Evangelism + Apologetics = Boom?
I received an email advertisement the other day for an online seminar from a recent conference. It noted the fact that evangelism has grown more and more ineffective over the past few decades. The ad put forth that unbelievers are more and more prepared with arguments against the faith (probably due to the efforts of such people as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and so forth) and so when presented with the gospel, they are quite capable of disarming the Christian and defeating the presentation with false-but-seemingly-accurate arguments. The solution? Better information on the part of Christians. The more that Christians can argue and defend their faith, the more effective they will be in convincing others of the truth of the gospel, and the more effective evangelism will become.
When I read this, I, quite literally, started frantically searching for the comment link so that I could shoot back my thoughts on the matter. First, it’s an email; there’s no comment link. Duh. Second, thank heavens there wasn’t a comment link and I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to hit ‘reply’ because I was probably a little too reactionary at that moment to present something meaningful without beating someone over the head about it. But now that it’s been a while, I still want to go back and publicly comment on it because I have some concerns about a understanding of the human heart behind it.
The argument that apologetics is the solution to the problem of failing evangelistic attempts is based on the assumption that people are against Christianity on cognitive and intellectual bases. I don’t believe that. If a highly skilled apologist were to give a presentation to a room with 1,000 random skeptics and unbelievers, I suspect that said apologist might possibly convince one person, and I imagine that even that might be generous. People aren’t against the faith for intellectual reasons. They might claim to, but it’s not so simple. If Richard Dawkins were opposed to Christianity solely due to the rational case against it, then it’s unlikely that he would be so vocally violent about it. He doesn’t just think religion is bad, he passionately desires religion to be abolished from his world. He feels that religion and Christianity are impinging on him in some fashion. This is why he is so adamantly and vociferously opposed to it. The same is true of your average person on the street. They don’t reject Christianity because they have cognitive doubts against it. They reject Christ because they believe (a function of heart, not mind), and probably at least partially unconsciously so, that it will hurt them in some way. It will make boring or arduous demands of them or will stop them from living the way they want or has already seemed to hurt someone they know. People reject Christianity because they don’t want it, not because they have a case against it. Therefore, you can’t convince them into it. It’s like trying to use a hammer to get a nut out. It’s the wrong tool.
For that matter, if we’re trying to offer the gospel to someone and they express their doubts, if we begin defending our faith by giving evidence and arguments for Christ and God, then we may be missing them entirely. I remember hearing a recording of a phone conversion on the radio between a Christian man and a formerly Roman Catholic woman who was questioning the existence of God again after a relative had died from cancer. Despite her doubts and uncertainty about God, I almost sided with the woman. I mean, I really did want her to come to trust that God existed and really did love her, but I felt terrible compassion for her because it felt like the man, despite his very good intentions, was badgering her, and it was of almost no help, even making her feel worse. She told the interviewer after the conversation that the interaction didn’t actually get at any of her real questions, and she felt like the man was trying to overbear her (my words) into believing in God.
Apologetics, when used as an evangelistic tool, tends to set us up this way. We try to defend the faith, but if we’re in a defensive stance, then we are in a battle, not a relationship. Yes, we are in a battle, but not against other people – not against flesh and blood. We fight against the powers of evil but we love our brothers and sisters, even the pagan ones and the ones that don’t love us. Evangelism must take this into account. An evangelistic exchange needs to be based on love. When it crosses into defensiveness, which apologetics tends to lead us towards, then we fail to truly love the other and become more concerned about ourselves, our arguments, and our truth. I don’t want to lose more potential Christians because we care more about being right than about loving the other person.
Now, rewind. Apologetics is NOT a negative thing. It is good to have a logical, reasonable defense of the faith. But apologetics becomes a discipline for the believer, not the unbeliever. An apologetic for the existence of God is stabilizing for our own heart and mind. An apologetic for the reality of the cross and the life and work of Jesus helps us to hold on to the truth that our hearts already bear and may help shore us up in times of doubt or weakness. It’s when it becomes applied to unbelievers that it starts to become dangerous. Apologetics when applied to evangelism often leads itself towards antagonism or hurt feelings more than it does conversion and gratitude.
Apologetics is the wrong tool for evangelism. We need different ones for that. But since I’ve yakked a bit long already, I’ll save my thoughts on what tools are more helpful for another time.