Disconnect Between Apologetics and the Small Church

I’m always struck by the realization that apologetics is such a little known field of Christian study every time that I mention the name of an apologist that I think everyone should know to a pastor type and they just stare at me like I’m from outer space. It’s both a surprise and an epiphany when that happens. It’s surprising that the people that I listen to everyday and are so well known in apologetics circles are so undiscovered in the Christian culture. It’s an epiphany to suddenly realize that these folks are dancing on glass that’s’ cracking under their own weight and they don’t even know it.

That’s’ not to say that they don’t hear the cracking and see the fissure. Young people are leaving church after high school and not returning. The laity is concerned with what the History Channel had to say about the real Jesus. There’s considerable concession if not capitulation given to the high-pressure rhetoric of the pro LGBT push to change the Gospel. And there’s just a general uneasiness when it comes to some of the hard questions everyone has.

The problem is that most small churches haven’t put two and two together. Its’ not that they don’t care or that they aren’t willing to begin some apologetics ministry to equip their people. I believe that the main problem is that they don’t have any idea of how to approach these fissures and that there is an apologetics army growing for the purpose of helping them. The way to kind of turn the tide here would be to merely unite those churches with people in that army.

I wonder though, are those of us attempting to make this push to increase the availability of apologetics in smaller local churches just spinning our wheels?

There are two thoughts I’d like to explain.

As I began southernbyhisgrace.com last August, I really had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t proficient at using social media (I’m still not) and I had no idea how to get what I was writing in front of the people in the pews. The normal procedure I learned was to write, post to Twitter and Facebook, friend people on those platforms, and repeat. I found that I needed to write as often as I could and post as much as I my time allowed. Furthermore, to establish any real viewership, I needed help re-posting by an already established writer.

It’s been seven months of very slow growth, partly because of my start from scratch attitude. I’m not big on buying views and I began with a very meager Facebook following and no Twitter account. One of my goals was to write well enough and often enough that would provoke readers. This has given me a more pure picture of what’s going on.

The very little success that I’ve had has caused me to become aware of another problem.

As I sit and look at WordPress stats, Twitter Analytics, and Facebook insights, I’ve noticed that most of the apologetics material is only being consumed by apologists. Whether by academic or accomplished professional apologists or by lay apologists, much of the material being produced remains in the tracks of apologetics tires. Other than that, I admit that there are some churches building apologetics ministries that benefit from this plethora of material. There are those conferences that draw a few youth groups as well. But for the most part, the small (average) church remains isolated from apologetics.

The other thought I have about this actually compounds the previous observation. Most of the Church in America is made of small churches.

A study by Barna Group illuminates this.

Overall, the research found that the typical Protestant church has 89 adults in attendance during an average weekend. In total, 60% of Protestant churches have 100 or fewer adults on a typical weekend, while slightly less than 2% have 1000 or more adults. Examining the figures in terms of where adults attend, however, the statistics show that about four out of ten church-going adults (41%) go to churches with 100 or fewer adults while about one out of eight church-going adults (12%) can be found in churches of 1000 or more adults.[1]

That study is from 2003, but the stats are relatively unchanged.

A couple of interesting facts revealed by the same study are as follows.

Small churches are less likely to attract academically minded people; mid and large churches attract aggressors; mid and large size churches tend to be more conservative in their theology.

There are some questions here that need to be satisfied.

If most American Christians are attending small churches and most small churches are not engaging intellectually, then most of America’s Christians remain un-baptized in the waters of apologetics.

Although we see evidence of large churches (1000 plus) holding apologetics conferences, etc., those churches represent less than 5% of the entire Church in America.

Here are some questions that many of us in this apologetics army need to ask ourselves.

How can I help small churches begin an apologetics ministry that they can sustain both financially and logistically?

Am I willing to serve in a small church?

Is there a way to unite groups of small churches to work together for apologetics?

Are gifted people already attending a small church that I can help disciple as apologists?

The strength of the American Church probably does not reside in her mega-churches and she will need all of her strength to endure the likely persecution that is coming. Can we help equip the people who sit in the pews of the thousands of small churches in America? I hope we can find a way to bridge the disconnect between apologetics and the small church.

[1] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/126-small-churches-struggle-to-grow-because-of-the-people-they-attract#.VXtJ9-thPzI

13 Comments

  1. Don

    Having pastored several of those smaller churches in a variety of geographic areas in the USA, I can vouch that smaller churches tend to have weaker stomachs for rigorous intellectually stimulating Christianity. Because smaller churches tend to attract people with simpler lifestyles, there is less passion for the theoretical and more passion for the experiential.
    Secondly smaller congregations especially in rural America are watering holes for the aged saints whose peers have long ago committed on a path of Life. They feel no pressure to persuade thier friends or defend thier long-embraced faith.
    If pastors wish to persuade today’s young minds and hearts they must deal with the gritty issues and questions of life in a confident and respectful manner. Sermons should include arguments, reasons, guidelines, contextual applications not just carte blanche pontificating. Arguments need to be both Bible based and thorough.
    Finally, the key to a strong apologetic ministry is the pastor. If the leadership is not behind it hungry for it and engaged in it, apologetics will be DOA.

    1. Donnie

      Thanks for your input Don (great name by the way). I agree with everything you’ve said. I would only add that in my lesser experience the smaller churches I’ve attended have a slightly more diverse demographic although you’re right, their purpose seems to be geared toward elderly “watering holes”.
      I think the leadership must be in support or may even need to call and send others to begin apologetics ministries but hopefully there will be people other than the pastor willing to help with his already overloaded duties. Pastors of small churches are overworked in a way that large church pastors are not.
      I love small churches. They are the bread and butter of American Christianity. It would be a mistake to ignore them in these times.

  2. Don

    Good input. I didn’t mean to disparage small churches. I grew up in one and have attended on all my life. Small churches usually have strong bonds of fellowship which is a great selling point if outsiders are granted access.
    I thoroughly enjoy apologetics and wish my pastor now would see the need for a stronger diet of defense.

    1. Donnie

      I don’t think the truth you told disparages small churches in any way. Sometimes small churches can be very prideful about the great blessings God had uniquely blessed them. The truth is, as small church people, you and I love, are concerned for, and have a passion for their spiritual well-being.
      Let’s continue to pray for them and hopefully awaken the big C Church to their needs.
      Thanks Don for your helpful comments.

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  4. You’re playing my song, Don. Our stories are a bit similar. Several years ago, I bought a domain name, and began an effort to reach small churches with apologetics, sending out several hundred letters to churches in southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and the greater Chicago area. The respondents could have held their convention in a phone booth. I still make efforts to reach the small churches – I believe small church pastors are the unsung heroes of Christendom – and occasional opportunities still come my way. I currently am a moderator in an organization called “67,” begun to provide a forum for groups of 4-6 pastors of small churches to meet regularly for prayer, support, accountability, etc. I am blessed on a regular basis through the time spent with these men. Any suggestions are welcome. I’m on Facebook as Bill Slater Ministries.

  5. I think you asked a great question: “Are you willing to work in a small church?” My experience with many apologists and apologetically minded people is that they answer “no.” Small churches can’t host big conference. Small churches don’t have education budgets. Small churches can typically only afford the routine pastors (Senior, part-time youth, pianist, and maybe a music/children’s/everything else minister); therefore, there is no place on staff for “Associate Pastor of Apologetics.”

    It’s not everyone, but it’s common. So the small church (often rural) gets left out.

    Is it easy being an apologist pastor of a very rural church, from my present experience, absolutely not. But if they aren’t going to break out of their small church shell, the ministers are going to have to break in.

    1. Thanks Thomas for your thoughts.
      I agree that its tough getting apologists (especially well-known) to help small churches. The reasons you stated are correct many times. But I think it probably has more to do with logistics and efficiency .
      I have always been a small church guy. Its just the way it is in rural America. The problems are complicated many times. Ideally, small church apologetics would begin with the pastor, but his plate is usually full. The other teachers are usually opposed to any change because they have their own agendas. So, it falls to the person who has some passion for apologetics to push the program.
      As I have thought about this and experienced different churches and their programs though, it seems to me that there is no room for apologetics in most small churches. Pastors feel they have to preach 3 times a week. Teachers feel they have to teach the usual status quo Sunday school material. Elders and deacons don’t usually even understand what apologetics is. So, what do you do?

  6. I served 15 years as a youth pastor and am currently a Senior Pastor in a small-mid sized church in the 2nd most rural county of NC while pursuing my DMin in Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary. So I speak from much experience in this area! I started in apologetics in 2003 in Charlotte, NC, but as God kept moving me to the country, I began to see why. We are gearing up for our second annual apologetics conference in April, and it is QUITE the challenge to get big name people out. I spoke with one leading speaker, and when I asked him what it would take to bring him out, without missing a beat he said, “You probably can’t afford me.” He was wrong!

    Another pastor/apologists friend told me this, “Whenever you feel like quitting, remind yourself, you are the only out there doing what you do. If God doesn’t move you, then you are abandoning them.”

    My heart bleeds for the local church and restoration of the church. I know apologetics is not the miracle cure like people sometimes treat vitamin C, but apologetics, just like vitamin C, must be consumed in a regular healthy dose, or the body of Christ will suffer from spiritual malnourishment much like malnourishment of the physical body without the vitamin. To this in, I minister on.

  7. Good school pick, Thomas. I received my M.A.R. from SES. Maybe the answer is that God will use a 2nd tier apologist with less than a big name, but with a big heart for smaller churches and apologetics. Your efforts are spot on – please persevere. Blessings, Bill

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