The more I consider how important it is that my small, local church engage our community in a meaningful way, the more daunting the task becomes. The closer I get to moving our adult apologetics class toward real conversations with real people who have real questions, the more I sense anxiety building. The more I bounce the question of “how” should we seek to engage, the farther away I get from an answer. The deeper our class gets into learning how to give an answer to those folks who may ask us about the hope we have in Christ, the greater the pushback on the intellectual nature of the training. As I consider these things and other issues, the more convinced I become of one thing. Apologetics must interrupt small church complacency.
As I mentioned in my previous article Defending Christ in a Small Church, there are dynamics or obstacles if you will, that make having a robust evangelistic/apologetic ministry difficult. Small churches, especially those in agrarian communities have unique characteristics that are largely neglected by authors and parachurch ministries whose focus are the Church at large. There is wisdom to be gleaned from their ministries and books. There’s little doubt of that. But, many times ministries like TGC are very good at making pastors and teachers aware of problems without giving contextual specific solutions except for large, metropolitan churches. Often these wise folks highlight an itch that’s impossible for the pastor in a small rural church to scratch.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these big-name ministers necessarily have malicious intent. I think it’s quite the contrary. Their goal is to focus the Church, en masse, on gospel centered ministry. They are attempting to create the greatest amount of reform by reforming what they see as the culturally relevant churches in the cradle of the ethos. I think they are on the right track. The problem lies, in my humble opinion, in where they believe the culture exists. To be more specific, their mistake (forgive my brashness) is in the assumption that there is an “American” culture per se. That specific idea is a common error. There are many cultures within the United States and each have their own specific set of characteristics in which local churches must exist as gospel driven, neighbor loving, cultural shaping, citadels with complete fidelity to Jesus of Nazareth.
There are commonalities cultures share. New England, the South, the Midwest, West, and Northwest are each very distinct with subcultures even more diverse. But we know a few things to be true of each of them. Each is fallen and in their own way contending against God. The corruption manifests itself differently depending upon its cultural context. Each local church must fulfill the above description within its cultural context.
“as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”” (Romans 3:10–12, ESV)
Loving our neighbor with our minds
There is no way to accomplish that apart from loving God with every ounce of our minds. We must have full confidence in him because he has shown himself to be trustworthy.
The evidence is clear. The problem is insurmountable. The cultures and the people who exist in them are too fallen. They hate Jesus and reject God. All of them have “turned away”. None of them are true “seekers”. Yet, our duty is to be ambassadors within their culture. We are truth-bearers waiting on God who we know brings real change.
So, what can folks who exist in a small rural church, have a passion for reform, want to love their real neighbors and engage their own culture do to move their local fortress out into their community. I’m afraid the answer will disappoint you…
Begin to practice apologetics IN that small rural church!
Apologetics in pulpit.
Let’s get one thing straight before someone accuses me of something I’m not saying. The pulpit is not the place for an apologetics ministry. Preaching is not that kind of thing. The pulpit is reserved for the regular exposition of God’s Word. It is the place where the whole counsel of God is to be exclaimed to God’s people. It is the feeding of the sheep. But, one cannot be faithful to preaching if apologetics is not practiced in their sermons.
Please understand what I AM saying. There is no way to faithfully exposit the writings of the New Testament or the Old and neglect apologetics. There it is! I said it!
Jesus was a master logician and apologist who presented himself as the Son of God by giving evidence and making arguments. The Apostles and New Testament writers made it clear who they believed Jesus to be by giving arguments and evidence from their experiences of miracles, Resurrection, and the prophecies of old. The Old Testament is at its very core a defense for the faithfulness of God.
Do your duty
Don’t make the pulpit into an apologetics bully pulpit, but don’t neglect your duty as a foreteller of truth by leaving out a clear defense for what you preach. Don’t assume the people in the pews believe you. Most of them don’t and the ones who say they do aren’t convinced enough to take a second look at what you’ve preached. To many, your sermon was a mere therapeutic lecture. You must convince them that what you preach is uniquely given to them as the message from God Almighty. Martin Lloyd-jones called preaching “logic on fire”. He was correct. Preaching that is mere fire burns out by 12:45 at the nearest Mexican restaurant. Preaching that is mere logic is vanity and has no power or authority.
The people of God need you to be convincing. Much of that is done through apologetics.
Apologetics in the classroom.
If your church has no apologetics training, get some. If you are reading this and saying to yourself that you wish someone would begin an apologetics class in your church, stop it. Go get trained so that you can equip others. Stop waiting on a book to come out or your pastor to do it. He is busy and there are more books on apologetics than you can read in a lifetime.
If the people or leadership in your church resist apologetics, pray about it and keep asking. Your first task as an apologist will probably be your most difficult. You must convince them that the people of God have been commanded to be ready to give a defense for the hope they have. You must be patient but persistent. Apologetics is scary to some. Anti-intellectualism still reigns in many small rural churches. Quiet their fear. Make your case. Wait prayerfully and argue biblically.
If you begin an apologetics class, don’t be disappointed. Some people will be excited and lose interest, be intimidated by the material, or be interested at all. That’s okay. You need to remain focused on the task. Teaching is convincing someone of truth. Love your people well enough to be patient. Take your job serious enough to find ways to relay apologetic material in a way that is both interesting and compelling. You are the teacher. Teach.
Apologetics in between the pews.
Before you can ever get outside the walls, you will probably need to do some housekeeping. By housekeeping I mean that idea that Jesus had about getting the log out of your eye applied to your local church. It’s hard to justify going out into your community to do the work of defending the Faith when there are likely folks sitting in the pews who do not believe. They don’t believe the gospel, Jesus rose from the dead, or the Bible is really God’s Word. Some of them don’t even believe God exists. Yep. It’s true.
Now, here is another true statement. In most churches with 100 people or less those people who don’t believe are not a secret to the rest. But they have not been engaged in any meaningful way by the others.
Let me ask you a question. How many conversations about the things that matter most do you know of that have taken place between believers in your church and non-believers who regularly attend your church? My guess is none. Do you think that’s okay? Do you think that it is hypocritical to go outside the church to have these conversations but neglect to have them inside your church? The answer is clear. No.
Apologetics must be practiced between the pews to establish a pattern of loving your neighbor. How can you say that you love your neighbor if you haven’t loved the neighbor who sits beside you every Sunday? You can’t.
I’m going to be honest for a moment (not that I haven’t been). These are not the answers for every small rural church. I don’t know the answers for your church. I know this though. We must start somewhere. Small rural churches must find their own answers. Someone should begin thinking and yes, writing about these things so that we can begin to put our heads together. Small churches need to begin networking in their communities to engage their particular needs with the gospel. We need to think local and act local.
It would be easy to ignore community engagement. It would be easy to stay inside our little sanctuaries and neglect a proper defense of Jesus. We are comfortable there. But, apologetics must interrupt small church complacency. That’s probably a good place to begin.