What does it take to be a Christian apologist? Most apologists will turn immediately to 1 Peter 3:15 and note that we are called to be ready to make a defense for the hope that is within us. Yes. But the context of that half-verse tells us more. St Peter says:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:13-16 ESV)
St Peter assumes here that believers are in a hostile environment, and may well suffer for their faith. For Christians in the modern West, that doesn’t mean imprisonment and death (though we should note that for Christians elsewhere today, it very well might), but rather a workplace or social environment that is indifferent or hostile to the Christian faith.
Sometimes it is indeed necessary to speak up directly, with the possibility (or inevitability) of losing one’s job, or not getting promoted, or being shut out of a social group. So be it – and St Peter tells us not to fear, or to be troubled.
But in the day to day work of apologetics in the public square, St Peter has other words for us: he instructs us to be prepared to give an answer to those who ask for a reason for our hope.
One of the wisest statements about apologetics that I have ever heard comes from Dr. John Mark Reynolds. I heard him say this in a talk probably about five years ago now, and it’s stuck with me ever since: “We need to answer the questions people have, not the ones we think they should have.”
If we just start foisting our awesome apologetics answers on people before they ask, we might be overlooking the questions they really do have.
Surely, you might say, we can create situations in which people are more likely to ask.
Well, sure. If nobody knows you’re Christian, certainly no one will ask you a question. But most people are more observant than one might think. If your faith is an integral part of your life, you will eventually show in in some small way that you are a Christian, and the people who notice it will remember. Trust me on this one: just because no one comments on it doesn’t mean they haven’t filed it away for future reference.
Patience is especially important in a hostile environment like the arts or (in my experience) a secular English department at a college. In that situation, we’re not talking about nominal cultural-Christians, or agnostics, but people who have a serious anti-Christian agenda and a boatload of bias. In that environment, it is a major witness for the faith just to be a Christian who is also a competent co-worker and an intelligent human being.
Remember that the media stereotypes Christians as being sanctimonious, in the habit of spouting Bible verses every other sentence, and irritatingly pushy about converting people. If you are not like that, but instead are the kind of person whom others look up to, and respect, as a colleague, an employee, a boss, a neighbor – then you are issuing a challenge to unbelievers. A Christian life well lived can create the kind of dissonance for unbelievers that may lead them, down the road, to ask the important questions.
To try to push the issue sooner may very well undermine rather than move forward their willingness to think about Christianity.
While you’re at it, you may find that people do ask you questions, but they don’t seem like important questions – they’re not about the problem of evil, or whether the Bible is reliable, or so on. It might be something you think is irrelevant – but it’s important for the person who’s asking.
Answer the question – and hold back on the information-dump of all the things you wish that person had asked about. One question about Christianity is just that, one question — not a signal to Unleash the Apologetics Hounds.
Let him follow up if he wants to – let him go home and think about it if he wants to. We apologists tend to underestimate how much time it takes to really think through these important ideas.
And in the meantime – all of us who are apologists are also called to the long, hard work of growing in our own faith, becoming more like Christ, and loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. For if we are to be the kind of witness to Christ who provokes people to ask us the reason for our hope, then we must not just know about Christ, but know him, ever more fully and deeply.
Part 1 of this series, “Introvert Edition”
Part 2 of this series, “Introverts, Extroverts, and the Stewardship of Time and Talent”
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.