Leading Apologetics in Small Groups
by Mark Tabladillo
by Mark Tabladillo
In my contribution today, I aim to talk about making apologetics come to life in your local area through small group leadership. Apologetics 315 reaches a worldwide audience, and though my story focuses on the southeastern United States, I will draw lessons for all my sisters and brothers around the world. I start with my story, and move to the main apologetics question of this series.
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God called me to faith in 1985, but not without causing me to wonder about certain apologetic issues. I specifically researched the validity and reliability of the Bible, a topic which to my knowledge was not important to any of my family or friends at that time. Educationally I earned a doctorate from Georgia Institute of Technology, and today I serve as a part-time faculty member at the University of Phoenix. Those of us who have intellectual skills can and should find a way to express that leadership through apologetics.
I currently live in the Atlanta area, and have been a member of North Point Community Church (“North Point”, pastored by Andy Stanley) since 1997. In those days, the church did not have a regular meeting time or even property. I saw this church grow into what sociological researchers call a megachurch (widely defined as having at least 2,000 people in regular weekly attendance).
Apologetics at North Point Community Church
I believe Pastor Andy Stanley has a heart for apologetics. One year he invited Professors Norman Geisler and Frank Turek for a one-day workshop on apologetics. The church bookstores offer apologetics books. North Point is like many similar American churches that produce monocultural experiences for a multicultural audience. The North Point worship format influences all the spinoff ministries: heavy use of technology and lighting, video and music.
As members, we were encouraged to form small groups, and I have been in five different groups since 1997, most of which I was leading. Probably hundreds if not thousands of people have simultaneously been in small groups. As group leaders, we were always permitted to choose curriculum. I preferred material which had more bible exposition than group analysis by untrained psychologists. I appreciate authentic psychoanalysis from Cloud and Townsend, but I believe Christianity for the next generation needs a much more thorough model of Christian psychology that connects with God’s missional purpose.
Like many American megachurches, North Point follows a largely self-service model. Anyone could obtain apologetics resources from the bookstore and use them in the small groups program. Observation and experience with other small group leaders told me that people would drift toward themes from the main messages, and therefore toward relational studies and psychology. I believe God wanted me to seek out more challenging material, and I decided to use primarily video.
I worked with restrictions too. North Point strongly believes that I – a single male – should only be using these small groups to meet with other single males. In recent years, they have relaxed that restriction to allow men only to meet (or women can meet with women). I have had several single and married women who wanted to join my groups after hearing about our curriculum, but I told them North Point clearly said no. Thus, my story is based on working with men (other American megachurches do not have these restrictions). If you have ever been frustrated in a megachurch, take heart: in eternity, we will either be celebrating or laughing at the rules and regulations.
His Philosophical Foundation: Ideas Lead to Action
As taught by the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement class, I believe God’s mission was outlined in Genesis 12, that God wants to reach all people groups. Americans live in many multicultural communities, and the things we learn empower us and inform us to connect spiritually with relationships God brings our way.
My groups mainly met weekly at my home, which was a good place for viewing video since I own a computer projector. We used, for example, Ravi Zacharias’ series of questions and answers on DVD – I would play the question, our group would provide our answers, and then we would hear what Ravi’s answer was to those questions. I also used video material from (in no particular order) Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Lee Strobel, Eric Holmberg, Timothy George, Ray Vander Laan, G.K. Chesterton, and Malcolm Muggeridge. We also covered comparative religion studies produced by Christians, videos on Christian history, Christian biographies, stories on missions, studies of science and faith (intelligent design – I am a scientist), and sometimes other material (such as a secular documentary on the Muslim Hajj). One night we saw a recorded discussion from the cable show Larry King Live where John MacArthur was the token Christian and other panelists offered their opinions. I know that all this material would not encompass what you might categorize as apologetics, but much of it fits most people’s definitions. Presented in an intentional missional context, all good material can provide an effective apologetic (defense).
We did not just do video and interactive discussion. We also went through Romans and Mark because they spoke to some group needs. Straight biblical exegesis for the type of people attracted to megachurches requires a combination of individual commitment of all group members and a certain level of basic biblical literacy. Videos produced by or about apologists typically speak to a relevant cultural issue and I always look for those actionable points.
Achieving long-term results depends mostly on effective small group leadership techniques (many I do not mention). My group members were all voluntarily attending, and we would interactively discuss relevance. We might drop a series, see one over again, or stretch a discussion over weeks. People in my group can recognize the names and faces of people we repeatedly saw in video.
Studying different branches of what I consider orthodox Christianity I believe reinforced perceptions we might hear from the media about what Christianity is or is not. Apologetics can provide the historical and doctrinal accuracy as demonstrated by events and facts which are irrefutable. One of my long-time group attendees said that the collective material helped him to realize that spiritual ideas have cultural consequences.
Advice for Leading Apologetics in Small Groups
1. Go at the speed of life. It is not important to finish a section or video clip on a particular night. Unlike the glare of production lights which limit Andy Stanley’s time, small groups can afford to move at the speed of life. Listen to the Holy Spirit through the group needs and interactive dynamics. I use Ecclesiastes 3 to inform me that the Holy Spirit can lead us to a number of different moods, even in the same meeting. The Holy Spirit wants to guide groups to draw close to Him, because He is Life.
2. Be prepared. I was always looking ahead for good material, to make sure our curriculum pipeline was full. Some small percentage of the time, a group member would have a good or compelling suggestion. In our case, I ended up doing most of the topical suggestions, and often stimulated by a discussion or event which happened. A prepared leader already has not just viewed or read the material, but had a chance to meditate on what it means. I always had notes, sometimes only mental ones, other times written when my points were more complex. When previewing think about who is in the group, and consider what they might find relevant too. I own several study bibles, and I recommend that American group leaders should own one.
3. Think missional. As I commented earlier, I do not believe we learn just to learn, or to excel in some eternal version of Bible trivia. People who are intellectual sometimes get stimulated by storing away knowledge which may never be used toward Kingdom purposes. The context of God’s mission provides a direct use case not just for apologetics but also for why the church exists, why marriage is, and why families and communities are. The Holy Spirit wants us to move, and put our learning into action. I end with a phrase I repeat: We do not have a Church of God with a Mission in the world; we have a God of Mission with a Church in the world.
Be assured that wherever the Holy Spirit leads you, is where He wants you to be, and He knew all along. Take comfort in His care, and allow Him to motivate and refresh your heart for the leadership job He has for you.
For more on the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement program (offered worldwide) – see http://perspectives.org – I have been a facilitator for this class, and helped edit the fourth edition curriculum and exams.
For video resources – many apologists produce and distribute video from their websites. Consider using free video from YouTube and similar video sources. I often purchased DVDs from online retailers like amazon.com or christianbooks.com.
MarkTab.org is my online ministry.