The Bible calls Christians to always be prepared to give an answer to those who ask for the reason of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). And so, from the very beginning of church history, Christians have publicly and privately labored to show the reasonableness of our faith against the objections of skeptics.
In the last century, Christians debating the relationship between reason and faith have divided into sometimes warring camps of classical, evidential, and presuppositional apologetics. If you’re wondering how these views relate, then this week’s series of five articles is for you. The Gospel Coalition welcomes apologists and pastors who will define, critique, and defend particular methods commonly used among Christians. But we don’t want to stop at method, as if apologetics were just meant for the lab. We also hope to provide resources to not only firm up your grasp of the debates, but also to put apologetics into practice in preaching and evangelism.
My immediate response to your question—-“How can pastors make time to talk with skeptics?”—-is, “My dear American friends, your question just doesn’t scan well over this side of the pond, for this is at long last one ‘problem’ that we Brits just don’t have.” Maybe it’s because my British context means that coming into contact with skeptics is simply unavoidable (given their sheer numbers) and necessary (given our small numbers) in our need to evangelize to survive. Maybe it’s because I lecture in a theological college on engaging culture, apologetics, and missiology that it’s obvious to me one would always be making time to talk with skeptics.
Alas . . . a little more honest reflection and sounding out others tells me that actually we have a lot more in common with the Americans than we thought. British pastors find it tough to engage with skeptics; worse, British teachers of apologetics and culture find it tough. (I do have that little voice that sometimes whispers in my ear, Those who can’t, teach; those that can’t teach, teach teachers.) What can we do?
Let’s set some parameters. This is not meant to be an exercise in self-flagellation; indeed, we may be able to absolve ourselves of some false guilt generated here.
Our Priorities and Challenges
First, we must recognize that the priorities we make are often related to our gifting and callings, and that our calling as a pastor/teacher will probably mean a strategic redrawing behind the front lines in order to help the body of Christ to self-grow and to build up and out. There is inevitable sacrifice here and so ironically the feeling of frustration and dis-ease that we are not engaging with as many unbelievers as we would wish, or as many as we used to before becoming a pastor, is probably a sign of spiritual health.
Second, we need to recognize that gospel ministers will be always engaging with skeptics week by week through their preaching and teaching ministry applying God’s Word and the truth of the gospel to unbelievers and calling them to faith and repentance in Christ.
Feeling better with these encouragements? Now come the challenges. Here are just a few basic reasons why making time to engage with skeptics might need to be more of a priority than I am making it.
There are some Christians I know who seem to thrive more in the company of unbelievers than believers. I think this is often the mark of one gifted as an evangelist: not only are such people winsome and persuasive with non-Christians, this is also their natural habitat, where they want to be. They seek out any and every opportunity to be with unbelievers. I do not believe I am gifted in this way, and yet that does not get me off the hook. Paul tells Timothy, and so tells me, that even though I may not be an evangelist, I am to “do the work of one” (2 Tim 4:4). Paul also tells me that I am to have good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3:7), meaning I have to be known by some outsiders to have a reputation, and it needs to be good.
Given these exhortations, isn’t it slightly odd that engagement with non-Christians is often the first thing to be dropped in the busy lives of a pastor/teacher? This neglect can easily happen when a sensible focus on “building up” a congregation at the beginning of ministry adopts the same pattern of priorities during the “steady state” phase of church life. Without a high degree of intentionality the “initial building” phase can easily become ingrained in the ongoing culture of a church and risks becoming the steady state. Worse, and I look at myself here, I know that sometimes I surely mistake strategic withdrawal with the relative comfort and control that living exclusively in the Christian bubble offers. If this is the case, then I just need to suck up these exhortations and make engaging with skeptics a priority of my ministry. Just do it!
Enhanced Rather Than Hindered
Using less stick and more carrot, I would want us to be persuaded that our overall ministry will be enhanced rather than hindered by us making time to spend with skeptics. Apologetics is not only about defending the gospel of hope to unbelievers by removing their distortions and false assurances. It is also defending the same gospel of hope to believers, protecting, assuring, and strengthening them—-keeping them from the same idols that enslave unbelievers (1 Jn 5:21). Our preaching and teaching and counseling to both believers and also unbelievers will be sharper and more realistic in focus and application as we meet skepticism and idolatry in person rather than in once-removed abstract theory. Moving back from the battle lines can mean a gradual apologetic flabbiness as we become more and more distanced and dulled to the world out there. We should want to be maintaining a good fighting weight, which will happen through constant healthy sparring. Finally, we know how those whom we disciple look up to and copy their leaders. Pastors who only talk a lot about engaging, befriending, and evangelizing non-Christians will be productive in producing Christians who only talk a lot about befriending and evangelizing non-Christians. To continue the boxing analogy, we need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
So how do we do it? It’s not rocket science. The key, knowing that this kind of thing will always be the first to drop off my to-do list, is to schedule it. Make it regular. Put it in the diary. The gym membership, the regular chat down at the pub after 5-aside-football (soccer!), the reading group, the cinema trip with dads from the kids’ school, visiting the same coffee shops at the same times, door-knocking, spending more time with unbelieving extended family, and so on. Make these kinds of activities part of my terms and conditions in ministering in this particular church, and be accountable to it!
But isn’t this just asking for more bricks without straw? Not necessarily. One creative way through here is recognizing that none of the above suggestions needs to be compartmentalized. Building up and building out are not necessarily antithetical but can go together. Discipleship and training can happen in the context of getting involved in the lives of non-Christians. As one of my students has noted, it is possible to fold the Engel Scale (devised by the missiologist James F. Engel as a way of representing the journey from no knowledge of God through to spiritual maturity as a Christian believer) up on itself. For example we can minister to a mature “+3” Christian (through modelling) and a “-2” non-Christian (through conversational engagement) at the same time in a pub. So often most of our organized activities seem to be very “quantized” along the Engels scale rather than integrated.
But even that might not be enough. This is where a culture change may be needed in the way we think about our ministries. Not only do we need to teach our congregations that these kinds of relationships and involvements are to be prioritized and not neglected (for their sakes as well as the non-Christian), but we also need to be freed up to pursue such relationships. However, as one pastor friend said to me, “Many pastors I know have become so dependent on being needed, and so have trained their people to depend on them, that passing off counseling, meetings, etc., is impossible.” This same friend is now church-planting . . . from scratch! Can we break, or maybe better, can we share these responsibilities and so create some space to engage in new relationships, thus helping to produce at the same time both more shepherds and more fishermen?