Does a massive wave of anxiety sweep over you when you think about evangelism and sharing your faith with others? Do you feel intimidated and ill-equipped to share the Gospel message with an oftentimes hostile culture? If your answer is yes to these questions, you are not alone in your angst. The term “apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia. Even though it sounds like our English word “apology,” it means something quite different. Apologia simply means “to give a defense of.” In Scripture we are commanded to defend our faith and engage the false ideas that surround us (II Corinthians 10:3-5, I Peter 3:15), but many of us don’t know where or how to begin. This is where training in Christian apologetics becomes a valuable and even essential tool in evangelizing our friends, family, and neighbors.
The clearest biblical example of Christian apologetics can be found in Acts 17:16-34. The exchange on Mars Hill between the Apostle Paul and the Athenians is a great example of not only what we face on our own personal mission fields, but how to effectively respond when challenged. Notice that “Paul’s spirit is provoked within him” as he is surrounded by the religious assumptions of the pagan culture in which he finds himself. Sound familiar? Effective evangelism today requires us to remember that everyone has a worldview. A worldview is a set of assumptions that we all hold involving the following questions: “Where did I come from? What is the problem? What is the solution? What is my purpose?” Knowing how our neighbors answer these questions can help us understand where they are coming from as we attempt to share the Gospel with them.
Notice that as Paul engaged his audience he immediately used something in their own religious worldview as a point of contact. It was their acknowledgement of an “unknown god.” It is also evident that Paul knew additional elements of his audience’s worldview, as he was able to quote one of their own poets. You may be thinking: “Well, that's great, but how do I know what my neighbor’s worldview is let alone what is missing from it?” The good news is that if you know how to ask two simple questions, you can find out.
“What do you mean by that?” and “How do you know?” are two simple questions that we all can ask. In his excellent book Tactics, Greg Koukl goes into great detail on how effective these questions can be as we share our faith. Much of the time, our neighbors are the ones who make authoritative religious and philosophical statements meant to dismiss the God of the Bible. If you’re like me, when I hear a statement like: “Jesus was a great teacher, but certainly not the Son of God!” my first instinct is to launch an offensive attack using every piece of evidence I can think of to refute the individual’s claim. This response may come naturally, but it is rarely productive. Jesus himself often chose to ask questions of his audience rather than launch into extended monologues refuting their religious claims.
There is a principle that whoever makes a claim bears the burden of proof. Claiming that “Jesus was just a good teacher” is merely an assertion, not an argument. Providing reasons for an assertion is what makes it an argument. Rather than feeling like you have been placed on the hot seat because of this statement, learn to recognize that the individual who made the religious claim has actually placed themselves on the hot seat and thereby bears the burden of proof. Simply asking a variation on the question “What do you mean by that?” (like, “What do you mean when you say that Jesus was a good teacher?”) helps to clarify the underlying assumptions of the individual making the claim. Asking “How did you come to that conclusion?” will reveal how much, or in many cases how little, the individual has thought about their reasons for holding this view.
You can try this with the following statement: “I don’t believe in God.” Simply asking a basic question like “What do you mean by God?” can immediately launch you into a much deeper conversation. As they clarify exactly what they mean by “God,” you may discover that you don’t believe in the God that they are refuting, either! What a great opportunity to bring clarity to an evangelistic opportunity, and all you did was ask a question about a belief they claim to hold. Far from playing a semantics game with our neighbors, this approach reminds us that we should actually care what individuals in our life believe about life’s deepest questions. People are more likely to engage in a conversation with us if they know that we are at least willing to listen to what they have to say.
New England offers unique challenges for evangelism. It’s not that New Englanders don’t have religious convictions - they do, it's just that they don't like to talk about them on Christian terms. Nancy Pearcey points out in her book Finding Truth that any worldview that is not based on the true and living God will fail to account for at least some significant part of reality. Romans 1 tells us that people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Asking the questions “What do you mean by that?” and “How do you know?” will help bring to the surface the aspects of the Christian worldview they are attempting to suppress. It can help people move past the roadblocks they put between themselves and God and enable us to present the true and life-changing Gospel.
Pat Richardson is a certified Christian Centurial/Fellow with the Colson Center, as well as a member of Friendship Baptist Church in Litchfield, Conn., where he teaches adult Bible study.
For Further Reading:
Tactics by Gregory Koukl (Zondervan, 2009).
Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcy (David Cook Distribution, 2015).
Portals: Entering Your Neighbor’s World by Glenn Sunshine (Every Square Inch Publishing, 2012).