A World Marked By the Love of God
John H. Armstrong
A student of mine, for a final paper in a course on apologetics, wrote the following:
At this point, the church has a few different responses that she can take with the shifting realities of culture and public life. One response would be to ignore these realities. While this may seem plausible to some, it is theoretically impossible to responsibly engage the context in which it finds itself through such a response. Another response would be to attempt to reverse the process. This is an attempt to reestablish Christianity as the dominant religion in the world. However, this response seems to be met with a solution of militancy and even violence. The third response is to embrace what God might be doing in our culture. If our world is already marked by God's love, then it seems that the only responsible reaction to this cultural shift is to accept this and give it positive meaning and direction. It's a response that favors using the context to communicate the Christian faith in a way that the context can hear it. The task of apologetics is to embrace this context and respond.
If this is a world marked by the love of God (cf. John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9, 10) then observing and interpreting culture, and inviting wholehearted response to the God who loves the world, is always an appropriate goal for Christians. As I have attempted to show, this is where my apologetic originates.
Rethinking the Attractional Model of Mission
Most churches in the West were afforded a long-term historical context in which they could use various programs and ministries to invite non-Christians to come to their ministries and churches to join them. This produced everything from "seeker" churches to mass-evangelism. Generally speaking, people came. Sometimes, when Christianity was still a majority religion, they even came in large numbers. This all began to change about 25 years ago. This model can no longer produce the fruit it once bore. Now it seems to draw Christians from one congregation to another, but rarely does it reach the genuinely non-religious, the fastest growing category in our mission field. (I realize that there are still those rare places where this approach works, but time and continual change will eventually reach into these places too. Many of the more effective mega-churches are quickly and correctly adapting to this new reality.)
What I believe is called for is a new approach, an approach rooted in the missional mindset. The word missional is derived from the missio Dei, or the mission of God. As the Father sent the Son (John 20:21) so we, as God's people, are now being sent as a people (in our shared life together) to be his divine mission in the world. If we are missional people then the apologetic we need must be a missional apologetic. To grasp this we need to understand that there is a certain quality about this "sentness" in John's Gospel that requires us to engage apologetics as a community, not privately. Traditionally, we have understood apologetics as the work of individuals making various arguments with their friends in one-on-one contexts. Or, even worse yet, we think of apologetics as the work of a professional philosopher who debates non-Christians so they can demolish the arguments we cannot handle on our own.
Missional apologetics sees all of this very differently. (This term is not specifically mine. I was using it for several years before I discovered that others were doing the same.) Missional apologetics recognizes that God has called the church to be a living community of relationships where the lived arguments for faith flow out of the life that we share together. Missional apologetics relies on the gospel lived and taught. It does not decry powerful preaching and teaching but it says these are not enough. It is, if the truth is seen, an apologetics that looks more like what we see in the story of the New Testament itself.
Missional apologetics is also a dynamic engagement. It seeks to listen and ponder the questions people are actually asking now, not the ones they once asked in an earlier time. Missional apologetics believes that the answers to people's questions are generally discovered in the mysteries of the Christian metanarrative (big story) as this story is lived out in Christ-centered churches. Missional apologetics also requires us to learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit's direction in our conversations and human relationships so that we truly believe that each person is someone loved by God and precious to their Creator. To listen well will take more grace and disciplined practice. Too many of us want instant response. Even fewer of us have the disciplined practice, since very few of our churches are geared to the actual people who are outside our own religious culture.
For some years my favorite primer on postmodern apologetics has been a little book with the title, A Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995). Written by teacher and missiologist J. Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), this book is a small treasure of only 110 pages. I have read it many times and highly recommend it to everyone. I make it a required text when I teach apologetics. Newbigin rightly concluded that "we are invited to respond to a word of calling by believing and acting, specifically, by becoming a part of the community which is already committed to the service of the Builder" (A Proper Confidence, 66). Missional apologetics has confidence in the gospel lived out, not in mere human arguments.
What I think Newbigin means in this statement is not hard to grasp if we take the time to think about it. In John 1:35-50 those who followed Jesus invited people to "come and see" the one who had transformed their lives. This invitation is very different from the older way, a way which said, "Go and see." This "come and see" response focuses upon communal involvement and active participation in the life of Christ. This response is comfortable with processing new ideas and seeing old things in entirely different ways. It allows for doubt but it leads to lifelong learning and deep personal trust in the God who reveals himself.
We learn in the Scripture that when people "come and see" the process is just beginning. People's questions are never answered all at once. In fact, people only grow within relationships as they interact with Jesus and other Christ followers. But as they go along in this journey of faith their questions often change! "What does it mean to truly follow this one who is the Lord of all?" "How do I live a life that is radically opposed to the consumerism of my culture?" "How do I lean into my deepest questions in a way that pushes me to Jesus day after day?"
Belonging and Believing
My colleague, Dr. Rick Richardson, has written a helpful book called ReImagining Evangelism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2006). In his book Rick observes what so many of us have experienced in the missional apologetical context: "Belonging comes before believing." A person comes and sees and then they begin to understand. They observe us, our actions and convictions, and choose to believe and follow the same Christ that we love. It is thus helpful to always keep in mind this John 1 story. The disciples of Jesus invited others to come and see. They invited people to go beyond their questions, to enter into the actual missional story being lived out. If I could put this in a modern way I would say they invited their friends to use reason, experience and emotion, understanding that each had a proper place in how people came to know Christ. But the primary emphasis was not on reason and certainly not on Enlightenment arguments for reason.
Some of my students, particularly those who engage college students in evangelism, tell me how they see new believers coming into the kingdom through this missional approach. One example will suffice. A student came to believe in Christ over the process of several years in a college setting. She had a strong sense of justice when she first began to seek. This drew her to an InterVarsity group on campus because she found Christians there who wanted to live out Jesus' teaching about the poor and marginalized. Though this student often argued with Christians about many points of faith, she felt welcome to keep coming with her questions. She valued the honesty that she witnessed when she met people who did not pretend to have all the answers. She listened and tried to deal with the problems she had which were associated with the exclusive claims of Jesus to be "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). My graduate student told me that when this young lady came to faith it was hard to actually tell when it finally happened. She simply moved from belonging to believing-from the darkness to the light. The proof of conversion could be seen when this student, in her senior year, was sharing the gospel by mentoring and reaching freshmen with the gospel that she had once rejected. She had belonged and now she truly believed.
Newspapers regularly report that the influence of Christians in our culture is in a state of disrepair. Much of this reporting tells a very negative story. (Such reporting is not always fair but we should not be surprised by it!) The general feeling we have is that Christians do not get a fair shake in the press. The result of this is that Christianity is increasingly seen as the least desirable of all religious options in the West. We need to be honest about this: It is what it is. And this is a major reason why the older approaches to people's misconceptions about Christianity do not work. What then are we to do?
We must engage non-Christians as friends. We must equip ourselves for unexpected conversations so we can seize opportunities to talk about being Christ followers. (Note: I use this designation on purpose. I do not refer to myself as a Christian in most conversations with non-Christians. I use the more neutral, but very biblical term: "Christ follower.") Teachers of the Christian faith must help people understand the different approaches that can be taken so we can discuss spiritual issues. People are very open to spiritual conversations. But people will ask questions that we cannot answer. The best response we can offer them is: "I do not know the answer to that." Or, "I do not know the answer but I will seek to find one and try to share it the next time we talk."
Finally, the overriding force in such an apologetic context will not be our rational arguments but our lively demonstration of Christ's love and humility. We should be informed. We should learn how to respond. But at our very best we can, and we must, love better.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 14:34-35).
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