In my last post I talked about presuppositional and evidential apologetics and after a very long winded (or should I say long-fingered) post I concluded with some thoughts on the ineffectiveness of apologetics.
When I say that apologetics are ineffective I need to qualify that by saying that they are ineffective for certain things but effective for other things. Apologetics, whether of the presuppositional or evidential kind, have been very effective in strengthening the faith of believers and giving them the courage of their convictions. Furthermore, apologetic arguments, whether they be proofs for the existence of God, historical proofs of the resurrection or the transcendental argument have generally been accepted by Christians. At the same time all of these arguments have generally been rejected by non-believers.
So, apologetics are effective in strengthening the faith of believers, but generally unpersuasive to non-believers. This leaves the believer in a quandry since, for most of us, the reason we learn a few things about apologetics is to equip us to respond to unbelievers.
The problem with apologetics is that even when we win, we often lose. Granted, atheists will probably never admit that a Christian has won an apologetic debate, but time and again, the fact that an atheist can't answer our arguments doesn't cause him to embrace our faith. There is a story of a debate between Francis Schaeffer and an atheist where the atheist went first in the debate. After he had given his opening statement Schaeffer simply said "I don't have enough faith to believe what he just said." According to the account I read, Schaeffer went on to annihilate the guy in the debate and make him look foolish. However, rather than feeling victorious, Schaeffer felt chastized. He had won the argument but lost the heart of the man he was debating.
This may be one of the reasons that Schaeffer went on to say that community is the final apologetic. And this leads to my main point. Traditional apologetics, whether they be of the presuppositional or evidential kind, have been singularly ineffective in causing unbelievers to come to faith. Sure, there are some wonderful exceptions, Josh McDowell is one who comes to mind, but for the most part you don't see a bunch of unbelievers falling down on their knees to worship Jesus because they have been persuaded by an argument.
People usually come to faith through a relational apologetic, the apologetic of Christian community.
I want to use the rest of this post as an apologetic for relational apologetics and examine relational apologetics from a sociological, historical and biblical standpoint.
Speaking of relational apologetics from the relational standpoint, I would refer you to thinkers like Os Guinness and Peter Berger (upon whom Guinness relies in many matters). In my prior post called The Social Dimension of Belief, I quoted Os Guinness as follows:
"the degree to which a belief (or disbelief) seems convincing is directly related to its "plausibility structure" - that is, the group or community which provides the social and psychological support for the belief. If the support's structure is strong, it is easy to believe; if the support's structure is weak, it is difficult to believe. The question of whether the group's belief is actually true or not may never become an issue."The fact is, right or wrong, people tend to embrace the beliefs of the community in which they live. Granted, there are some wonderful exceptions to this, but by and large, Guinness's quote has been proven true. This issue of the social dimension of belief also undergirds Donald McGavran's missiological emphases on people movements and homogenous units. McGavran's reading and experiences on the mission field in the early 20th century showed him that people often come to Christ in mass movements. When key leaders in a village came to faith in Christ, McGavran and other missionaries found that the rest of the village would come to Christ. His principle of "homogenous units" stated that people like to come to Christ through the witness of those who are like them.
I've got some serious problems with what some have done with McGavran's findings, but in and of themselves the findings are helpful. McGavran described what he observed from a sociological perspective. Those who came after him (and maybe McGavran himself) constructed an entire church growth theology and methodology from these findings. These findings gave rise to targeted ministries and demographic driven church planting here in America. The strength of McGavran's work is to show the ordinary Christian the power of his own social networks. The gospel will spread most effectively when it spreads through existing social networks. Where I think McGavran's work has been misused is when churches only target a specific demographic. Then once a target demographic has been the ministries and often the preaching of the church are narrowed so as to reach that particular demographic. Rather than being theologically driven the church becomes sociologically driven and the market becomes the driving force of ministry rather than the Bible. The tail wags the dog. This kind of mentality misses the fact that the gospel not only moves through existing social networks and communitiies, it also creates a new community. The church is to be made up of people from every race and socio-economic status rather than just a particular demographic group.
I got off on a tangent there, but getting back on point, I would say that McGavran's observations illustrate Guinness's statement. The sociological evidence for the primacy of a relational apologetic can be found in Guinness/Berger's notion of plausibility structures and McGavran's ideas on people movements and homogenous units.
The historical evidence of the power of the relational apologetic is anecdotal. One of my favorite books on evangelism is The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter. I've got a review of the book on Amazon. Among other things, Hunter contrasts the old Roman way of evangelism with the Celtic way of evangelism. In the Roman church you had to believe in order to belong. In the Celtic church one belonged in order to believe.
In the Roman church the process of evangelism went roughly like this - 1 - Preach the Christian messsage, 2 - Call to a decision for Christ, 3 - Invite into the fellowship of the church.
The Celtic way of evangelism went something like this - 1 - Invite the unbeliever into the community, 2 - Engage them in ministry and conversation - a kind of conversational evangelism focusing on answering the questions of the unbeliever rather than pushing them along a predetermined path or presentation, and 3) Invitation to commitment to Christ and the ministry of the community.
For the Roman church one had to understand and believe the gospel in order to become a member of the community. For the Celtic church, one was admitted into the community life of believers and heard the gospel in the context of the community.
According to Hunter the Celtic way far surpassed the Roman method in terms of results and he recommends it to us today.
Another good historical anecdote on the primacy of the relational apologetic comes from the ministry of Francis Schaeffer himself, with L'Abri. No one was better at the practical use of presuppositional and evidential apologetics than Schaeffer. But what intrigues me is that L'Abri wasn't merely a preaching station or a lecture house or academic hall. Students of L'Abri were invited into a community where they worked and shared life together. I've never been to L'Abri, but my guess is that the community life was as instrumental in it's success in evangelism as was the intellectual arguments of Schaeffer.
In looking at these historical anecdotes I feel a great deal of tension, particularly when it comes to the church. The Roman church has a closed community and the Celtic church had an open community. There is biblical precedent for both. The biblical picture of the church is that it is a covenant community of faith. Membership in the Christian community is contingent on faith. Therefore, the Roman church had it right. The gospel is the bridge between the non-Christian and the Christian community.
Yet, there is much biblical data that lends credence to the openness of the Celtic community, and it is to this I will turn as I talk about the biblical precedent for the primacy of the relational apologetic.
First of all, the classic passage affirming the relational apologetic is John 13:35:
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”That passage is particularly appropos as it shows that the grand apologetic is not the Christian's love for the unbeliever (although that is assumed) but it is the unbeliever's observation of the love of Christians for each other. The love of Christians for one another is so important that a lack of love amongst Christians will become such a barrier to gospel communication that the non-Christian won't recognize the one claiming to be a Christian as a Christian. The truth is that the unloving Christians may in fact be genuine Christians, but their lack of love for one another will give non-Christians the right to call them hypocrites. In regards to the openness of the Christian community, John 13:35 would assume that unbelievers are in close enough proximity to believers that they can see this love demonstrated.
The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Another passage in this regard is Acts 2:42-47. In that passage the community of believers exists in full view of non-believers and it is open enough that the believers enjoy the favor of all the people and more and more people are added to the community of believers on a daily basis.
Another line of biblical evidence in this regard comes from the book Conversion in the New Testament by Richard Peace. Peace's thesis may be a little more controversial, but it is worth your consideration. He suggests that the Gospel of Mark is an account of the evangelization of the disciples. Whereas we might think that the disciples had what we would call a "conversion experience" when they were called, Peace suggests that the disciples came to Christ gradually, over a three year period, as recorded in the gospel of Mark. Granted, this may be hard to accept because today we see conversion as an event rather than a process, but Peace provides lots of good evidence and exegesis to back up his thesis.
One of the things I would throw out for your consideration is that, in the bible, they didn't view conversion as an event the way we do. I don't want to make too much of that because there is certainly an "event" aspect to it. There is a time when you don't believe and a time when you do. Conversion is described as a "new birth" and a birth has a time you can point to. Further, in the gospels there are many accounts of a particular time when a person comes to faith. But with the disciples, its difficult to discern when that time is. What Peace suggests is that Christ formed a community for the purpose of bringing the disciples to faith.
I contend that all of this shows the necessity of a relational apologetic. But, by saying that I don't mean that the proclamation of the gospel takes second place to relationships nor do I mean that apologetic arguments have no validity (see this post for a discussion of the validity of arguments in a postmodern world). This is where I think the emergent church folks fall down, I hear alot about relationships but very little about proclamation from them. On the other hand, the emergent church folks are doing a better job of living out the relational apologetic than anyone else.
As a pastor one of my great struggles is to maintain the integrity of our identity as a covenant community of faith while opening the doors to unbelievers. It's a tension that I don't always handle well and we as a church struggle with. But it's something we in the church as a whole need to continue to struggle with.
The bottom line is that, if we want to use apologetics as a means of reaching those outside of Christ, the relational apologetic has to take priority over other forms of apologetics.