There’s a 20-year-old scrunched-up piece of paper carefully filed away in my office. It’s scrunched up because it was the only thing I had at hand when I realized I urgently needed something to write on, and it’s carefully filed because scribbled over every inch of it are notes from the first talk I ever heard from Ravi Zacharias.
Ravi was speaking at an evangelistic event for students at the University of Oxford in the early 2000s. I’d heard his name from others but had never heard him speak. I was working for a campus ministry at Oxford at the time and went to hear him speak. It was what I now know to be vintage Ravi––high-altitude, incisive, and compelling.
But it was the extended question time afterward that really made me sit up. Ravi was being asked about everything from gay marriage to quantum physics, and what struck me wasn’t so much that he had something to say in response to each question, though that itself is no small thing. It was the way in which he spoke. Ravi was someone who’d been doing this sort of thing for decades, but none of his answers felt canned. Each felt so fresh, so personal and respectful. So I found the only piece of paper I had on me––a scrunched-up handout in my pocket from a meeting I’d just come from––and scribbled furiously anywhere I could––around the margins, in the gaps between what was already on it, and in an ever-decreasing font size to fit as much as possible.
It’s been four years since I started working with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries as an itinerant speaker. I had multiple opportunities to see Ravi in action and behind the scenes. We’re now a large and global speaking team, with around 100 speakers from all parts of the world, but Ravi shaped the tone and culture of the team.
Here are three things I’ve learned from working with Ravi.
1. The person matters more than the question.
I’ve never really felt like I was an evangelist. Every image that comes to mind when I hear that word is of something I’m not––gregarious, extroverted, or super confident.
But Ravi is such an effective evangelist because he pastored unbelievers. He focused the person, regardless of their question or demeanor. When he returned from trips and reported to the team, he would always mention particular individuals for us to pray for, especially those carrying deep wounds and pains. “Answer the questioner, not the question,” he would often say. When a student approached a microphone to ask a question, he wouldn’t be seeing a challenge that needed to be met, or an obstacle that needed to be dealt with, or an argument that needed to be won. He would see a person who needed ministering to.
‘Answer the questioner, not the question,’ he would often say.
Whether the question was answered amazingly wasn’t the key issue; what really mattered was responding to the person, not just what they were saying.
2. Tone is as important as content.
It’s easy to reduce apologetics to argumentation. I’ve seen Christians who seem to think that contending for the gospel means stomping over everyone who raises any objections to faith. But it’s all too possible to win an argument and yet end up losing the person––as though the gospel were advanced by a succession of mic-drop moments.
But Scripture shows us something different. When Peter calls us to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have, his attention is on our demeanor, not just our words: “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:16). This text was foundational for Ravi, and, through him, for the whole team. Tone matters. A true word said ungraciously will not commend the gospel. We can un-preach with our manner what we think we’re preaching with our words.
A true word said ungraciously will not commend the gospel. We can un-preach with our manner what we think we’re preaching with our words.
Peter’s words don’t include the caveat “unless they’re a jerk, in which case you can unload on them.” There were many times at a university forum when a student would ask something in a snarky way. But Ravi would always aim to respond with gentleness and respect. It could often be disarming. They may have just treated him with disdain, but his response was both dignified and dignifying. He didn’t belittle others, or humiliate them.
3. The cross is the heart of the message.
Ravi’s calling was always as an evangelist. His work as an apologist was in service to that calling. The phrase we would often hear was “evangelism undergirded by apologetics.” Apologetics was never an end in itself, as though the aim of the game was mainly to show that our thinking and beliefs were superior to those of others. The place for apologetics was in serving the promotion of the gospel itself.
Ravi didn’t preach an argument; he used argumentation to preach a person.
Ravi’s message wasn’t so much the intellectual credibility of the faith (though he has done more than anyone else in this generation to commend that); it was Christ crucified. When Paul said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), he didn’t mean that he only talked about the cross; rather, he meant the cross was the animating heart of everything he did say. Ravi’s goal wasn’t to demonstrate the shallowness of, say, secular thinking; his goal was to present Christ. He didn’t preach an argument; he used argumentation to preach a person.
Ravi has now gone to be with the Christ he so loved to proclaim. He wasn’t a perfect man (and he would be the first to stress that), but he did know someone who was, and did all he could to commend him.