This Saturday sees the fourth annual Unbelievable? Conference hosted by Premier Radio host and Christianity Magazine editor, Justin Brierley. For those who fancy a day at Methodist Central Hall in London considering issues around Christian apologetics and effective evangelism, this will be the place to be. Unbelieveable? is now the UK’s leading apologetics and evangelism conference and features an impressive line-up of respected international speakers. According to the website, this year’s event will help ordinary Christians be equipped to:
- Be confident in your faith and share it effectively
- Engage with atheism, Islam and other worldviews
- Give good reasons for God and the truth of Christianity
The sad thing is that some readers of this post will not have reached this point, having lost interest as soon as apologetics and evangelism were mentioned. We are repeatedly told that Christians are increasingly holding views on a range of life (and death) matters that are in opposition to official church teaching including sex and relationships, abortion and assisted suicide when they are in disagreement with those of wider society. Research has also suggested that Christians are much more likely to rely on their own feelings and thoughts than God or the Bible when making decisions.
Is it any wonder that Christianity is declining in this country when many of those who claim to be Christian take such little interest in the foundations that it is built upon? This is consumerist religion that picks the bits that suit us and ignores those that don’t or are too challenging. Such an approach to faith and belief severely diminishes its attractiveness. Why should I believe something that you aren’t even sure about yourself? There is a difference between believing in Jesus in some way or form and knowing the genuine Jesus of the Bible and having a sufficient grasp of his teachings to apply them to real life and to be able to understand and express our faith confidently.
If Christians are to be followers of Christ – which after all is what the word literally means – then surely the best way to find out what this entails is to look at Jesus and what he said and did. What he didn’t say was, “Pick and choose the bits of my teachings that you like the sound of and don’t let the rest bother you.” or, “Don’t worry too much about the Bible – that’s just for clever people and vicars.” If you want to know what Jesus expected from his followers then you only need to look at the parable of the sower. Jesus expected commitment and explained it would be far from easy: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ He knew the Jewish scriptures intimately, because he fully understood their importance and value. And he didn’t make sharing his Good News an optional extra. Apologetics (being able to explain and defend your beliefs in a coherent way) and evangelism (sharing your faith) were right at the top of Jesus’ agenda for his disciples and were for the early church as well as it began to spread his message.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby talking at a conference on church growth last year said that,
“Evangelism has to be a priority” and the CofE at present has a bit of work to do on this. Is it on the agendas of our meetings, synods, etc.? It must also be seen as normal for everyone “this is emphatically not a clergy thing, this is a Christian thing.”
“Dealing with the really hard issues, solidly, is absolutely fundamental.” Churches need to help people with apologetics, dealing with the tough questions, and being able to explain their faith.”
This is not just talk for the sake of it; it makes a difference right here, right now. Next week Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will be presented to the House of Lords. There’s been a great deal of strong words written in the press over the last few days both from those in favour and those against. Plenty of doctors are dreading a change in the law and so too are many people on religious grounds. This is exactly the sort of issue that Christians shouldn’t be watching from a distance whilst sitting on the fence. When the Observer publishes an aggressively intolerant piece entitled ‘Religious activists have too much say over our right to die‘, which in effect says that those with religious views should shut up and stop interfering, it is a moment when a good grounding in apologetics is needed in order to respond forcefully and coherently. Shouting ‘Because God says so!’ is pointless. Being able to frame powerful arguments that will chime with those willing to listen irrespective of their religious beliefs whilst staying true to your own (as some have done) is an important art. If you don’t know what you believe or whether those beliefs are relevant to others, then it probably is best if you shut up.
Looking at this from the other side of the coin, it’s possible to do more damage than good if you choose not to shut up, but your theology is misguided or confused. Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) who are backing Falconer’s Bill have recently published an article on their website which gives a supposedly Christian case for assisted suicide from the Reverend Paul Badham. It is obviously there to rebuff Christians who are in disagreement. Reverend Badham may be Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, but writing as a Christian apologist promoting assisted dying, his argument is scarily flimsy. Badham’s main thrust is that Jesus’ golden rule was that we should always treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Therefore if someone wants to die, the compassionate response is to help them achieve their aim.
This is a terribly narrow interpretation of Jesus’ words. It assumes that we would want the same if we were in the shoes of the other person and is worryingly vague on where lines can and should be drawn. How much does someone really have to want to die before we help them out? The context of Jesus’ words in Luke 6 is regarding loving our enemies, treating others equally and fairly, withholding proud condemnation and applying forgiveness. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card to do whatever we like.
1 Peter 3:15-16 says this:
‘But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.’
Apologetics is no more for Oxbridge academics than evangelism is for professional evangelists. If we are serious about living as Christians in the world rather than behind closed church doors, it’s imperative that we are able to give a good account for our faith and represent God’s Kingdom as ambassadors rather than as embarrassed school children who have been caught out because they haven’t done their homework.