In case you are wondering, this is not a post in which I am going to bash the church. Far from it. I love the church. But I am going to point out a “weakness” that we urgently need to address (see Proverbs 27:6).
How can I claim that Christians are so insecure? For the past decade, I have been role-playing an atheist at camps, conferences, churches, and other Christian events. I have done this in youth groups of ten students and in stadiums up to six thousand people. And I have done my role-play with parents, youth pastors, businessmen, and a variety of other groups from a myriad of denominations. During the presentation, I put on my “atheist glasses,” do my best to make the case for atheism, and then have two volunteers take microphones out into the audience so people can raise questions and challenges. People typically ask questions about morality, the origin of the universe, and evolution. And I simply respond back with the answers many of my atheist friends have given me.
Inevitably, people tend to get defensive, agitated, and quite upset. In fact, after the role-play is over, I often ask the audience to use individual words to describe how they treated me and “hostile” is one of the most common responses. Sure, there are undoubtedly people who are gracious and kind. But, in my experience it’s the exception to encounter a Christian who can engage the “atheist” both thoughtfully and graciously. Even though people know I am merely role-playing, I have had people call me names, yell at me across the room, walk out, and even threaten me—seriously!
This experience has caused me to ask the following question for some time: why do we Christians get so defensive? There can certainly be a variety of issues, but as I write in A New Kind of Apologist, there is one pressing reason we often overlook: Most Christians do not know what they believe and why. As a result, when I push back on their beliefs as an “atheist,” many get defensive.
It is human nature to get defensive when someone challenges us and we’re ill equipped to respond. If we really haven’t thought through how we know the Bible is true, why God allows evil and suffering, and how to reconcile science and faith, then when someone presses us to explain our beliefs, we have two options: admit we don’t know the answer, which takes humility, or get defensive. In reality, many Christians get defensive because they simply don’t have thoughtful answers to these big questions.
I don’t write this blog from a position of higher ground. I have fallen short many times in my interactions with non-Christians. Trust me, this post comes from my own frequent shortcomings. But I have seen firsthand the confidence training in apologetics brings to the church as a whole and students in particular.
Training in apologetics is especially important today because we find ourselves, as a church, increasingly at odds with the wider culture. If you believe the Bible is true, especially on issues related to sexuality, then you may find yourself getting tagged as hateful, intolerant, bigoted, and homophobic. We simply cannot respond with defensiveness. Rather, we must respond truthfully, but with kindness and charity. As the Apostle Paul wrote:
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6).
Sure, some people learn apologetics and become haughty. There’s no question about that! But the problem is not with apologetics per se, but that it is often not coupled with grace. Here’s the bottom line: we Christians often get defensive because we don’t really know why we believe what we believe. If we want to be confident ambassadors of the faith, who can interact with both kindness and substance, we must get training in apologetics.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
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