I grew up in a time when evidentiary apologetics was big in youth groups.
It was not uncommon to use Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” as a youth group curriculum.
Then came Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christianity” in the period of the megachurch, followed by Tim Keller’s “Reason for God,” to name only a few examples.
To what extent do all these approaches to apologetics belie a Christendom posture that actually hurts Christian witness as opposed to helps it?
For instance, is it not disingenuous to come to a new cultural situation armed with an already prepared apologetic? We cannot know beforehand what issues, or with whom, we will be “arguing.”
It, therefore, makes no sense to respond to “intellectual” problems before listening and inhabiting a place for a good long while.
It seems Christian apologetics trains us to think we have the answers before listening to the questions.
For this reason, training in apologetics hurts witness. No?
It seems to me then that the continued popularity of evidentiary apologetics in some parts of evangelicalism reveals a Christendom mindset, which assumes we already know with whom we are arguing.
But in the large expanse of American life, there are new and many cultures arising every 10 years. Therefore, we cannot and should not predict the questions.
It seems to me traditional apologetics textbooks cannot help but be 10 years behind the culture’s issues given the time it takes to formulate and publish them.
By teaching these books, we, in essence, preach to the choir, reinforcing existing Christians with an already ensconced belief.
But in so doing, we are also turning them into overdefended Christians unable to listen and open up space for witness. We are “malforming” Christians for witness in post Christendom places. What am I missing?
In his book, “Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life,” Stanley Hauerwas suggests in a chapter co-authored by Charles Pinches, “The [gospel] Story when told in witness, does not end all arguments but rather opens up space for them to appear (maybe for the first time).”
I think this is so key to “being with” those who live outside of Christ. We tell our story of the gospel in a posture of listening and responding in mutual learning.
The challenges and arguments that flow from these conversations grow us in our faith and open up space for the gospel.
We do not assume to know the issues and problems that arise in each person as they hear the story told.
As Hauerwas and Pinches assert, “If we are to have arguments, we will need people to argue with, ones who do not begin from where we begin. Witness assumes this to be the case.”
Witness assumes the one we are in dialogue with will have different questions and concerns than our own.
Hauerwas and Pinches then go on to show us how this kind of witness is illustrated through the book of Acts.
A couple years ago, after writing similar thoughts to these, I got some push back. Some respondents charged that I was dismissing the entire enterprise of apologetics. So perhaps I need to clarify.
I am not saying that apologetics serve no purpose within the Christian life. Indeed, as we work out our faith as Christians, apologetics serve to test the viability of our own faith given the cultural challenges we face.
Apologetics enables us to understand when and why we should resist certain cultural narratives or ideologies because of the way they carry on assumptions we simply cannot uphold ourselves.
Perhaps, if the German Catholics and Lutherans of the 1930s would have done better apologetics, they would have better understood why they could not subscribe to the Nazi ideologies they were being asked to sign on to.
For sure then, apologetics builds up one’s own faith. As an evangelistic strategy, however, I urge caution because apologetics can train Christians into a posture ill-suited for witness in the world.
If it trains us to know the answers before we have listened to the questions, I contend apologetics works against mission.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.