As evangelical Christians looking back at the past 2,000 years of church history and then peering forward into the 21st Century, we can see that the many challenges ahead are a combination of both old and new. We must see these challenges as opportunities much in the same way that the Early Church saw martyrdom: as a means to spread the faith. In fact, the Latin Church Father Tertullian once quipped that, “The blood of Christians is seed.” [MP3 | RSS | iTunes | Table of Contents]
I have no doubt the American Church is in decline; in numbers, in influence, and in general effectiveness. Anyone inclined to agree with the findings of pollsters George Barna or George Gallup, Jr. would agree with this basic assessment. Part of the problem is the cultural shift that has taken place, most notably since the 1960’s. Many observers use the term “Post-Modern” to describe this phenomenon, but I agree with exegete D.A. Carson (and others) who prefer the term “Post-Christian” because it is more exact.
Choice of terms notwithstanding, the defining characteristic of this cultural attitude is epitomized by phrases such as, “You have your truth; I have mine” or “Do whatever works for you.” Within this context, I believe the big issue on the table in regards to the historic Christian faith is truth - what is its nature and can it even be known? Therefore, anyone developing a philosophy of ministry for the 21st Century must make the actual truth of Christianity a central priority. One problem here is the culture is becoming increasingly apathetic, ignorant, or even hostile towards traditional Christian belief. Nonetheless, we are mandated to engage them with firm truth and genuine love.
In the vein of Paul before the Athenians in Acts 17, we must attempt to meet our culture on common ground and then take them from that point to the Gospel. At the Areopagus on Mars Hill Paul even quoted the Greeks’ own poets, namely the Stoic Aratus and the polytheist Epimenides, to prove his point.
Before we delve into some specifics on how this thought works itself out in real time, let me mention some possible objections up-and-coming church leaders may have: “But what if I’m not an apologist, what if I’m just a person who wants to preach and care for the flock?” or “Well, I’m going into music ministry so this whole issue doesn’t apply to me.”
Attitudes like those aforementioned are short-sighted; the cultural equivalent to "sticking one’s head in the sand.” My goal here is to convince those folks to think differently about the issue of truth because authentic Christian leadership strives to improve. As we crucify our flesh daily we become more like Christ and can walk in the Spirit. This may sound somewhat obvious or vague but I think it can mean that Christian leaders should take inventory from time to time. The first area to tackle is how we personally - and collectively - can effectively penetrate our culture with the gospel.
There are a variety of creative ideas to employ but the key is to pray up, study up, and then engage people. In one-on-one evangelism, the humble use of apologetics is quite helpful. At the same time, we must not be scared to “fail,” seemingly “lose” a debate, or say “I don’t know the answer to that but let me get your e-mail and I will contact you soon.” People under 40 especially have lots of questions and misconceptions about the church, Christianity, and Jesus Christ Himself.
I Peter 3:15 tells us to help clear up this confusion: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” This verse and others - especially the ones where Christ is modeling these principles - serve as clarion calls for us to engage the culture with compassion, clarity, and dare I even say it - cleverness. Here are some suggestions for how to do this in a local church setting.
In Love Your God With All Your Mind, J.P. Moreland offers some great suggestions about how apologetics can function within the context of a worship service:
Whoever is preaching that morning should … develop … a one-page handout to be given to each person entering the sanctuary. The handout should have various exercises designed to prepare people for the theme of the morning. It could lead a brief word study by listing a key word from the sermon text and five or six verses with that word.
Moreland in particular offers some insight on what apologetics in a sermon may look like and ways we can implement it better. For example, he recommends more of a team approach to the pulpit because “no one who preaches week after week can do adequate study for a message or deeply process and internalize the sermon topic spiritually.”
Moreland also mentions better supplemental material accompanying the sermons and even order forms for books that could form a sort of a recommended reading list (i.e., bibliography) based upon the current sermon series . Of course, a healthy church library and/or study center can greatly buttress these efforts. His last idea may be somewhat controversial but I concur nonetheless: “[F]rom time to time a minister should intentionally pitch a message to the upper one-third of the congregation, intellectually speaking.” All I can say is, “Hey, Bible nerds need love, too!”
Moreland also believes modern chorus songs are usually better for the devotional/emotional portion of worship, while carefully selected classic hymns are usually better for teaching doctrine. He puts forth the idea that the worship leader should choose hymns to reinforce certain doctrinal truths. The way to do this effectively is to have said leader take a few minutes to introduce the hymn and what it means so that it will have more meaning (and therefore impact) for those unaccustomed to more traditional songs. This is something we do often at our church and we will sometimes even explain an obscure or archaic word.
Moreland’s next proposition is similar in its intent to prepare hearts and minds better for worship:
If worship is response, then if a service starts with worship, the people of God have not been given something to which to respond. Regularly, we ought to begin our services with a time of teaching followed by congregational testimonies about how God has used the sermon topic in people’s lives. Once God’s people have their minds filled with truths about God, His Word, and His ways … then the congregation is prepared to respond in worship.
The reason behind doing this should be clear by now: to have worshippers engage fully in praising God. A recognition of the mind’s role in worship will help us do a better job of stimulating the whole person instead of just the emotions. Art is a great way to do both: one thing we have done at our church is have poets do deep theological poems in the middle of a worship song or before the sermon.
In Craig A. Loscalzo’s book, Apologetic Preaching: Proclaiming Christ in a Postmodern World, Pastor Loscalzo defines apologetic preaching as preaching that “has at its purpose to make a clear defense for the faith using methods that people will not dismiss out of hand as mere sophistry” and “by its very nature apologetic preaching requires ministers to reclaim the mantle of theologian for the church.” This means more work for both the preacher and the congregation because they may have to actually think deeply about a sermon (gasp!).
The reason I am elaborating on all his points is because I agree 100%. I believe they are natural applications of apologetic preaching, which goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy of ministry we need more of in our churches. All of this follows the admonition in Colossians 4:5-6: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
This is why apologetics in the church is so crucial in this day and age: it clears the ground so there’s a clear pathway for the gospel, for people can’t truly believe in something if they don’t think it’s true. Since souls are at stake, shouldn’t we take people’s questions seriously and study to show ourselves approved so we need not be ashamed (2 Tim. 2:15)? My answer is an unequivocal “YES!”