Apologetics in the Local Church

Apologetics is a discipline often looked over in the local church. Seasoned apologist and philosopher Douglas Groothuis helps us think through the implications of a church that does not engage in the cultural topics of our day.

Our Christian faith is not only true, meaningful, and eternally relevant. It is also reasonable and rational, supported by strong arguments and evidence from science, history and personal experience. God never calls us to deny our God-given reason in the exercise of our faith. Rather, as Peter teaches, we should have a “reason for the hope within us” (1 Peter 3:15). This is the discipline of apologetics or the defense of Christianity as objectively real, intellectually solid and pertinent to the whole of life. 

Thinkers such as Saint Augustine, C.S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery and Lee Strobel became Christians because the arguments and evidence was on the side of the Bible and the Gospel. In a way, I have spent the last forty-two years trying to refute the Christianity I accepted in June of 1976. I have studied other major (and many minor) religions and worldviews and found them to be intellectually and existentially inferior to Christianity. I have tried to make this known through my twelve books, hundreds of articles, and many academic papers, as well as copious debates, lectures, and sermons. Apologetics has been key to the building of my faith and my Christian witness. My strong belief that Christianity is true and that Christ and His promises are true helped sustain me through the sickness and loss of my wife to dementia. I explain this in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament.

Too many churches, however, do not make apologetics part of their teaching, preaching or outreach. Some even ridicule it as hostile to faith. But when you read through The Book of Acts, you find that the church grew through the reasonable defense of Christianity as well as by signs and wonders. The Holy Spirit was behind both. Peter and Stephen argued that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Paul reasoned with the Greeks and other non-Jewish unbelievers. When he preached in Athens, he gave a profound and intellectually challenging defense of the Gospel as well as calling up short the false religions and worldviews of the Athenians (Acts 17:16-32).

Jesus Himself had a sharp intellect and did not shy away from intellectual engagement concerning His identity and teaching. He taught that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our being, including our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). In Matthew, chapter twenty-two, we find Jesus giving three brilliant responses to arguments against this view. I have developed these claims in my book, On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003). Jesus was, in fact, a brilliant apologist and philosopher, and he is our model.

How can apologetics be brought into the church?

First, we should consider some objections to Christianity that need to be addressed. Then, we will look at ways of addressing them in the church.

Some issues concerning Christianity are perennial, such as the existence of God, the deity of Christ, and the reliability of the Bible. Of course, the

Gospel must always be explained and defended as the only answer to our estrangement from a holy God because of our sin.

Besides the timeless topics of apologetics, the church should also take up matters of contemporary concern, such as the LGBTQ philosophy and social movements. Many souls, particularly millennials, reject Christianity because of its endorsement of heterosexual monogamy as the norm for sexuality. Others try to warp Christianity to accommodate same-sex marriage, as well as Scripture’s teaching on such matters, alongside other unbiblical sexual arrangements.  Great care must be taken with this carefully and prayerfully explained in order to remove obstacles to the Gospel. Gender is not a matter of choice, but a given category, rooted in our biology and status as creatures male or female (Genesis 1:26).

The rise of the “nones” needs to be discussed as well. Many Americans believe in God or some form of spirituality, but identify with no specific religious tradition and view involvement with a church or other religious organization as optional at best and soul-killing at worst. The percentage of Americans in this category is rising. Thus apologetics should address both worship and social transformation. There are no “nones” in the Kingdom of God.  

If these are some of the topics that apologetics should address (and there are many more), how, then, should the church fulfill its apologetic calling? An Easter sermon should give some arguments for the historical reality of the resurrection, not just its spiritual significance. Messages related to Christmas can cite the evidence for the virgin birth and the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts about the life of Jesus. A sermon series might address “Objections to Faith” or “Reasons to Believe.”

Second, the church’s educational ministry should not neglect apologetics at any level—from children to adults. Courses can be taught on a variety of topics, such as the uniqueness of Christ, the problem of suffering, or the challenge of Islam. Apologetics can and should be taught to children. Mama Bear Apologetics has high quality resources for this. These courses may be taught by those in the church or through video courses.

Third, churches can sponsor apologetic outreach events in which gifted speakers take on hot topics in apologetics. These meetings can be held at churches or in secular locations, such as on college campuses. I have given many lectures at such events. From experience, I can tell you that these events require much prayer—before, during, and after. Plenty of time should be offered to anyone with questions—as I have done for about forty years. Some of the most significant ministry happens during these encounters.

The church’s apologetic outreach can be as creative and powerful as the Holy Spirit can make it. Let us seek God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33)! Because of this, we should yearn to bear witness to Christ and the reasons for belief that apologetics offers us. For starters, church leaders and other can consult the most recent edition of Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell. Those who want to go a bit deeper may want to read my book, Christian Apologetics. Ministries such as Reason to Believe and Reasonable Faith have so much to offer churches and others.

My forty-two years as a Christian and my forty years of apologetics ministry (as a philosopher) shouts that apologetics matters eternally—in the church and everywhere. The heart cannot accept what the mind rejects. Let us unite heart and mind in the defense of the faith, with Jesus as our way, truth, and life (John 14:6) and the Holy Spirit as our power for ministry (Acts 1:8).