So you think you have what it takes to be an apologist? You’ve mastered the arguments, and you’re ready to go? Well, using apologetics effectively involves not just making formal, lengthy arguments, but also the ability to condense those arguments down into everyday conversations. Sometimes God presents opportunities which only last for a few minutes. It is important as Christians to be able to present a reasoned defense in the time given to us. Here, I will explore a few of the ways to effectively defend one’s faith in short time periods. Then, I’ll give a brief lesson in teaching this to others.
It may come as a surprise, but the most important thing for apologists to do in any circumstance is to be a thoughtful listener. Get ready for a bigger surprise: No two people are the same, and all people have beliefs they hold strongly. By having a simple conversation with someone about a topic (politics, environmentalism, God, sports), you will immediately see the things that they find important begin to appear in the topics they choose to discuss.
The importance of listening comes into play when using apologetics in small time frames because it allows you to effectively engage with people where they stand as opposed to whatever presuppositions you may hold about them. They will reveal to you their own knowledge level and convictions as you ask them perceptive questions.
Ask Perceptive Questions
One of the most important tools in the apologist’s kit is the use of open-ended, probing questions. Consider an encounter in which someone is claiming that there is no such thing as objective truth. They say “There is no truth.” But if you’ve applied your skills as an effective listener, you should immediately pick up on the problem with this statement. Asking a simple question like “Is that true?” can be just as effective as a fully-fledged case for objective truth.
When you start asking questions like these, you’ll find that your skills as an effective listener will be expanded as well. Someone’s response to the perceptive questions you ask will key you in on where they stand on issues. Do they really think there is no truth? Have they even thought about the implications of such a statement?
Again, suppose someone says “all morality is relative.” How would you answer that? Well suppose such that person has launched into an extended defense of relativism and argued that because various cultures evolve over time and seem to have different laws across the board, it seems that morality is a human construct which has been created for the purpose of sustaining society. You are going to answer that person very differently than if they said “All morality is relative” and only put it in context by saying that smoking marijuana shouldn’t be illegal. That’s a very different perspective than the former, and you need to ask them different questions.
Guide the Discussion and Make Your Case
Utilizing perceptive questions will allow you to guide the discussion while making your case in a winsome manner. Instead of outlining a lengthy case for Christianity, be aware of the time you have available and allow the discussion to guide your case-making.
One example for this would be someone who argues against you by simply saying “The Bible is corrupt.” Instead of launching into a huge outline of why you think the New Testament is reliable, why not just ask: “Why do you think so?” Their answer should guide the rest of your discussion. Often, you’ll find that the answer you get doesn’t really need an extended defense. But suppose that they launch into an argument about textual criticism: “Well, we can be pretty confident that passages like the ending of Mark are later additions.” Wow! I would very much commend this person on their knowledge on the topic, and I am not being sarcastic here. Such an answer shows thoughtfulness, and that should be commended: “Wow, I’m so pleased you brought that up. Did you know that almost every translation of the Bible has a note about how we’re fairly sure that is indeed a late addition? But more importantly, do you have any evidence for me to suggest that the entire Bible is corrupt? Are you suggesting that there is not one verse in the Bible that conveys a truth?”
Questions like these show that you’re listening, and also help guide the discussion. This is exactly what we want as apologists. The goal is not to force-feed huge amounts of information to other people. The goal is to engage in winsome dialogue with them that will allow both sides to feel affirmed, while giving them things to think about later.
Engage in More Tactics
I cannot emphasize enough how important Greg Koukl’s book, Tactics, is. He goes through in-depth discussions of ways to have intelligent conversations with people about all kinds of topics. This post is largely modeled after the Tactics he presents, but he gives even more than I have here. It is important to emphasize that these tactics are not ways to trick the people you’re talking to but rather ways to engage intelligently with others.
Teaching Apologetics to Others
Okay, so you’ve mastered the ability to listen, ask perceptive questions, guide the conversation, and think apologetically. What about teaching these skills to others?
I have found that role-playing is perhaps the best way to do this. Make a list of common objections to Christianity and then do a question-and-answer session to guide the discussion.
Utilize these role-playing sessions in between sessions where you present effective arguments for the truth of Christianity. At some point, the goal is to get to the point where we can indeed present these longer arguments to people whose minds have been expanded beyond trite comments. For more on making a simple case for Christianity, see my post “The Case for Christianity in 15 Minutes (or less).”
Another really effective way to get apologetics discussions going is to watch movies. Yes, I said it: watch movies! Movies are full of worldview questions, and watching them with an eye towards seeing these themes is absolutely essential practice. What is the movie saying about truth? What does it say about reality? Is it a movie about a moral issue? If so, what is it saying? Why should we think that way? I have presented a number of these very discussions in my looks at popular movies.
Here are some sample statements to get started on a role-play session, along with sample perceptive questions. Be sure that when you do this role play, you do not supply the guiding questions. Try to guide your group to think of questions themselves. Implement tactics into the discussion.
There is no truth. Is that true?
Morality is relative. Would you say that Hitler was only ‘relatively evil’?
The Bible is corrupt. Why do you think that?
There is no God. Why do you think so?
All religions are the same. If all religions are the same, why do some believe in one God, some many gods, and some no god?
There are so many more of these question/answer pairs. Try thinking of some yourself!
Winsome Dialogue, a final note
You are not going to be converting people on the spot by using these effective apologetics methods. In fact, conversion is not the ultimate end-goal of apologetics. Apologetics is about presenting a winsome case for Christianity, but God Himself is the one who brings about conversion by the Holy Spirit. Thus, do not be Remember, as Greg Koukl says, the goal is to put stones in shoes: we want to get people thinking about Christianity and to get them to notice that it is very much an intellectual faith capable of interacting in the arena of worldviews.
The examples given above, particularly in the “Teach” portion, are not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, they are meant to give you some insight into how to discuss a worldview issue with someone you bump into at Barnes and Noble or Starbucks. I’m not suggesting that my simple questions above are comprehensive refutations of the statements they are placed alongside. Instead, I’m suggesting that these are great ways to kick off continuing dialogue.
That said, as Christians, we must carry on this dialogue in a winsome manner. The paraphrase on the name for this site: “Always have a reason” comes from 1 Peter 3:15-16, which makes this explicit: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
Truth will win out in the end. But to make the only goal persuasion is to miss the very purpose of apologetics. We are not only to be good case makers, but also to be Christ’s mediators on earth. Your good behavior will be an effective witness, and it will be perhaps an even better witness than your arguments.
Above all, pray for the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds. Always have a reason.
The Case for Christianity in 15 Minutes (or less)– It is extremely important to have developed a way to present the case cor Christianity in a concise form that is easy to share and effective. In this post, I present my own 15-minute case for Christianity.
Greg Koukl’s Tactics is simply a must read for any Christian apologist. It is even more important for those who engage with people “on the street” in short time periods. Koukl presents a number of effective means by which people can use reason and logic–or simple, well-timed questions–to engage with those who disagree. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.