When I was a new believer, the church Joy and I attended was very concerned about sound doctrine. I am still thankful today for the foundation they gave me in the Scriptures, and I draw on that regularly. I grew up as an atheist and many if not most of our friends and acquaintances at that time were non-believers. Early on, our ministry was largely outside the church, where non-believers are generally to be found. The area we lived in seemed ripe for evangelism and this little doctrinally sound church was right in the heart of it! I found, however, that I often met with resistance when I raised the issue of reaching the surrounding neighborhood with the gospel of Christ. It wasn’t that they did not careabout reaching the lost, and would happily welcome any lost people into the church, but they seemed to have plenty of ready excuses for not taking the message “out there.” It struck me that they were much like the 10 spies in Numbers 13:32-33:
So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and (E)we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.
There was of course a modification that went something like, “There are lots of people and the area is growing, but they are giants and they are all Catholic!” Their evangelism, like so many churches of the time, was largely dependent on getting non-believers to come to the church and hear the gospel. We were too young and inexperienced to really address this issue adequately, but we saw ourselves as missionaries in that “land” and over time we saw many Catholics come to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
That was also a time when our culture still had a large amount of a Christian “hang over.” By that I mean there was a general acceptance that God exists, that the Bible is fundamentally reliable, and most Americans regarded themselves as Christian, at least culturally so. It was a time when tracts like the Four Spiritual Laws and Steps to Peace with God could be used fairly easily. Apologetics was not a high priority (I did not even hear of apologetics until much later). Little did we, or the little church we attended, realize that there was a cultural tsunami on the horizon that would sweep much of our future generations out of the churches and that, over a very short time, the flood of Eastern mysticism would rock the entire Western world off of its Christian foundation. The cry-baby boomer generation, of which I am a member, challenged everything they had been raised to believe. Many abandoned the church and Christian culture and took the “Magical Mystery Tour” with the Beatles, Maharishi Mehesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. Over the past 30 years, the culture has shifted into a full blown pagan society more like the First Century Roman Empire than any other time in history between then and now. The giants have grown much bigger! If we once doubted our ability to reach Catholics with the gospel, how on Earth shall we be able to reach people who believe in moral relativism, reject the Bible, reject the exclusive claims of Christ, and in fact often do not accept that God is a personal being, rather than an impersonal force? And time marches on, pulling our culture ever further off its bearings. How do you even make a cogent argument to people who very often reject rationality, as Post-modernists do. Unfortunately, many churches have clung to the idea that evangelism happens primarily inside the church. Rather then train their people to challenge the culture, churches have too often tried to accommodate the culture in the hope that non-believers will come and accept the gospel if it is presented in a more “worldly” and inoffensive way. In these settings, the recommendation for churches with multiple staff, is that the second staff person hired should be the worship director, who can plan out a catchy theatrical service. As Bill Hybels said in his recent response to Christianity Today’s article Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift': Influential megachurch moves away from seeker-sensitive services Willow Creek’s services were designed to “reach seekers” and “thrill believers.” According to Bill:
You have to thrill believers in order to move them to a place where they see people far from God the way Jesus sees them.
The one constant that continues today is the idea that we somehow have to get non-believers into the doors of the church in order for the professional staff to get the gospel to them. Smaller local churches are in difficult straits as compared to the professional megachurch. The pastor is hard pressed to carry out his duties of study and sermon preparation, pre-marital and other forms of counseling, hospital visits, over seeing other teaching duties – much less put together a “professional” program that might impress a non-believer and convince him of his need for a savior. In addition to which, culture has changed to the point that a “professional program” doesn’t really have the same attraction it once did. People are now seeking something more “real” that the seeker services which Mega churches offer, so they are now turning to Emergent Churches which offer plenty of candles and mystery and social conscience with little gospel truth at all. These churches, which are attracting hordes of former Evangelicals, are effectually “emerging” out of Christianity altogether! Biblical illiteracy is at an all time high. Atheism has experienced a powerful resurgence, led by some very prolific atheistic evangelists for the faith in nothing at all. To sum up, believers find themselves ill-equipped for effective evangelism, yet the mission field is as it was in Jesus’ day, “white unto harvest” (John 4:35). But how do we reach non-believers with the gospel in this anti-Christ, anti-God, anti-truth, anti-gospel environment that we find ourselves in? We would do well to look back to the First Century church and take some lessons about being missionaries in a pagan culture.
We must train and equip individual believers, not just Pastors and other Christian “professionals,” to accurately and effectively handle the word of God. (2 Timothy 2:15). We must teach our people to understand the worldviews of non-believers as Paul did (Acts 17:16-34). We need to disciple believers in the faith (2 Timothy 2:2). It isn’t possible for a pastor to do all of these things and carry out all of the other duties he is expected to perform. Added to that, the growth of false teaching outside and inside the church means he cannot do all of the necessary research to address the questions which are raised. In addition, there are many other areas of the faith and Christian walk which he needs to address for a healthy local body of believers.
Churches could really benefit form having a knowledgeable apologist on staff. Churches with multiple staff should certainly have one. Apologetics is the handmaid of evangelism, and someone trained in apologetics can spend the time equipping those in the church to share the gospel with those outside the church. How does a New Ager think? What does a Jehovah’s Witness believe? Can I share the faith with a Muslim and how might they react? Is there good evidence for the existence of God? We live in a pluralistic and polytheistic culture. As Dorothy said to Toto, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore.”
Smaller churches might object that they cannot afford another staff position. That may be true, but they could band together and support an area apologist as both a missionary and an “at large” staff member and consultant to the supporting churches. This would have to be done carefully, taking into account that churches differ on some minor denominational teachings, as well as secondary issues of church polity, but if done right could be of enormous benefit to the local church. Currently there are several institutions that have excellent apologetics programs producing well trained individuals to serve the church. Evangelism happens best where non-believers already are. Training believers as missionaries will go a long way to fulfilling our ambassadorship (2 Corinthians 5:20).