People often think of a Christian apologist as the person who debates the atheist in a pre-planned stage event. The truth is, every Christian who is trying to live as a Christian in the midst of the real world, is an apologist. Surrounded by functional atheists on all sides, Christians are challenged moment by moment to simply bear witness to the reality that God is. Beyond that, Christians make the Gospel of Jesus visible and tangible as ambassadors of the King and His Kingdom amidst the kingdoms of this world. But how do we that? By becoming adept at conversational apologetics.
Most of us are never going to debate a committed atheist in a platform debate. But every single of one of us is going to engage today in a conversation with a person who is living as if God is not. Or, maybe as if they themselves are god. That’s what I call functional atheism. If you asked someone straight out if they believe in God, they will often say yes. They may even tell you the name of the church or denomination in which their family has some heritage. But saying we believe something and living a life aligned with that espoused belief are two very different things. Most people function as if God does not exist or is at least not currently concerned nor present. They function as if every decision is their own to make, according to their own desires. You can recognize a functional atheist by the frequent use of the word my. “I’m pursuing my dreams, this is my body, it’s my choice, my decision, my life, my church.”
Take a moment and consider how much we do just that! And consider what’s wrong with each one of those statements. One of the spiritual exercises I commend is to reflect and record in a journal each day “when did I catch myself functioning as an atheist today? When and where and in what conversations did I act or speak as if everything depends on me?” Turning this around we can ask, “Where and how did I fail to acknowledge that God is God, God is present, active, interested and Lord of my life?” Until I’m willing to have that conversation with myself, and the confessing conversation with the Lord in prayer that rightly follows, I am not fully equipped to engage another person about their functional atheism. Saying, “I was right where you are. I too had the tendency to think it was all up to me. But over time, as I yielded moment by moment to the reality of God’s very personal presence, His ideas, His agenda and His will, I found a peace and freedom I once only imagined.” The how question almost always follows. People want peace of mind and it comes not by giving them a piece of our mind but sharing with them the peace of the mind of Christ.
When we talk about conversational apologetics, we aren’t just talking about laying out propositional truths. Those ARE important and they certainly have their place but I find that most conversations today are about moving the rocks and tilling the soil between where people are actually living and the kinds of propositional apologetics in which many of us were trained. It is often a very long road to walk with someone in the culture today from where they’re actually living to the cosmological, ontological, and theological conversations. Between here and there is the walk to Emmaus. It is the coming alongside someone in their present crisis, confusion, disappointment and grief. Walking with them on whatever stretch of the journey they are on and echoing Jesus’ by asking, “hey, what are you talking about?”
Every step of the way, as we walk in the realities of the world with hurting, broken people, we embody the reality of an ambassador of the Kingdom of God. If you’re a Christian, that is who you are and that is why you’re here. The role of the ambassador of the Kingdom of Heaven is to enter into the cultural reality of a foreign kingdom and bear witness to the principles and person of their sovereign King. By so doing, we help other people see the present in relationship to the resurrection of Jesus and the Kingdom of God which is already but not yet.
But I don’t know what to say!
If you are protesting that you don’t know what to say. Relax, everyone feels that way. Here’s the good news: we don’t need to have an answer for everything. We only need to bear authentic witness to the hope within us. Too often we focus on ourselves – our fear, our shortcomings, our reputation. But it’s actually not about us.
Consider what Paul says about himself in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Think about that. Paul is saying that as a person who has been crucified with Christ and now enjoys the reality of resurrection under the reign of Christ who is King of all Creation and Lord of all, I literally have nothing to lose! I’m already living in the fullness of the reality of a restored relationship with the King, privileged to serve as His ambassador to others who do not yet know Him. And if that’s true then this life is not my own but Christ’s, to do with what He wants. I cannot imagine a more liberating reality! I don’t have to know it all, I just have to know Christ. I don’t have to know what to say, I just have to yield to the Spirit as a conduit of grace and truth in the world that God so loves.
In every conversation the Christian ambassador must be mindful that God knows the other person more intimately than we could ever hope to know them. God knows things about them they don’t know about themselves. Our job and responsibility in the context of every conversation, is to be the person who knows God and is willing to let ourselves be used by Him to reveal the reality of redemptive, transforming love.
How then do we prepare ourselves for this kind of conversational apologetics? We walk with God, we develop the mind of Christ on the matters of our day, and we lean on the promptings of the Holy Spirit, moment by moment. Every step you have walked on the Via Dolorosa or the road from Jericho to Jerusalem or the road to Emmaus or the road to Damascus or the Roman road has been a step of preparation for walking with someone else down the broken road they’re walking today. We must trust that our entire lives have been God preparing us for the conversations and divine appointments He has already set for us. You don’t have to know anything more than God, trusting that His grace is not only sufficient for you, but for the one with whom you walk in conversation today.
So, what’s your story?
As you consider the roads of life, what’s your story? Everybody has one and no one’s story is better nor more true than another. Your story is your story and being honest about it builds a foundation of trust upon which a conversation about God can be built. People don’t need (nor want) to know how much you know about what the Bible says, or what the theology of your church teaches about a certain moral question. People need to know God and the hope of His Kingdom. They need to know how God’s redemptive plan applies to the pain they are experiencing today. Sharing your story of redemption along your own broken road demonstrates empathy and assures the other person of your authenticity as a guide through the mire of their present circumstance.
If you think you don’t have a story…you’re wrong. Maybe you just need to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to find it. How and by whom and under what circumstances were you conceived, delivered, raised? What illnesses, deaths or disappointments did you experience along the road of life? Did you ever love someone who did not love you in return? When and where did you fail? Who were the people who ran alongside you and helped you understand in the way Philip came alongside the Ethiopian eunuch? Do you have a Mary or Martha or woman at the well or woman caught in adultery story? Or a Thomas, Peter, Paul or Timothy story? Do not sanitize your story to make yourself sound noble or better than you are. Let it be God’s story more than your own. Give Him the glory of the redemption He has granted you by grace, through faith. Acknowledge that your story is not their story, but that the pain or fear or … is similar. Connect the dots between the eternal and the everyday in ways that honor Jesus and point to Kingdom hope – not as pie in the sky, but real redemption in real time, right here and now.
People are confused about many things – that confusion comes from disorientation about who we are when disconnected from God as integrated beings. We are equipped. It’s not as hard or scary as people think. You know who you are as a person created in the image of God. You know who you are as a redeemed person in Jesus Christ. You know who you are as a citizen and ambassador of the Kingdom of Heaven. So what exactly do we have to fear in the context of a conversation with someone who does not know who they are, where they have come from, why they are here or where they are going. You know all those things about yourself. So why do you think they have the upper hand in the conversation?
Remember: The Gospel is God’s redemptive plan that covers the whole scope of history. It is what He is up to in all of life and for all eternity. And that good news is for all people in all places under every circumstance. Jesus isn’t just for you and me – He’s for God. And as we follow Him, so too are we. Good questions to ask as I head out into the world that God so loves:
- Do I love the world as God loves the world?
- Do I have a heart broken for the things that break the heart of God?
- Do I have the Father’s eyes on the people and problems of my day?
- Do I genuinely want to see people redeemed and I do recognize the role and responsibility I have as a deployed agent of God’s grace, on His mission, to advance gospel always and in all ways?
What if they have lots of difficult questions?
We need to be comfortable not being the answer man. We can say, “You are asking really great questions. Let’s settle in on one of those and really talk about it.” If they refuse to engage in meaningful conversation about one question at a time and refuse to see that conversation to its logical conclusion, you must discern when it is time to disengage. As God reminds us in 2 Timothy 2:23, “have nothing to do with foolish arguments or senseless controversies which others are using to breed quarrels.” If you discern that it would be best to disengage, then follow the Spirit’s lead and depart in peace.
What is the goal of the conversation?
Do not allow yourself to be burdened by the idea that you have to seal the deal and get a confession in any one conversation. No one conversation is “the” conversation. These are conversations we have as we go into all the world making disciples. Conversational apologetics isn’t about any one conversation but about engaging conversationally as an agent of God’s grace and Kingdom in every conversation.
So, how are you actively doing that? In the grocery store, picking kids up at soccer, on the airplane, in the waiting room at the hospital, on the courthouse steps, in the park, at the beach. Even as idly sitting, how are you an ambassador of Jesus Christ in that moment a representative of the kingdom of God? How are you bringing the eternal to the everyday? The headlines are full of fodder for this. In conversational apologetics, we use what God is providing through what people are already talking about. You are not introducing actual topics, you are using what people are already talking about.
I was recently at the Publix Deli Counter getting some soup. An older man behind the counter was looking like his joy had been stepped all over. I said, “Did you make this soup?” He looked at me like I was weird. I said, “Thank you so much for making this soup. I am blessed by this, I didn’t have time to make a lunch today.” He said I was the first person who talked to him that day. I put down the soup and looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t know where you are on all things spiritual, but I recognize in you a person made in the image of God who is laboring today to meet the needs of others. I prayed for God to give us this day our daily bread. You are God’s grace to me in that.” Even if you are speaking to a fellow Christian, you are encouraging them to remember who they are when the world has been stomping all over their Imago Dei.
Not every conversation will end with a re-focused life or a prayer to receive Christ. Often, it is more like pre-evangelism. It’s all the work that has to be done to an untended, littered, parched, weedy patch of earth prior to actually planting a garden. We need to be prepared to walk with them the distance from where they are to where the conversation that’s directly about God begins. But each conversation is an opportunity to bear witness to the reality of what it is like to walk through this life as a child of God, as a recipient of His grace, mercy and love, as a fully redeemed, accepted, and treasured individual with an eternal future – and to invite others to catch a glimpse of that reality.