Thursday, August 02, 2012

How to Get Apologetics in Your Church 2: Lessons Along the Way

Lessons Along the Way
by Daniel Hannon

In the previous essay series “How to Get Apologetics in Your Church,” I talked about how there are many possibilities and paths to take to get an apologetics ministry started in your local congregation. There is no hard-and-fast formula or rule, but rather the process depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which are your own interests and how open and receptive your church is to the apologetic enterprise. My own experience began with formal training through Biola University’s MA in Christian Apologetics program, which helped prepare me for teaching opportunities in both a Sunday school class and small group setting in my local church. For this essay, I’d like to take a just a few moments to relate some lessons I have learned so far and to give some advice to those just starting out in their own endeavors.

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In the time I have spent teaching apologetics at my local church, I have learned several valuable lessons in terms of presenting material to students.

The first lesson relates to teaching style. It can be a bit daunting to begin teaching a class on your own, especially if you have had limited prior experience leading a group. This was the case for me. However, I have found a little “secret” teaching style, which has been invaluable to me in leading discussions and presenting material. As you might be able to tell from my previous essay, I am a tireless promoter for the folks at Stand to Reason in general and for their “Tactics” material in particular. It turns out that I have been able to utilize the tactics for conversations described in Greg Koukl’s book (Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussion Your Christian Convictions) as a methodology for teaching. Think of it as something like the Socratic Method. The primary tactic for conversation in Koukl’s book is called the “Columbo Tactic,” which is based on asking particular kinds of questions. These are intended to draw folks out, to bring clarity, and to stimulate conversations which will lead to an exchange of viewpoints and information. The principle behind Columbo is to find out what a person believes, why he believes it, and eventually to be able to lead him in a conversation (with questions) to consider some new information or a new point of view.

This works very well—at least it has for me—in almost the exact same way for teaching and leading discussions with students regarding topics in apologetics. I use the Columbo tactic all the time, not only with my students, but also with preparing course work and lessons. Asking questions of the text or the author does all of the same things for you as a teacher as it does for you as a conversationalist (i.e. helps to clarify, stimulates discussion, delves deeper into an issue, asks the “whats” and “whys” of a viewpoint, etc.). Of course, this teaching style could spill over into many other subjects as well—provided a person has some training so he knows where he is leading his students—but again, this is a book I highly recommend to anyone with a budding interest in apologetics. It is a great place to start for those who are a little bit timid in conversation and/or leading a group. Read the book, put the tactics into practice (especially “Columbo”), and I think you'll begin to see exactly what I am talking about.

The second lesson I have learned relates to curriculum. It is important to evaluate your curriculum level as it relates to your students. Choose material with an appropriate level of difficulty. Starting off with something that is too hard—for you or your students—will be an impediment to learning and will frustrate both you and your class. I mentioned in my previous essay that I began the class with Ken Samples’ book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions as our initial foray into the realm of apologetics. While the written content is excellent, the topics timeless and relevant, and knowing the answers important for any Christian, I would caution you with this particular book. It may or may not be a good starting point for your group. For example, it is not too difficult for a person who has some familiarity with the subject matter already, but some of the language and philosophical terminology can be a problem for folks just being introduced to subjects such as logic, philosophy, proper argumentation, and the like. So with that said, I would recommend evaluating your group before selecting an appropriate curriculum, or if you are currently struggling with material that you are presenting, consider taking a step back. For my part, I am doing exactly that with the next book my class will be studying: Gregory Ganssle’s Thinking About God: First Steps in Philosophy. It is my hope that the group will benefit from some more basic and foundational teaching while being stimulated to care and think more deeply about these important fundamental issues of philosophy and apologetics.

A third lesson I have learned regarding material is to use variety. While a book like Samples’ Without a Doubt can provide endless paths for discussion for a long period of time (we took about 2 years to go through the book), it can become tedious to continue with the same format week-to-week without a break. This is true for any book or format. I suggest interspersing your content with timely videos as a change of pace for your students. This will not only provide some variety, it will spark great discussions, keep them abreast of current topics, and help prepare them to give answers from a Christian worldview regarding important issues in the news. As an example, in January our class celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Francis Schaeffer by watching a 3-part video series of his sermon on a “Christian Manifesto” from 1982. These videos served to introduce some in the class to Schaeffer and gave everyone a deeper appreciation for his uncanny ability to see the implications of different worldviews and where they can lead a culture. It was highly relevant to topics being discussed in the news today and a great “diversion” for the class.

So then, these are some simple lessons I have learned through starting an apologetics ministry in my church, and I hope the little bit of what I have related here will be of some aid to you as you continue with or begin your own. I would just like to close with some advice as you seek to extend God’s kingdom in your own little corner of the world, and which actually might seem to contradict everything I have said in these last two essays.

Don’t make apologetics the center of your ministry.

What do I mean by that? It’s simple. Apologetics is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ nor is it the end goal of your ministry. That is not to say that apologetics is not important, obviously. Otherwise, I would not be writing this essay nor doing what I am doing in my own local church body. What I mean is that you should not neglect the study of Scripture or theology in favor of a single-minded focus on apologetics. Though there is clearly some overlap in these areas, in my view the Christian must be first a student of Scripture and then secondarily an apologist. Though they are not mutually exclusive, I think this is the proper order of emphasis. All that being said, my advice is: have a regular Bible reading plan, a devoted prayer life, get involved in a small group Bible study, and study systematic theology. Each day, strive to know better the God and the faith for which you seek to give an answer. And by making these main things the main things, you may just find that you’ll end up being a better apologist for it. I pray the Lord will bless you and your ministry for His glory.


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