The apologetics training I received in seminary is inadequate for my present ministry. This is no fault of my seminary; it’s a reflection of how rapidly our society has changed over the past two decades.
In his survey of U.S. history from 2000 to the present, historian Philip Jenkins traces some seismic changes in technology, government, morality, and religion. He concludes: “The scale and speed of the accumulated power of transformation since 2000 really has no precedent.” Jenkins further notes that it will take years to assess the full effect of this rapid change.
This means everyone, including pastors and church planters, must catch up to these revolutions. One way to address cultural changes is to listen to people in our churches. When I moved to Austin, Texas, 15 years ago, I made a habit of asking people questions about their beliefs. In turn, they often asked about mine: Is the Bible reliable? Why is Christianity so narrow? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Essentially, they were asking, is Christianity true?
Today, people are asking different questions. Considering the prospect of celibacy, my friend with same-sex attraction asks, “Does God want me to be lonely and unloved?” A frustrated person of color proclaims, “Preaching the gospel isn’t enough. We need justice!” A woman in my city group inquires, “Why does it seem like the church is against women?” People want to know if Christianity is good.
Pastoring Toward the Good
We can respond to these questions with wisdom-packed one-liners, but that might hurt more than help. People need more than apologetic zingers and book recommendations. They’re wondering if the new life that Christianity promises is a good life.
People need more than apologetic zingers and book recommendations. They’re wondering if the new life Christianity promises is a good life.
I needed to hear my gay friend’s question, not only to answer him but also to identify, in a small way, with his feared prospect of a life of celibacy. I also needed to absorb how a person of color feels, not simply parse the differences between critical race theory and biblical truth. I need to know what it’s like to ponder whether God prizes men more than women. Pastors, we need to sit with these questions—these people—to appreciate the depth and emotional complexity of our vocation.
As we pastor through the swift societal changes in sexuality, gender, racial identity, and politics, we’re confronted with competing notions of good. For some, racial justice is the highest good. For others, it’s political revolution. For still more, sexual and gender self-expression. These visions of goodness compete with Jesus’s vision of goodness. We’re called to shepherd others into his stunning vision of goodness while demonstrating the centrality of the gospel to the good life.
Recovering the Good
Where do these alternate ideas come from? We’re oppressed by what sociologist Christopher Lasch describes as “transcendental attention to the self.” This attentiveness has a beat that, in the words of Tom Wolfe, “goes . . . Me . . . Me . . . Me . . . Me.” This me-fixation is apparent in how people tend to use the Bible today. Instead of looking to Scripture to shape our views, we often shape Scripture to suit our views. This leads us away from the authority and goodness of Christ.
Instead of looking to Scripture to shape our views, we often shape Scripture to suit our views.
While we may have a piece of what is good—justice, equality, freedom—under the authority of self, we wield it in unhelpful and harmful ways. We think our good must become the good. Our truth must become the truth. This oppresses others who don’t share our truth, producing a religion that is acrimonious, divisive, self-righteous, and exhausting.
This, of course, is why Jesus died—to rescue us from transcendental self-interest and to rivet our attention on him. When we direct the attention meant for him to ourselves, we spoil his image. When we behold Jesus, though, he renews his image in us and we act more like him (Col. 3:10).
Speaking the Good
Jesus’s response to evil wasn’t just to use his “hands and feet.” He also used his mouth: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matt. 9:35). Some mocked. Others marveled. But Jesus spoke. His gospel challenged the prevailing notions of good. And so must we.
After spending considerable time with my gay friend, I explained to him that God doesn’t want him to be lonely or unloved. Just the opposite! Jesus gave his life for sinners like my friend and me so that we could experience limitless love and ceaseless fellowship with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus died to rescue us from transcendental self-interest and to rivet our attention on him.
Like Jesus, we must get close to people. Hiding behind the pulpit or always escaping to the study creates unhealthy distance between the sheep (including lost sheep) and the shepherd. Many are curious about truth and goodness. Let’s position ourselves to be the ones speaking into their struggles and answering their questions with biblical clarity and compassion.
Church planter, as you develop your apologetics to address the rapidly changing moral landscape, remember to embody what is true and good. Remember who is wholly and completely good. And help others find the answers to their questions in Scripture. After all, Christianity is good because it is true, and its truth is Christ.