As I have been watching and praying about the future of the UMC, I have been looking to what I can contribute that will help its evangelical witness to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I believe it can be in advocacy for apologetics for the UMC (either in its current form or in new expressions).
While apologetics is not a cure all for Methodism's decline, it has been a neglected tool in our toolbox as we engage people and the culture with the gospel.
The average Christian in the pew is not reading books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but their neighbors and coworkers are. I think congregations are putting pressure on churches to equip them better, educate them more and give them opportunities to grow in this area. Churches that have relied in the past on a lifestyle evangelistic approach that lack intentionality need to be a little more intentional in reaching people and bringing answers to their questions. I’m all for lifestyle evangelism, but I’m also in favor of intentionality, where we seek out opportunities for spiritual conversations and are equipped to explain the gospel and why we believe it. —Lee Strobel
Before I go into my reasons, let me note what apologetics is and what it is not. The list is not exhaustive.
Apologetics IS: Worshipping God with our minds, defends the Christian faith with logic and evidence, removes barriers to belief (some call pre-evangelism), the science and art of Christian persuasion, any reason why a person believes in Jesus, equips believers to engage hard questions they will face in life, connecting faith with science, history, philosophy without sacrificing one or the other, bridges faith with experience, gives believers and unbelievers space to ask questions, investigate holistic discipleship.
Apologetics is NOT: Arguing or bullying people into faith, possessing absolute certainty in all theological beliefs, debating with people on a stage, saying "I'm sorry," eliminating the mysterious or the spiritual, about winning, ignoring the heart, the spirit, or experiences, a purely mental exercise, providing a bubble that prevents questions of the Christian faith, cookie cutter explanations.
Five reasons for Methodism to include robust apologetics:
1. It is biblical, historical, and Jesus and John Wesley used it.
Many people do not know that apologetics is present throughout the bible. I did not know its extent until my research relating to my Doctor of Ministry dissertation.
For those new to apologetics, the primary apologetical imperative comes from 1 Peter 3:15 - "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..."
In essence, it is the preparation of telling your faith story in encountering and believing in Jesus Christ. It is the presenting of evidence for faith.
This is not about arguing anyone into faith. Alister McGrath I think describes it best: When we try to warm a room by the sun, apologetics is removing the curtain. The removing of the curtain does not warm the room (convert a person), the sun (God) does. Apologetics helps remove obstacles. (This illustration I believe is from his book Mere Apologetics)
Apologetical defenses for the truth of God and reasons to believe appear in many different ways in the Bible. This includes but is not limited to: revelation from God in the OT (including God keeping his promises), miracles (OT and NT), parables, prophetical foretelling and forthtelling, and the resurrection of Jesus.
We need to be careful of saying, “Just believe,” because what we’re really saying is, “Believe because I say so.” That sounds like a Nietzschean power play. That’s very different from Paul, who reasoned, argued, and proved in the Book of Acts, and from Peter, who called us to give the reason for our hope in 1 Peter 3:15. If our response is, “Our beliefs may seem utterly irrational to you, but if you see how much we love one another then you’ll want to believe too,” then we’ll sound like a cult. So we do need to do apologetics and answer the why question. – Tim Keller
No particular book of the Bible is a full blown apologetical work. The closest thing, according to scholars on apologetics in the Bible, are the works of Luke - the books of Luke and Acts. Of course Paul was an avid practitioner of apologetics (most notably Acts 17 and 1 Cor 15), but never provides a full apologetic.
Jesus is the foremost apologist in the Bible. Think of the reports of those who came to believe. It was through the experience of miracles and so they came to believe. For others, it was the parables that brought clarity to who God is and faithful interpretation of His word when it was convoluted by the Scribes and Pharisees. He fulfilled prophecy. The things He did and said overflowed with apologetics. Its easy to gloss over in discussions on contextual teaching and images, engaging in theological issues of the day, and correcting of the interpretation of the Law. Jesus used apologetics to bring clarity, offer correction, and provide evidence of who He is and what He was about.
It is my hope that in future application of apologetics, it will be seamless for us as Jesus applied it.
Historically, apologetics has always been a part of the work of the church. Defending the gospel to Jews and Gentiles in the early church was the work of apologetics. Apologetical work continued in facing other cultures and situations which continue to this day in engaging Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and secularism. In addition, it has engaged tough questions in regards to science, philosophy, and history. Sometimes it went very well, other times not so well.
It is noteworthy that apologetics experienced an age of decreased popularity due to multiple factors of poor execution, little development, and ignored/dismissed by popular theologians, particularly in the 20th Century. We are coming back into a time where, I think, apologetics is as important as in any age and needs to be robust in its development and practice. I believe this is particularly important in an America that is post-modern, post-truth, and increasingly post-Christian (take your pick).
Lastly, John Wesley utilized apologetics. Wesley engaged the issues of his time and engaged in verbal and written debates/discussions on the issues of his time. For example, because of Wesley's engagement with Calvinists and the question of free will, we now have "Wesleyan Arminianism" in regards to the debate on free will and predestination.
"Wesley used logic to tear down the positions of his opponents while building up his own arguments for foundational Christianity and theological distinctives, such as “Christian Perfection.” No one can seriously read the works of John Wesley without encountering John Wesley the apologist." (Brooks St. Clair Morton)
Professor of Evangelism and President of the Charles Wesley Society Paul Wesley Chilcote described John Wesley:
"... in fact, one of the most able Christian apologists (or defenders of the faith) in the so-called Age of Reason, when dynamic, living faith fell prey to either arid rationalism or unbridled emotionalism" (Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision, 76).
2. It is part of the holiness journey.
I think we can be so focused on the heart and the experience of feelings that we forget the mind sometimes. Yes, as Methodists we talk about the Wesleyan understanding of combining the head, the heart, and the hands, but again, I think we struggle with the "head" part of that equation.
Romans 12:1 says that we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. I think D.L. Moody put it nicely when he said, "The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar." This includes the mind, especially since verse two says to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so we can know and test what God's will is.
Consider how your thoughts impact what you feel about something. If you know something is true this impacts your passion in your heart for that which is true. If you are also convinced of something that is true, it determines or influences your actions. If you are convinced in your mind, you are more apt to live out that which you are convinced AND have a passion for. Perhaps some people struggle with the passion part of faith because they are not truly convinced that Jesus is who He says He is. Maybe others do not live out their faith for the same reason.
Paul says in Philippians 4:7 to guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. And Ephesians 4:23 says that as we put on the new self we are also made new in the attitude of our minds.
Our minds are impacted by salvation and will experience renewal in following Jesus. We do not, as some non-Christians accuse, check our brains at the door. Unfortunately, many Christians do when they believe and do not seek understanding in what they said yes to, or what Scripture says.
Here’s a common objection you may have encountered: Isn’t apologetics only for academics and intellectuals? The short answer is no. Here’s why. Everyone has questions—you do, your kids do, your friends and neighbors do, your family does, and our culture certainly does. It’s that simple. We will either think carefully or poorly about these questions, but the questions themselves cannot be avoided. Secondly, if Christianity is true, then it speaks to all of life. It doesn’t get more ‘everyday’ than that (1 Pet. 3:15). – Jonathan Morrow (from, Isn’t apologetics only for academics and intellectuals?)
Although, I am spending time on the mind part of this, please note, it is ALL connected. Faith located only in the mind, or only in the heart, or just some activity does not coincide with the work of the Holy Spirit leading to us all truth and the process of sanctification that impacts all of life and every part of our being.
The marketplace of ideas has expanded rapidly and its everywhere - home, schools, and of course, the internet. The whole gambit of ideas and perspectives are available and must be sifted through in order to discern what is honest to accurate to misunderstood to willful misrepresentation.
This means Christian beliefs need to be clarified. The UMC is currently, I believe, divided among several areas of theology. This includes sexuality, biblical authority, relation to politics, and I increasingly think on theological definitions of grace, love, and morality. These are questions everyone is dealing with, from theologians and scholars in academia to pastors and laity in the local churches.
Why this is important in regards to holiness is that what we believe on such matters impacts whether we are following Jesus or our own made-up idea of Jesus. If the author of Romans is right that the renewing of our minds will help discover and test what the will of God is, then apologetics can be the arena that could help work theological and doctrinal issues before we get to and spend time and money on combative General Conferences, specialized legislation, calls for resistance or forming caucus groups.
Personally, when I think of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I think of apologetics. As scripture is the foundation, we use reason, tradition, and experience to help us in our theological task. In our current Book of Discipline it states, "Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason" (Par. 105, pg 82). I would argue that this task we take on as Methodists is also an apologetical task of which is to test, defend, and explore our doctrines.
The current conflict in the UMC has revealed to me that Methodists have much in common, but also in many areas less in common that creates confusion on what Methodists believe and how that impacts our walk with Christ towards holiness AND our witness to share what we believe to non-believers. Please do not mistake my thought as a call for total uniformity. What I suggest is that since we did not work some things out doctrinally, the "big tent" got too big and began to include things that shouldn't be in the tent.
3. It is a multipurpose tool.
Apologetics has many applications.
It is primarily thought of in the practice of evangelism, where you provide convincing proofs or arguments for the Christian faith. I hope that the previous point and throughout you see that this tool is also to equip and support the faith of Christians.
It is not limited to one-size-fits-all answers or applications. People know when they getting "canned" or pre-packaged answers to their questions. What I have enjoyed about my own apologetical journey is that it has required me to wrestle personally with the questions people have. It is tempting to remember a set of answers to questions or challenges, but I think Christian love should compel us to wrestle ourselves and walk with people through questions and answers. Ravi Zacharias I think puts well that we do not answer questions but we answer questioners. A set of loaded answers to questions, even if right, can do an injustice to those struggling with their own questions when we are not genuine and walking with them.
Apologetics is a tool that requires the Christian to better understand their faith. Again, its not about arguments but also knowing the Bible, what the doctrines of the church are, and how what Christians believe relates to the world. Questions of history, science, philosophy among other areas are encountered everyday and our children encounter in schools. Faith does and should include critical thinking to make sure what we believe is real.
When well-meaning brothers or sisters in Christ offer the “that’s too intellectual” challenge, first ask them what it means to be “too intellectual.” For most Christians, any talk of reason or the intellect is too intellectual. Remind them that Jesus commands us to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37) and that the mind is key to our transformation (Rom. 12:2). Second, point out to them being too intellectual is definitely not the problem for 95% of Christians. Instead, our problem is we have abandoned the intellect altogether. This is clear from the language we use. Finally, warn them that if we don’t change, we will continue to lose 60-70% of our Christian students to the pseudo-intellectuals on their college campus. —Brett Kunkle
As briefly alluded to earlier, apologetics aids in evangelism. It helps break down barriers to get to the evangelistic proclamation and ask. No one is argued into faith, but it helps evangelism use different ways to help reach non-believers. McGrath's analogy of removing the curtain would apply here. What many do not know is that along with philosophical arguments and historical evidences, apologists also look to the arts utilizing story, art, and poetry as means to evangelize or illustrate the beauty of our faith.
What I found in my research was that there were also many ways to do apologetics. What I also found was that many schools and teachers taught a combinational approach because everyone's needs and reasons are different. Intellectual types will love those like William Lane Craig. History nerds like myself will enjoy the work of Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell. Some will like a multi-pronged approach of a Ravi Zacharias. Others will find ease in connecting in laughter with Michael Ramsden. Stories of those like Nabeel Qureshi and Rifqa Bary many will find powerful. Some need a confrontational approach like with David Wood.
The ultimate tool of apologetics is love followed by the way we live out our faith. The Greatest Commandment includes loving God with our whole mind. It includes loving others through our deeds and actions. They may not agree, but we cannot withhold sharing our faith if we truly love others and do it in a loving way.
Just make sure it’s your ideas that offend and not you, that your beliefs cause the dispute and not your behavior. – Greg Koukl
4. It demands integrity
Apologetics does not allow for a lot of pretension. In defense of his ministry the apostle Paul states, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Ultimately, apologetics points people to our hope, Jesus Himself. That’s why “we demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
Objections raised against Jesus must be demolished. But notice something. The Bible doesn’t say we demolish people. Rather we demolish arguments. Belittling others is not our goal. Merely winning arguments is not enough. Instead, we remove obstacles of doubt to Christianity so people can take a serious look at Christ, the only source of hope for this world. True apologetics is hopeful. —Bret Kunkle (From the article, What Is Apologetics: Arguing Evangelism
This means that every thing must undergo scrutiny. It also means that you cannot fudge the process or results.
As we have seen today many Christians have mistakenly or intentionally adopted beliefs or practices that are contrary to the gospel and try to defend it in their own version of Christianese or manipulation of biblical texts. Apologetics will test such conclusions that provide the deepness of study of scholars, but also (if done correctly) provide accessibility to those in the pews.
Whole apologetical presentations will have to face the test of others. You cannot be a jerk - Christian love within the discussion will, and should, be part of building trust while in discussion/debate. Evidence will be verified. Arguments will be dissected. Clarifying questions will be asked. Challenges and counterarguments will come.
This is a good thing!
Political maneuvers will have no room. You can't threaten to throw amendments in the way until the monster trucks come rolling in. The discussion is ongoing. No Robert's Rules of Order are obstructing good, healthy, and necessarily lengthy dialogue. Platitudes will not be enough. Emotional appeals will be incomplete - remember its holistic: head, heart, and hands.
It keeps us honest. It keeps the academy and the church engaging in the marketplace of ideas with good, faithful representation. Apologetics will also support keeping those faith conversations that take place in churches, coffee shops, and dinner tables connected. It will keep us from taking our faith, and thus, Jesus for granted. It will also keep us proactive instead of being reactionary to theological disagreements, cultural issues and towards other worldviews. We will have to clarify the definitions of the words we use so to prevent misunderstanding and misrepresentation - and give the benefit of the doubt. Questions, not accusations, are key.
Peter did say with gentleness and respect.
5. It engages the next generation and changing world
Due to the increased abilities of travel and the instantaneous access to information at our fingertips and in our pockets, the world is changing faster than in previous generations. This means that we and the generations to follow will live in a deluge of information.
If our culture is to be transformed, it will happen from the bottom up – from ordinary believers practicing apologetics over the backyard fence or around the barbecue grill. – Chuck Colson
The evidence that the church was not ready for the post-modern 21st Century is evident across the campuses and churches across the country. Relativism and the pluralistic belief that all worldviews are the same swept our country. Many do not understand that the similarities are peripheral but the foundations are different.
People naturally experience doubt, but we can be unaware on how to respond. Barna has done research on this and found that of Christians who experience doubt - 45% stop going to church, 29% stop reading the Bible, 29% stop praying, and 25% stop talking about faith to family and friends (Barna, Two-Thirds of Christians Face Doubt)
From the same study, Barna found that in general Christians who doubted, 53% came out stronger because they asked honest questions about their faith. This number is much higher for evangelicals, practicing Christians, and active church attenders. But what is most telling, and why apologetics is needed in the pews. Of those who doubted 40% went to family and friends, only 22% went to their church and 18% went to their pastor (another issue to explore later!).
From my other research I have discovered the greatest impact on kids in regards to their faith are their parents. I cannot remember if someone else said it but I keep telling parents that "Children inherit the priority systems of their parents." Children are more apt to develop spiritually from their parents and grandparents leading before the pastor. This why I am appreciative of new apologetical resources aimed at parents to help have those conversations with their kids.
What this tells me is that churches, pastors, and parents need to up their game. The church drop out rate of teens and young adults is up to 64% and only 10% of Millennials have a resilient faith (Barna, https://www.barna.com/research/resilient-disciples/).
Apologetics is not the cure all, but I believe it is something we need to add resiliency and effectiveness to equipping current disciples and reaching non-Christians and the next generation.
A robust Methodist apologetic would be able to help answer basic questions like "Why is Christianity true?" It would engage in tough questions on the presence of evil or "What is the meaning of life?" It would provide organized resources to discuss and defend a biblical understanding with social issues like sexuality. An organized Methodist apologetic could also address "Why Methodism?" creating an explanation why practicing our Christian faith in the Methodist tradition is best.
The questions are many, but those dedicated to address those questions seem too few.
Practically speaking, my imagination runs wild with ideas on how persons, teams, conferences, with seminaries could make this a reality. There are many apologetics ministries out there and more seminaries are providing apologetics classes. However, most that I have found are attached to or have a flavor of other Christian traditions. Its time for Methodists to shake the dust off of this important tool God gave us and use it.