A Facebook friend raised this tough question:
We now have a veritable Apologetics Industrial Complex. A nerd like William Lane Craig (no insult intended–I am a certified nerd myself) can be a kind of superstar. We have more quality seminaries churning out more Evangelical DMins and PhDs than ever before. Yet the mindlessness of the American conservative Christian subculture as a whole has never been more pronounced than it is now. What are we doing wrong?
Great question! Urgent question, too. I can offer part of the answer, I believe. Obviously there’s more than I can cover here. It’s got a lot to do with the mindless culture in which our subculture participates. Christians are no worse off in this than the world around us. That’s no excuse, of course; we’re still worse off than we ought to be.
Some of it is also quite seriously spiritual, the behind-the-scenes battle for which the armor of God in Ephesians 6 is most appropriate.
Not all of it fits in any of my categories below, just because life isn’t that tidy. But there’s something here that I know is helpful, anyway.
It’s a Motivation Problem, Not an Apologetics Problem
Here’s the crux of what I want to say. We’re missing the motivational aspect of the matter. It isn’t about having answers (which we’re good at), it’s about motivating Christians to change. We apologists don’t study that so much, do we?
Based on one standard motivation theory, the change my friend won’t happen as long as people are either (A) too comfortable as they are, (B) they’re unconvinced they have the ability to change, or (C) they don’t believe change will bring about results worth the effort.
Let me spell that out with some examples
A. ”I feel no need to change; I’m comfortable as I am.”
This first motivational barrier is mostly about unawareness. It feeds off of either not knowing, or else compartmentalizing away, facts like:
- Biblical discipleship is vital.
- Discipleship necessarily includes discipleship of the mind.
- The world is growing more divided, even crazy.
- This growing division and craziness affects people they care about.
- These things always have an intellectual/idea/mind component to them, not just (for example) lust, greed, or power components.
- Evangelism involves issues of the mind even apart from recent changes in culture.
- And so does the cultural mandate, going back to the Creation account.
If a person is sufficiently gripped by even one of the mind-related facts here, they’re off to a promising start, and that may indeed be all that’s necessary to get the person started.
But getting started isn’t enough. Without the other two motivational categories in place, a person could easily get caught in a “stuck” sort of caring: They know it matters, but they never get off the dime to do something with it.
B. “I really can’t change.”
This attitude may play out in statements like,
- “This kind of thing takes intellectuals, and I’m not one of them.”
- “I’d be interested in trying to learn, but I have no idea where to start.”
- “I’d pursue this if I weren’t so involved in so many other crucial things: work, family, health, humanitarian ministry, … “
And so on. All it takes is one of those beliefs to torpedo any real motivation to become more involved in true discipleship of the mind.
C. “Any change I made wouldn’t do enough good to be worth the effort.”
Typical statements here would include various forms of fatalism and fideism, such as,
- “People are just going to believe what they want to believe and do what they want to do, so why bother learning how to persuade anyone of anything?”
- “Intellectual life never changed anyone. It’s the heart that counts.”
- “God’s word says it, I believe it, that settles it, so what’s everyone else’s problem?”
- “Everything’s too complex. No matter how much I learned, it could never be enough to do any good.”
- “No one’s going to listen to me anyway.”
Again, just one of those attitudes is sufficient to stop to be a show-stopper.
The Pastoral Side
I’ve been speaking on an individual level here so far. We could also view it on a pastoral/leadership level, where you could add in other issues like,
- “The apologetics-oriented people in my church annoy me with their lack of people skills.”
- “The apologetics-oriented people here threaten me with how much more they know than I do.”
- “The apologetics-oriented people here think their hobby-horse is all that counts; they don’t understand the full range of ministry at all.
Solutions: Working on Awareness
The problem really isn’t in apologetics; not anymore, as the questioner points out. We have plenty of good answers. Apologists can help solve it by making material available, accessible, and even attractive. But even at their 3-A best, when people are too comfortable to “need” change, or when they feel incapable of changing in ways that will make a real difference, they won’t change.
So we need to work on awareness, first of all. God will take care of a lot of that. The pastor’s son who announces he’s an atheist, the gay-pride parade on your town’s main street, the science teacher who tells your daughter evolution can do it all without God — these aren’t so much in our control.
We can do more simply by asking good questions. “What do you think of what’s going on here?” “What do you think the Bible would say about that?” “What do you think is driving people’s decisions to do these strange things?” “Do you understand your own beliefs well enough to explain why you’d do differently?” And so on.
Note carefully: These aren’t answers. They’re God-ordained situations, which we can deal with by asking questions. You don’t needle people into change-inducing discomfort by giving them answers. You do it by bothering them with questions. Read the gospels and see how Jesus set that example.
Solutions: Working With People’s Expectations for Fruitful Change
Parts B and C are where apologists can help more, by providing the resources, drawing the necessary connections between issues and answers, and so on. We’re good at this. Too often, as a result, we’ve skipped A and jumped here first. But we do need to be there with the right kind of help for people who are ready to move forward.
And we’ve got to study people. We need to understand what’s stopping them: potentially any of the attitudes listed under B and C above, or other attitudes like them. If they’re being held back by feelings of intellectual intimidation it will do no good to try to cure them of fideism.
The one best answer — if you can pull it off! — is to get people working on these things and learning together. They’ll solve each other’s motivational issues, even as they study the apologetics, if we’ll only help them focus on the motivational matters along with the rest of the lesson.
Solutions: Working With Pastors
With pastors, I see two general kinds of answers. The first is relational. We need to be relationally connected with other leaders, so they can discern our hearts. They can learn to trust us in the approach we bring, or we can learn to change, to become more worthy of their trust.
The second is less hopeful. Some pastors aren’t open to change through any effort we bring, no matter how biblical we might be. Their churches won’t be open to this ministry because they aren’t. The motivational keys I’ve listed here are best used with peers, students, and the like. Their effect on leaders over us in any church will typically be much more limited. I’d say do your best for a while, and if change doesn’t come, decide to live contentedly with things as they are in your church, or else move on somewhere else. Either one of those is better than staying discontentedly.
The Silver Bullet Answer: Evangelism
Finally, there’s one silver-bullet answer that’s almost guaranteed to solve all of the above: Do evangelism. With training support.
That’s such a huge answer, containing so much of the above yet so much more, I can’t flesh it out here. I can say this, though. Even for all of my natural interest in apologetics, nothing — Nothing! — has so driven me to God and to my studies for answers I could use, like hearing someone say something like this: “You know, I don’t think Jesus probably existed at all.” You can think about those issues, you can read about them, you can even have your full list of extra-biblical references along with all the rest. But when it’s a live person raising a live personal question, it becomes a live question to you.
So do evangelism, not alone but in pairs and groups. Let yourself and others face the questions just that personally. Then watch and see whether they care about answers!
No, it’s not exactly a silver bullet. It may not get you all the way to the cultural mandate, for example, and it might not overcome unbiblical fideism in every case. But it’s the closest thing I know.
It calls to mind the conversation I had with a very well-mentored and well-connected pastor who was surprised when I told him some pastors aren’t very open to apologetics. “Really?!” he replied, incredulously. I thought, You mean he doesn’t know? Maybe he’s not as bright as I thought he was. Then he went on, “They must not be doing any evangelism!” And when he said that I corrected myself. That’s brilliant. He nailed it.
Image Credit(s): Unsplash/sydney Rae.