous amount of study. Now, usually, when you go to university or you’re in an official course of study, then you’re really working hard on something. Well, maybe when I’m writing a book or something like that, the spaces in between, I’m not doing that much, and I’m not offering that as a model necessarily but I’m just explaining how it worked out for me.
I have two little kids. I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-year-old, and I turn 60 in a couple of months. I got a family. I got an organization to run, and I have a tremendous team that helps me; but there’s still a lot of other kind of different responsibilities that fall to me that makes it hard for me just to sit down and study for two or three hours a day. So, unfortunately for me, I had long seasons before that I have done that, and I’m a fairly quick study, I would think.
So I got my good foundation in my professional education (Bachelor’s, two Master’s degrees now) and that really laid a good foundation. So now I can traffic in the ideas because of that, and I find that I just kind of do my best to keep up, but I don’t put myself under pressure, for example, to read every emerging church book that comes out, because I’d be reading a book every three days. Instead what I do is I find people who really are focused in and read all that stuff, people that I trust, and then I interview them or I get information from them or whatever. So it is, for me, it is a combination of having laid a foundation early on and this is a foundation not on apologetics first but first on theology. ‘Cause if we’re defending the faith, we better get the faith right that we’re defending.
If you’re going to be serious about defending the faith, this understanding has to be granular. In other words, it’s gotta be dialed down. You gotta know the difference between Armenian and Reformed. You gotta understand the deity of Christ and how that works and what the classical attacks on that have been. You just gotta have a picture of how theology works and particularly how the Christian worldview operants. Or else you’re just not gonna be very good. You’re gonna have too many big, giant holes.
Now, I mentioned I’m almost 60. I’ve been doing this for almost 35 years, so I’m not saying somebody’s gotta become an expert overnight, but if you just keep logging the information—you keep your education up, you keep alert, you especially keep talking with people and stay in conversation about these things and with people who are in the know—you’ll be amazed at how much knowledge you can log after a period of time.
By the way, it just occurred to me, Brian, that this is another big thing thing for me, is that I have been able to make friends with people who read a lot, so I can call these guys up, you know. I can call Stephen Meyer or Jay Richards or J.P. Moreland or Bill Craig. I mean, I’ve developed these friendships since, so I got their phone numbers and when I get stumped on something…I had to call Fazale Rana today on some other issue over Reasons to Believe because I just need to get a little bit of input, and if they can help me, then I’m off and running. Occasionally, I get calls from them, too, on things, so there’s a sense in which we are all working together. There is no kind of magic formula that we just get it all, and we’re just perfect. It’s always a learning process, and we draw from our community, and sometimes we have seasons of intense study, and other times we don’t read anything for a couple of months, because we’re doing other things, but that’s just the way it ends up working out.
I don’t know in your own life, Brian, if that bears any similarity to your own experience, but my suspicion is that for most people in our business as it were, it’s kind of a herky-jerky affair. Reading and studying and then writing and then going for periods where you’re balancing checking accounts and doing promotional material and development for your organization and then you got another project, you focus a little bit more. So it’s a little of this and a little bit of that.
BA: A number of people have asked you in the past, ‘Well, how do I get started with an apologetics ministry?’ and that sort of a thing. ‘I wanna do what you do.’ You’ve given them the advice: bloom where you’re planted, and you’ve talked about that just a bit about you have to be doing something before you can actually get into it.
GK: That’s right. Right.
BA: Can you describe that just a little bit more?
GK: This question actually dovetails really nicely, I think, into our prior discussion about study habits and stuff.
My wife had a little plaque that was hanging in our kitchen there for a little while, and it simply said, ‘Bloom where you’re planted’. I realized that that phrase captured my philosophy about moving forward in the body of Christ, and it turns out to be quite biblical in one sense. When you think of Jesus, He said, ‘He who is faithful in smaller things will be given larger things’ [Luke 16:10]. And so God in a sense plants us somewhere to bear a modest amount of fruit, and if we bloom there, you know, we might get transplanted. If we don’t bloom there, because we got our eyes set on something in the future, we say, ‘Well, one of these days I’m going to be, you know, a big shot and do all these things and make a great contribution with the Kingdom’ and we’re not contributing now with whatever it is that we have, well, then we have no good reason to expect that God is gonna promote us. You know, we have to be faithful here, and again, going back to my remark that I don’t think that God distributes ministry by calling—like we wait around, and we seek the Lord, and we do these kind of spiritual disciplines that we think is gonna twist God’s arm into crying uncle, and then telling us what he wants us to do. Again, I don’t think it’s a biblical motif.
I think what God does is He give us gifts and opportunities, and He expects us then to use them, and then do the best we can with what we’ve been offered and then take the next step as it’s presented to us.
So very early on, I mean my first year as a Christian, and not that I was introspective about this, it’s just the way it worked out, and I look back now, it’s a good plan, and now I’m much more intentional about it. I began to teach others in a Bible study. The first Bible study I had was like four people I had won to Christ in 1974. We were sitting on the floor in the living room, and I just got on with my Bible and tell them what I knew. Did I know much then? No, but I knew a whole lot more than they did. So I was able to teach them what I knew. So there was a delta factor or a differential change between me and them. In other words, they had a certain level of knowledge which was almost nothing. I didn’t have much more, but I had some more, and then that difference is where I traded in with them. And then the more that I learned through the process of doing this and studying, the more the delta factor increased, that being the difference between what I knew and what they knew, and I was then able to pass that on. I operate within that delta factor.
So the more I learned, the better I was. And in fact, if you learn a lot more, then you could teach people who know more, too, and that’s kind of where I’m at now, where I can spend a lot of my time in a leveraged effort, like what we’re doing here, not talking in a sense to brand new Christians or beginners, but talk to people who are more seasoned but wanna get a boost into the next level of effectiveness or something.
This happens over time. It happens in part because even if you might have your eyes set on something big in the future…this issue usually comes up, Brian. People say, ‘I wanna do what you’re doing’, and my thinking is, ‘Well, you can’t do what I’m doing now until you do what I did then’; and that is, I did whatever I could in any situation to give whatever I had. I was blooming where I was planted, so maybe my audience is two people or one, sitting across from coffee at Denny’s (that was before Starbucks were around), but that was my audience. Maybe it was, you know, a Bible study, maybe it was a group that, you know, maybe it was a church service or whatever. It didn’t matter. I just took the opportunities that I had, and I still do now. I mean, I still talk to small groups if I have the chance to do it, and if I have the room in my schedule, then we do that.
Through the engagement with the ideas, and this is one thing that goes back to your habits that we can cultivate, is not just reading a bit or having seasons of study, but talking a lot about these things. That is a huge secret that people don’t realize. They think, ‘If I just get a little bit more learning, then I’ll be able to get out there.’ Well, I got out there right away with the little that I knew, and I used that, and that caused me to learn that so much better, and I learned well and organized my thoughts well on my feet. I think that’s just my temperament.
In the process of talking then, it helped me to work through these issues and think of new things and see things and help me become much more familiar with the material. People said, ‘How do you know all these stuff?’. I said, ‘Cause I talk about it all the time.’ It’s just part of me. It’s just like any rank and file person that knows these stuff about sports. You know, some people have this encyclopedic knowledge of sports or the Lakers or something here in Los Angeles. They didn’t go to school for that. They didn’t sit down and say, ‘Here’s the Lakers almanac, and I’m gonna read through the whole thing and memorize all the facts.’ No, they love the discipline. They love the field, and they just kept talking with people all the time, and these pieces then begin to stick ’cause your mind gets stickier the more you talk about it.
So I encourage people to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about these issues that they like. They read it, they can talk about it with their spouse or their kids or their friends or schoolmates or kindred spirits that you find, that you can engage with, or as a teacher of some kind of class. The more you talk with students, the more it becomes part of you. So that’s a real critical part.
BA: Well, I don’t wanna do what you’re doing, because the idea of live radio instills a fair amount of dread.
GK: It’s not that bad really, but it is something you get maybe a little used to. It was hard for me at the beginning, but after a while, it’s gotten more easy.
BA: You were talking about different influences and things, and I think a question that plays right into that is the role of a good mentor. How would you recommend someone seek out someone to be a mentor in the various areas?
GK: Right. That’s a great question, Brian. In my case, though I mentioned Francis Schaeffer and J.P. Moreland and C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell in some measure early on and others since then that have had an influence in my thinking, these are mentors from afar. I think that’s a fully legitimate kind of mentor and for some people, the only kind of mentor they have is the ones that they can read about in books and follow in podcasts and listen to talks and stuff. So there’s a sense of an arm’s distance relationship there, but something tremendous is gained by that. That’s how it was with Francis Schaeffer for me, and J.P. Moreland was a combination really of something more personal.
But there is a unique contribution or influence of a very face-to-face, personal kind of a relationship that’s not like anything else. In my life, I had a mentor for the first two and a half or so of my Christianity. Very early on, I struck up a friendship and a bargain with a man called Craig Englert who is now a pastor in Kihei in Maui in Hawaii in the Pacific. He dedicated a huge portion of his life and his effort and his energy to me. There were some other people who were a part of that group there for those two and a half years that came in and out, but I credit Craig with being the influence that kept me in the straight and narrow and personally and properly in the faith for all that time. He wasn’t the significant intellectual element, though, he obviously taught me a lot of stuff. It was his personal influence in my life that was magnificent. Again, I don’t know where I would be today if it weren’t for those years with Craig.
However, those relationships are not easy to develop, principally because they’re not that many men that are willing to enter into—or women, I guess, as appropriate—that are willing to enter into those kinds of relationships with other Christians, where there’s a very, very close interaction. There’s accountability. There’s time spent together, like Jesus spent with His disciples. But it is arguably the most powerful thing that affect a Christian life.
Generally, looking for that kind of relationship, those things find you. I had gone to Craig myself, and I said, ‘Will you disciple me?’ but he had actually already had the same idea in his own mind when I came to him. He said yes right away, because he had been thinking about it. In the circumstances of our lives, we worked a lot together, and we saw each other on a regular basis. It worked out. Since then, I’ve had a number of different groups over the years, where I had four or five or six or seven people that I met with and I mentored them for a season—a year, a year and a half, two years. Right now, my staff is my main mentoring group at the present, but those are increasingly turning out to be few and far between.
I encourage people to work, to try to find somebody that they feel that they are kindred spirits with and that they can learn some things with if that person is willing to do that. But ultimately, the discipler chooses that disciple just as Jesus chose His, and that’s a little bit of a liability if you don’t have somebody choose you. You can go out and find him. You can ask him, and tell him what you have in mind or even kind of informally, get as close to somebody who you spiritually respect as possible and try to spend time with them and maybe that kind of relationship with develop a little bit, but that I think is a very important element of our spiritual growth.
BA: Now on another note, I think the most impactful books of 2009 was your Tactics book, and you discuss how to use wisdom and tact in your interactions with unbelievers, so that you are always ready to give an answer to those who ask. For those who are listening, I think that’s an excellent resource. In fact, someone emailed me today and asked me, ‘Hey, have you read this book, Tactics? Did you get it?’ and I said, ‘Yes! Yes!’
GK: As a matter of fact. [Laughing] Good. I think your review on Amazon is the first review that was posted there. Very thorough.
BA: Well, there you have it. I heartily recommend it.
What would you say—I’m not gonna ask you to repeat the content of the book, obviously—but one thing that I think would be something I would wanna learn from you is how do you cultivate a skill or develop a skill of being able to think well on your feet. I mean, you’re doing your live radio show and obviously, you’re always in situations where things are just thrown at you that you weren’t expecting. How have you developed that?
GK: Well, that’s a great question, too. In my case, I don’t think that thinking well on one’s feet is an entirely natural capability. I think it’s something that is learned. Some people maybe can learn faster than others, and I mentioned that I thought I’m kind of a quick study, but part of that is because of another feature in my approach to study. That has to do with structure. I’ll get back to that point in just a moment.
Thinking on your feet is a thing that you can develop. When you think of comedians who you see on late-night TV shows, you think, ‘Wow, those guys are so funny on impulse (if you will) or on command. How do they think of these things?’ Well, the fact is that most of them don’t think of those things right then. These are part of routines they’ve worked out before, and when they get on the air, the host is conveniently kind of tossing them soft balls that allow them to jump into their routine. But that’s the way that works much of the time. You prepare the responses beforehand and then when they come up, you’re ready for them.
We just sent out our March  newsletter, Solid Ground, this week. I don’t know if you got yours or not. You’re in England, but we’re sending out an enhanced version on email so that virtually everybody on our email list who is part of Stand to Reason—within the next week or two, you will actually get this in the mail and the email. Boy, take a look and read with us, because this particular issue shows where I had a debate with atheist Michael Shermer on radio at the end of December of last year . What I do in this is show all the steps of preparation that I went into in order to prepare for that. People who listen to the radio thought, ‘Wow. How did you know that answer? He was really quick on that one?’ Well, because I expected it to come up and I knew what I was gonna say. At least, I knew the first word or two or three out of my mouth to get me going. So that’s a preparation issue.
But I also had in my mind, Brian, a sense of the structure in my response. This thing, structure, is really important. I spend more time on structure than just about anything else in my talks and in my writing. I want the pieces to be organized a certain way so I can recall the main points. I’ll give you an example. I wrote a piece on the new atheists a couple of years ago that turned out to be kind of a foundational information for my talk with the new atheists. As I studied them and looked at the material of all that they are saying, I thought, ‘How can I simplify this broad issue of all the things they’re throwing up?’ and it occurred to me that the new atheists trade on the problem of evil a lot in some form, of religious evil or the general problem of evil. They trade on science, and they trade on reason and rationality. It suddenly occurred to me these guys think (1) reason is on their side, and Christians and theists are a bunch of idiots. (2) They think that science is on their side, because science has proven that religion is false, and (3) they believe that morality is on their side, because religions are evil in themselves and religious people who believe in God are strapped with the problem of evil in explaining their view. ‘Boy, that was a great outline’. That’s the structure.
Now, for my approach to new atheists. Wherever I go, I remember those three things. If you’re gonna ask me, “How do you deal with the new atheists?’ (1) They think reason is on their side; (2) they think science is on their side; and (3) they think morality is on their side. That gives me then, since I have those kind of tags that I hang things on, then I can just take each individually and remember what it was that I wrote about those things, at least, in general and I have a quick little answer there at the ready. This is true with almost everything I do. When you read this month’s Solid Ground [March 2010 issue], it’s called, “Prepping for engagement,” you’re gonna see my strategic approach here that brought things that I wanted to accomplish, that I wanted to remind myself of, and I had it written down and they were in front of me at the radio station.
Now here is my tactical move: if he says this, I say this. If he says this, I say this. Most of the time, I wasn’t reading. Sometimes I was using it as a cheat sheet, but the fact that I worked out the responses allowed me to be, as I said, at the ready when they came up. It sounded like, ‘Oh, Koukl is so quick on his feet.’ No, I just worked really hard prepping and structuring in a way that would allow me to recall without too much difficulty. So I think that’s the secret to being quick on your feet. Prepping in exams and especially, and I mentioned this before but I’ll repeat it here, not just writing out the answers but saying the answers.
So for weeks before my debate with Michael Shermer, I knew some issues were gonna come up, so here I am talking with my staff about it, with my wife about it, with my two-year-old about it. You know, whoever would listen. I’m just working through these issues verbally and that turns out to be practice for me.
In the morning of the interview, it was pouring rain. We got to the studio about an hour early, and I sat in the car in the pouring rain with Amy Hall, who is one of our bloggers in Stand to Reason, and she had the sheet, the cheat sheet. She had all the notes. She had the whole lay down, and so then she’ll bring these issues up and she’ll say ‘this’ then I’d recall as best I could, and that warm-up really got me in the pace. So once I walked into the studio, I was mentally prepared and I really wasn’t that nervous.
BA: That’s really insightful. I appreciate you sharing that.
GK: Yeah, I hope you get a chance to look at that. When you get your Solid Ground [March 2010 issue], you’ll see what I’m talking about. It really lays it out. It’s quite transparent about the whole process, and I hope that encourages people like yourself and others who are listening, and how to do that.
BA: Well, I also did hear that the Shermer debate, and I thought it was very smooth and well executed. So, well done.
GK: Thank you. My feeling was I was talking a little too fast, so that’s my own takeaway on how to improve next time.
BA: Well, there wasn’t a lot of time.
Another question about interactions is I’m sure you’ve had this situation where you find yourself frustrated when you’re interacting with someone. What, in your experience, is the best way to prevent emotions from spoiling a conversation?
GK: Well, I’ll tell you what works best for me on the radio—and I’m being completely honest about this—one of the biggest things to help me mind my manners, particularly in radio, is I know that thousands of people are listening to me, and if I’m a jerk, I’m doing it in front of a massive audience. It doesn’t sound very spiritual, but that’s one of the things that helps keep me in check. I take a deep breath. I’m being watched, so it keeps me on my best behavior.
The goal is to transfer that attitude into other areas of our life where the audience isn’t as big, because we are still still always before our audience of one, and that is the Lord. Reminding myself of, in a sense, my witness or my testimony, of how I’m coming across whether to one or thousands, helps me. Also, I’m being aware of what’s happening inside, like I can feel that tension mounting inside, like to the moon Alice feeling…well, that’s probably an old television reference—when you feel like you wanna belt the guy, basically. Then you realize, ‘Okay, this feeling that I’m aware of is probably expressing itself in my voice, my facial expressions’. Take a deep breath. Calm down. Pace yourself a little bit. Start asking more questions, and maybe that’s the biggest tip. If you were asking questions, that means you’re giving—that’s the Columbo tactic from the book—that means you’re giving the other side more of the floor and when they’re doing more of the talking, then that means you can be doing less damage ’cause you’re not talking when you’re all wound up.
So if you’re using the game plan that I described in the Tactics book, and you’re using your questions well, then the other guy is getting a lot of opportunity to speak, and it gives you a time to collect your wits a little bit. Take a deep breath and calm down.
Those are some of the things that I try to keep in mind. Sometimes I just have to ask my wife to tell me when I was out of line or maybe Melinda, so I still get feedback from other people when they have visibility of me getting crazy. Feedback is a sensational tool. If you’ve got the steel to take feedback from other people, especially people that are close to you. A lot of people, guys especially, their egos are too big that don’t allow them to do that. But if they can get past that, be willing to listen to criticism and not answer back and not make excuses for themselves, but just listen and then eat the meat, tear away the bones. That’s a huge secret to improve in just about any area of our lives.
BA: We’re starting to wrap up here. If you could say just one thing to, say, a roomful of seminary students, ministers, evangelists, and apologists, what would you tell them about their own character development?
GK: Well, I was thinking about this question, ’cause I knew it was gonna be coming, and there’s probably a lot I could say, but one thing that came to me immediately was a line from a song that an old friend of mine (that I hadn’t seen for many years) wrote during the Jesus Movement here in the States. The song that he used to sing when he would say goodnight, he does a concert, and then he’d sing this little song by way of saying goodnight to the audience, and the line in the song was simply, “Be as holy in the shadows as you are in the light” and then he added “And so ‘til we meet again, children. Goodnight.”
“Be as holy in the shadows as you are in the light. ‘Til we meet again. Goodnight.”
Now that is a very cool guideline. It’s not easy to keep, but it’s an important one to keep in mind. So if you’re talking about your character development, which by the way, is a huge issue. If you think about people who falter…leaders now who falter badly in their Christian walk—very few of them falter because, you know, some academic thing tripped them up—the thing that breaks them is the moral area of their life. It’s a character. And if you think about college students that go away to college, even though there are challenges of an academic or intellectual sort, that is not the biggest thing. The biggest thing is they get away on their own and they never learned how to control themselves and manage their own lives and they go crazy. They get this freedom, and they can’t manage it, and that sinks their ship spiritually.
We’ve all known that it’s easier to be holy in the light, but if we can seek to be as good in the shadows as we are when everybody’s watching, then I think we’ve really accomplished something and we’re gonna be well-protected for the onslaught.
BA: Well, that’s excellent.
Well, Greg, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to speak with me today.
GK: It’s been a lot of fun for me, Brian. I love talking about these things, and I’m glad to be able to contribute to what you’re doing.