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Our recent technological interconnectedness reveals to anyone with a web browser that the global grassroots church is standing upon an exciting and serious gospel unity. Challenges of course exist, and we should not ignore the confusions that threaten our bond and attempt to corrupt the gospel, particularly on the airwaves. However, that caution should not diminish your excitement—we have so much to celebrate and acknowledge here. Yet, while this broad agreement—upon the historic gospel—can be happily and easily uncovered, there is a serious barrier.
Apologetics and evangelism misunderstood
I have come to suspect that there is a paralysing confusion in the global church concerning the connection or relationship between apologetics and evangelism. I have glimpsed it often in the stories I have heard interviewing over 450 candidates for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) during the last seven years. I have heard it all around the world on the lips of pastors, ministers, workers, and other believers. I saw it as I came to faith as a philosophy student and began to try to lead my friends to Christ. There is a very real confusion about evangelism, and there is an even deeper misunderstanding about apologetics.
What is mission? What is apologetics? Is it unspiritual? What is evangelism? How does it work? Should I be sharing reasons for believing?
Rather than jumping into definitions from the original Greek, I will simply present a conceptual model. It was life-changing for me to discover it, and I have found that it clearly matches the biblical directives, as well as the fuller biblical narrative. Could there be something wrong with how we understand evangelism if our ‘one size fits all’ approach seems at odds with Christ’s ability to ask 290 individually unique questions? Or if we set it alongside Paul’s changing tactics with Jews and Greeks, not to mention his speech in Acts 17?
The Apologetics Spectrum
The model that I use to understand the way that evangelism and apologetics relate and function was given to me by Dr Andrew Fellows (formerly of L’Abri and now at Christian Heritage in Cambridge, UK). He calls it the Apologetics Spectrum.1 It is both practical and biblical, but I shall not seek to defend it nor offer a comprehensive theological defence of it. Andrew says that there are three kinds of outreach activity from the believer to the not-yet believer: Subversion, Persuasion, Proclamation.
- Subversion—turning the light on, raising questions, opening up the doors, engaging with culture.
At the subversive stage, the believer is interested in loosening the chains. His/her aim is to ask questions or present reflections in the form of film, music, literature, and art that will enable the sceptic to have the relational and social scaffolding to be able to doubt his or her underlying, yet opposing ideas and beliefs. The aim is to ‘shake the cage’. You might try to watch a news programme with a sceptical friend, and then catch their moral reaction at one of the stories of injustice, by asking: ‘Do you think that your sense of moral outrage points towards real right and real wrong?’
Jesus used this kind of approach a great deal, and his questions showed that he listened closely. Jesus’ questions were subversive because they opened up the issue, bringing it into the brightest of lights and getting to the heart of the matter. If we focus too much on gospel outlines and spiritual laws, then we will miss finding out what people are really asking. Outlines and tracts have their place, but at the subversion stage we want to focus more on developing an understanding of art, philosophy, and contemporary culture.
Discussing popular level secular films, music, and art—while keeping a clear conscience before God—can be an amazing vehicle for introducing the gospel and opening up the conversation. You may not always get all the way to the gospel, but that does not matter. Trust in God’s sovereign plan and action to draw that person—or in other words, do not get too heavy or weird at this point. Give them space if they need it, but do also pray with them if they will let you.
You do not have to feel pressured to tell them everything about the gospel right away because the idea is to nudge their worldview a little bit nearer, one idea at a time. If they can understand how God loves them, or even what real love might be, for example, then perhaps they might find God’s judgement less intimidating or his sacrifice for them more recognisable?
So what might this look like in practice?
- When aiming to be subversive, a church might initiate a film festival, photo competition, art or poetry festival, ‘open mic’ night, and invest in excellent quality cultural and artistic events. At RZIM/OCCA we have seen this work really well.
- In a business or office this might take the form of a lecture, open forum, or discussion on issues like ‘Trust and truth in work and life’ or ‘Ambition and success in work and life’.
- In a university, school, or college it might be a departmental lecture on ‘The problem of suffering’, or a public lecture on ‘Religion and film’ or ‘JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, and Christian faith’, or a public discussion or debate on an indirectly related issue.
- It might take the form of a community event or service, which draws attention to the subversive and different community that the church at its best truly can be.
- Persuasion—giving and sharing reasons, giving the reason for the hope, persuading the whole person with the whole gospel.
The persuasion stage involves both listening and giving reasons for the truth and reliability of the Christian worldview. This involves defending your own position by sharing the reasons behind your belief. For example, this might take the form of presenting a sceptic with some of the excellent reasons we have for accepting the Bible as a true picture of Jesus or for believing in God. Alternatively, it might be as simple as sharing how much difference having a relationship with God has made in your own life.
Looking behind the question or the objection that someone asks you to answer can reveal undisclosed or more personal concerns. Perhaps a question about God and suffering really comes from the heart of the person asking: ‘Is God a good person? Can I safely trust myself to God?’ There is always a question behind the question, and to discover it you just need to care enough to listen and ask a few good questions. Love can take the form of listening, and often, as Francis Schaeffer would do, we need to spend a lot more time listening and asking questions than we spend talking. Then when we speak, when we offer our apologetic, it can be aimed exactly where the person is—at the heart.
This is what Jesus did, treating people as individuals, with different questions and concerns. To grow better at persuasion you will also need to delve deeper into the areas of apologetics, philosophy, and critical thinking. You should aim to gain an understanding of what a logical fallacy is and learn to be able to recognise a few, such as Straw person, Personal attack, or Genetic fallacy. Jesus was a great persuader and he was excellent at appealing to the common sense of the people he met. When we try this approach, it is inevitable that some people will take more persuading than others and we can sometimes misread situations. I have done that a few times and it is good to know that God is bigger than the mistakes that I have made.
- Proclamation—preaching the message of the cross; unpacking the Bible; declaring grace, truth, and hope; inviting response.
Finally, the proclamation stage requires unpacking the core gospel message. We want to communicate the revealed message of Jesus and the golden theological truths of Trinity, creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, salvation, and sanctification. This is where summaries of the gospel can work well. If you want to improve how you communicate at this stage, then it is best to examine theology in more depth and get on your knees to apply this to your own life first.
It requires careful handling of Scripture to unpack the message of the Bible faithfully and it is helpful to ensure you really understand what the gospel actually is (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Jesus spoke to many different people, but he always got to the need to decide about responding to what God was doing. He conveyed the need for people to put their trust in the One who would die for them on the cross in order to rescue them from everything that their sins meant that they deserved.
This could mean a church hiring out a local restaurant or neutral venue, or going out like those first evangelists to wherever people are and telling people with our words what God has done in Christ. In practice, proclamation can be blended with persuasion (conventional apologetics) by giving honest answers to honest questions that centre on and elucidate the work and person of Jesus and his gospel.
We actually need to anticipate more carefully what things in our messages and sermons might sound like to someone who is not yet a Christian, and to adapt our communication style and tone, often quite significantly, to preach the same gospel, but through words and concepts that they are familiar with (as Paul did in Acts 17). At RZIM we try to speak clearly but also gently as we hold out the gospel for people. It also may mean praying for them, calling for repentance, and making sure we have feedback cards and follow-up strategies ready to go. The fields are ripe all over the world, but where are the workers?
God’s supreme role
So the Apologetics Spectrum provides an understanding of mission that marries evangelism and apologetics together. The model as presented so far has an omission: God’s role. This is God’s redemptive love story, not ours. So you need to keep a prayerful conversation going with God as you reach out, and you might find that the Holy Spirit will provide you with insights as you pray because the Holy Spirit unlocks the person from the inside.
Ideally the global church needs our mission work to be friendlier, more convincing, and more biblical. I think that the Apologetics Spectrum is an effective and biblical way of understanding how we should be reaching the world for Christ. So I would encourage you to get out there and be creative with how you reach out to persuade people and proclaim the gospel, remembering that God is so much bigger than your mistakes and that he can always catch the ones you miss.
Do not be negative about the arts or popular culture. Be a cinema-goer. Expect films, music, and TV to communicate certain messages and be alert to what these are. Look up the lyrics of songs and engage with them. See if you can work out what deeper questions are being asked.
Ask people questions, such as:
What are your biggest questions?
Where do you think our sense of right and wrong comes from?
Did you have a religious upbringing?
What films and/or music speak to you personally?
Try to share facts rather than feelings. Avoid arguing and discuss instead. One topic, for example, would be: Is Jesus a person in history? Do not preach, but be sensitive. Express your enjoyment and ask a lot of questions.
Know what the gospel message is (read 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Be down to earth and explain how the gospel affects you personally.