NOTE: In September, Brian Auten's apologetics uber-site apologetics315 began publishing a series of blog essays on initiating apologetic ministries in your local church. The series concluded yesterday, with a final essay by yours truly on intentionally apologetic preaching. I have posted below the longer version of the essay publishing on apologetics315 - it's really the same essay with an introductory illustration. Brian has also compiled and published a very helpful list of apologetics resources - copy and paste the link below to find some great material. Included on that page are links to the e-book and i-tunes versions of the essay series. I hope you find that helpful - and enjoy the essay on intentionally engaging skeptics in your preaching.
Preaching to the Choir? Intentionally Apologetic Sermon Preparation
Once upon a time there lived a man named James. James was a committed non-Christian, having been convinced since his early teen years that Christianity was nothing more than a wishful delusion foisted upon the unthinking masses of illiterate medieval Europeans. James married Vivian, a similarly free-thinking spirit who had repudiated the Baptist fundamentalism of her WW2-era parents. James and Vivian enjoyed twelve years of marital bliss before the unthinkable tragedy shattered the tranquility of James’ humanist skepticism – Vivian converted to Christianity. And not just any wishy-washy airy-fairy Christianity either, but a robust evangelical faith. It seems a couple of Vivian’s co-workers had been slipping her brainwashing pills at lunch, and feeding her fundamentalist propaganda. Over time, Vivian succumbed to their wily ways, began attending their church, and was even baptized as a professing Christian. Of course, the inevitable insult followed: Vivian begged James to come to church with her, and cried continually every time that James refused to come. Whether it was NASCAR, the NFL, or golf, there was always something better to do than waste precious hours of this mortal life hearing the irrelevant drivel offered up by theological tyrants thundering from their oaken pulpits.
Eventually, James got tired of hearing his wife cry herself to sleep at night; he was wearied by the incessant tears she shed when he cracked open his first beer of the day as she put on her makeup in preparation for Sunday morning ‘worship’. One Saturday night, in a moment of weakness after several moments of marital ecstasy, James capitulated, and unthinkingly consented to accompany his beloved (but delusional) wife to Center Street Presbyterian Church in Midland, Indiana.
Morning dawned with the sun gloriously peeking through the mid-September haze to brilliantly illuminate dewdrops on James’ immaculately manicured front lawn. An exquisite day; indeed, a perfect day to … go to church for the first time since his great-grandmother’s funeral twenty years earlier. James had the serious misgivings of a man who has sobered up and now wonders what he did and said the night before. But, being a man of his word, and a loving husband to boot, James reluctantly shaved his two-day stubble, adorned himself with crisply-ironed slacks and a blue polo shirt, and drove to Center Street. After finding one of the increasingly-scarce parking spots in Center’s ‘Visitor Parking’ section, James clutched Vivian’s hand and nervously opened the front door of the church.
After running the gauntlet of pasty-faced, smiling old men and women thrusting bulletins and pamphlets in his face, James tentatively traversed to a back pew and waited for Vivian to finish her hushed conversation with five shrewish-looking women. James (correctly) intuited that wagging tongues were contemplating the presence of the convinced skeptic in their midst, and committing to earnestly pray for ‘the fate of his eternal soul’ throughout the upcoming trial and tribulation of an interminably boring and irrelevant service. Vivian finally joined James just as the organist began the opening hymn, and he shot her a withering, judgmental glance. Land’s sakes – the Colts would be playing in the early game long before they got home from this tortuous experience. Nonetheless, having agreed to accompany his wife, James figured he may as well follow everyone’s lead. He stood when they stood; sat when they sat; pretended to close his eyes and bow his head when they closed their eyes and bowed their heads; and finally settled into the pew as the pastor ascended the stairs to take his ordained place behind the (not oaken, but) plexiglass pulpit. The Reverend Loren H. Barstow looked about 55 years old, and was garbed in flowing black and purple robes, with noble silver glass. Reverend Barstow gathered himself behind the pulpit, surveyed the familiar and unfamiliar faces amongst his large, wealthy suburbanite congregation, and began to speak …
Do you have the privilege and awe-full responsibility of preaching to the gathered people of God on Sunday mornings? Whether you preach every Sunday, most weeks, or occasionally, the burden you carry is immense. You are called to bring God’s Word to the people in the pew. You are commissioned to exhort and encourage, convict and comfort, pressure and empower. In many ways, the role of the preacher is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
But let me ask you – who precisely are you preaching to on Sunday mornings? Who sits in your pews? As you study God’s Word, and craft a message, who do you envision hearing and responding to the words you speak? Many theologians insist, quite correctly, that Sunday morning worship exists for the edification and growth of Christians – the gathered saints of God. Every congregation is diverse in many ways – age, ethnicity, socio-economic status. But ideally, our congregations ought also to be spiritually diverse – filled with not only Christians, but also atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, skeptics, or other assorted non-Christians. Whether they come reluctantly with a believing spouse, are dragged by their Christian parents, come willingly with Christian neighbors or friends, or even seek out the church in the midst of spiritual turmoil, my prayer is always that there would be some present who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. I pray that there would be a James in every church service.
Even the theologians who insist that worship is only for Christians must agree, since they generally assert that evangelistic appeals are an integral part of Christian worship and preaching. If worship is only for Christians, why bother inviting non-existent non-Christians to respond positively to the Gospel proclamation?
What are skeptics like James going to hear when you exposit the Word of God? How is your message going to impact the hardened skeptic? On the one hand, unless the Holy Spirit illuminates James's heart and mind, it does not matter what you say – it will have no impact. But, on the other hand, this is no excuse for eschewing the hard work of biblical exegesis and contextualization. When Paul ascended Mars Hill to share the Gospel with the Athenian elite (Acts 17), he framed the good news of Christ’s atoning death and bodily resurrection in terms and contexts comprehensible to their pagan worldview and background – even quoting Greek poets instead of Old Testament texts to introduce their need to know the one true God. The message and the truth did not change, but the way Paul presented it changed in accordance with his audience.
Can you reach all of the people all of the time? My dad always reminded me that “you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.” Similarly, in crafting a sermon and preparing to present God’s Word to our congregation, you cannot reach all of the people all of the time. The Apostle Paul sought to be all things to all people so that in all possible ways he might save some (1 Corinthians 9). But he didn’t try to be all things to all people at the same time. Rather, to the Jews he became like a Jew, in order to reach them; to the Gentiles he became as a Gentile, in order to reach them. Our message must be contextualized in order to reach the particular audience that we have. Unless you preach exclusively at the local Humanist chapter, you can’t make every sermon a purely apologetic appeal to skeptics to embrace the reasonability of our faith. Still, that’s no reason to never preach with skeptics in mind!
Are you preaching to the choir? It would have been far easier for the apostle Paul to craft his sermons always with Bible-believing Jews in mind. They shared his monotheistic worldview (God as the Almighty and All-just Creator), his trust in the authority of the biblical text, and his expectation for a Messiah. But Paul didn’t – instead, he preached his apologetic message differently when addressing Gentiles. Have you ever considered how a skeptic or atheist or member of a different religion would respond to the sermon that you are about to preach, or just preached?
A key element to incorporating apologetics into your preaching ministry is to consciously engage non-believers in the pew. This does not come naturally or easily. It is far easier to preach to the choir – to craft and develop your sermon with the thoughts, challenges, needs, and troubles of the faithful gathered saints in mind. As in most spiritual things, however, the easy way is not the way to maturity and Godliness. Broad is the road and easy the path that leads to preaching to the choir (and missing the skeptic); small is the gate and narrow the road that reaches the seeking skeptics in your congregation.
Have you walked a mile in James's shoes? While preaching to reach the skeptic as well as the saved is neither easy nor comfortable, it is relatively simple. Put yourself in his place. Ask yourself – if I had a ___ worldview (fill in the blank accordingly – naturalistic, Mormon, Muslim, agnostic, atheistic, New Age, post-modern), what questions would this passage/text/topic raise? What doubts about Christianity would I have that directly impinge upon this message?
For example, imagine that Easter is approaching, and you plan to preach on the grand resurrection narratives of 1 Corinthians 15. You could simply affirm the glorious truth that Jesus is indeed raised from the dead, and that death is conquered and contains no power over us. That in itself is a powerful sermon, and needs preaching. But I would suggest that Easter Sunday is one of two times throughout the year that you are quite likely to have a large number of non-believers amongst your congregation. If you put yourself in their shoes and consider how they might respond to the resurrection narratives, then there are numerous questions which you could consider addressing. How do we know that Jesus truly rose from the dead? What are the historical evidences that support our resurrection faith? In a post-Enlightenment world, how can we affirm that God raised a dead man to new life? Are such miracles possible? Or are they ruled out by a scientific, mechanistic worldview? Was Paul’s resurrection encounter the same as the other apostles’, or qualitatively different? On what basis do we trust the eyewitness accounts of the resurrection? If you preach through 1 Corinthians 15, proclaiming the wonderful good news that Jesus is raised from the dead and that we have glorious assurance of our own victory over death through his, but never address these questions, then I suggest that skeptics amongst your congregation are going to be profoundly unpersuaded and even disaffected.
Obviously you cannot address all of these questions in one (or even a series) of sermons; furthermore, you would be remiss in your duties to only address apologetic questions about the historicity of the resurrection, and never draw any implications from it. Nonetheless, if the Easter season comes and goes and you never address any of the skeptical issues, I would argue that you have missed the boat. The seeking skeptics in your congregation have not been given any tangible reason to believe the truth of the resurrection that you so confidently presuppose. Furthermore, any doubting disciples or besieged brothers in the church are not given reasons for the hope that they still (but more tentatively) hold. Remember (see my earlier article ‘An Apologetic for Apologetics’) that apologetics is not only for non-Christians; it also helps to confirm the truth of the faith for those within the body of Christ who have serious questions or doubts. The questions I mentioned above are not random questions – they are on the hearts and minds of people in the pew, Christian and non-Christian alike. The questions are raised by their own reading, reflection, and philosophizing; they are also forced upon them by the anti-Christians arguments of other authors, teachers, and friends.
Bottom line: the questions are there, and if they are never addressed from the pulpit, then questioners will eventually assume that there are no (good) answers to the questions. And again, note that Paul does not hesitate to supply such reasons to his audience. In 1 Corinthians 15, he begins with a presentation of evidence for the resurrection – a creedal summary of what happened to Jesus, and a list of eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, including himself. If Paul eagerly shares evidence and reasons for the Corinthians to believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, why would we avoid doing the same?
So, my brothers and fellow preachers, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy and grace, to walk a mile in the moccasins of the seeking skeptics, doubting disciples, and besieged believers in your pews. Consider the questions that they would raise, and seek to address them. Rather than preaching to the choir, intentionally incorporate apologetics into your sermons.