By Allen Shoemaker
It’s no secret that church membership in the USA has been steadily declining. J. Warner Wallace has been consistently documenting that decline, particularly among young people.
With membership declining, churches have two main options to increase membership: poach members from other congregations, or bring new folks in via evangelism. The problem is, most churches will admit that most Christians are uncomfortable with evangelism. There are many reasons for that unease, but much of it comes from a variety of fears and a lack of motivation.
One of the fears for Christians is that if they start a spiritual discussion with an unbeliever, they may be asked a question that they can’t answer. Who really wants to put themselves in a situation where they might look stupid? Not many! It’s intimidating:
“What if the person I’m witnessing to asks me a tough question?”
“I fear being put on the defensive.”
“What if I can’t summarize what the Bible is all about?”
To add to that fear, there is the awkwardness of trying to bring up spiritual matters in the first place. How does one naturally transition from talking about everyday things to talking about the gospel? Most of us are not comfortable with “Sure is nice weather, isn’t it? What do you think about Jesus?”
Further, there are many Christians who feel their personal testimonies can’t compete with the converted drug dealer or mob boss turned Christian. Some who grew up in a Christian family may feel, “My testimony is not that compelling.” If so, why even try to share it?
Finally, some Christians will grudgingly admit that they often lack the motivation for sharing the gospel. Yes, it is something that should be done, they’ll admit, but trying to get motivated to convince others of the reality of the gospel seems far more difficult than trying to convince others to try the newest diet.
Certainly there are other barriers to evangelism, but those are some of the main ones. Ironically, there’s another topic that most Christians shy away from that can address these evangelism problems, and that is apologetics — the defense of the truth of the faith. So how can apologetics help?
Let’s start with the fear of looking stupid. That fear comes from not “being ready to give a defense,” and of course that is the very verse (I Peter 3:15) from where we get the word “apologetics” (defense). And it is apologetics that explicitly trains us to be ready for most of those common questions and complaints of unbelievers. Even for those questions that most aren’t ready for, there are apologetics tactics to “turn the tables, and put you in the driver’s seat.”
Apologetics also generates a wider array of tools to transition a conversation towards spiritual topics. Without an apologetics background, most Christians can only hope that the conversation turns toward spiritual topics (and it rarely does). However, the apologist can transition from topics related to meaning, purpose, morality, evil, physics, consciousness, free will, history, archaeology, and on and on.
Some Christians have great testimonies of how their lives were turned around by a conversion experience. That’s a great tool for evangelism. But other Christians who don’t have such a dramatic experience aren’t without tools if they have some apologetics training. Dramatic stories can break down barriers, yes, but so can a friendly discussion of the evidence for God and truth of the Bible, both of which are main topics in apologetics. “Gradual conversion” Christians are not out of the game at all because they lack a dramatic story; in fact, one could make the case that it is easier for the unbeliever to relate to the “everyday Christian.”
Finally, apologetics often provides the motivation for evangelism. In some cases, perhaps too much motivation. Sean McDowell shares his story of learning apologetics, and getting a religious question from his barber, upon which Sean launched into a series of “answers” that totally missed her emotional state. Did he have lot of motivation? Yes! A lot of wisdom? No. Having answers to questions that people are asking is always motivating. We’ve all had times where someone is struggling with an auto or lawn or cooking problem, and if we know the answer, we can’t wait to share it. It’s motivating.
In short, apologetics and evangelism go hand in hand. Apologetics without evangelism is like training for a marathon without actually running it, and evangelism without apologetics is like running a marathon without any training.
Sean McDowell relates the two this way:
“Here’s the bottom line: we Christians often get defensive because we don’t really know why we believe what we believe. If we want to be confident ambassadors of the faith, who can interact with both kindness and substance, we must get training in apologetics.”