Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Lee Strobel to talk about evangelism and apologetics.
Donald Johnson: Thanks very much for joining me, Lee.
So we are meeting right now at an apologetics conference where you are the keynote speaker. I’m sure that’s no surprise to anyone, as you are widely considered one of world’s premier defenders of the faith. Interestingly to me, though, the last time we were together, you were speaking at a conference for a group of evangelists. There you shared that you actually consider yourself first and foremost an evangelist rather than an apologist. I really resonated with that, as it describes my own approach to ministry as well. How important is it, do you think, that apologetics and evangelism be tightly intertwined?
Lee Strobel: I think apologetics without evangelism is a bit of a wasted effort. When I was at Willow Creek Church, we had an apologetics team called “The Defenders,” but we didn’t just say, “Go study in a room and learn a bunch of stuff.” We wanted them using that knowledge to really lead people to Christ. It’s been said that apologetics is the handmaiden of evangelism and I think that’s true. I’m passionate to reach people for Christ; that’s my goal. It’s not to win an argument, it’s not to try to play point-counter-point with a skeptic but to try to reach them with the gospel and try to lead them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. So I do see myself not as an apologist but as an evangelist who employs apologetics.
For example, in my evangelism class at Houston Baptist University my emphasis is on how to naturally and effectively share your faith with unbelievers and along the way help them find answers to tough questions that are keeping them from putting their trust in Christ. We definitely cover apologetics, but in the service of evangelism.
So I think you are right, the two have to mix; the two have to complement each other. It’s kind of sad when we see apologists who know a lot but don’t know how to share it in a meaningful, natural way to someone who’s got authentic questions. One of the aspects of your ministry that I really appreciate is that you actually engage with skeptics. That is a skill set we need to develop more in the Christian community. That’s one of the reasons, by the way, that I’ve made your new book How to Talk to a Skeptic required reading in my class. It really does a great job of using apologetics evangelistically.
DJ: Your heart for the lost is really clear in this quote from your wonderful book, The Unexpected Adventure: “This is what gets me up in the morning: the thought that somehow, in some way, God might take this seemingly routine day and surprise me with an opportunity to tell someone about the good news that has the power to turn their life inside out.” Could you comment on that and how apologetics plays a part in opening those doors to adventure?
LS: I did that book with Mark Mittelberg and the idea is that if we are motivated to engage with people spiritually, if we make ourselves available to do it, and if we are prayerful about it, you never know what’s going to happen. But we have to be prepared, too. That’s where apologetics comes in. When we are prepared, we are more willing to engage, and when we are not prepared, we shrink back. I think what apologetics does is give us the confidence to engage with people. Sometimes that simply means having the confidence to say, “Wow, that’s a great question, I don’t know the answer but let’s find it together.” This even gives us the excuse to have another spiritual conversation and hopefully make more progress spiritually.
DJ: Keeping evangelism and apologetics closely tied together has many other benefits as well, it seems to me. For instance, you’ve argued that taking part in evangelism is actually the “missing ingredient in many Christian lives.” You write that you’ve never heard anyone complain that “My spiritual life is so dry right now; it’s like I’m living in a desert,” and then add, “Oh, by the way, I’m actively trying to reach a friend for Christ.”
LS: That’s right. When we are active evangelistically it opens the floodgates to other areas of our life. Our prayer life becomes more focused because we are praying for people that don’t know Christ and we are crying out, “God, I don’t know what to say and do. I need your help.” It’s when our worship takes on a whole new dimension because we are worshiping the God of the second chance who loves our lost friends more than we do. It’s when our Bible study takes on a new dimension because we aren’t just looking for abstract concepts but for meaningful truths that we can share with the people we are trying to reach. And our dependence on God is at its greatest because we know that, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, there’s nothing we can do to bring people to faith. So I think it brings alive all aspects of the Christian life and often tends to be the missing ingredient.
DJ: Right, and so if you are trying to employ apologetics on someone and finding it unfruitful spiritually, it might be that you need to think more evangelistically. It could be that you need to double-check your motives.
Speaking of ministry that blends together apologetics and evangelism, I know we are both big fans of the campus ministry Ratio Christi. They’ve seen explosive growth in the last couple of years. Why do you think college students are so interested in apologetics?
LS: We live in a culture in which we have more forces openly and prominently arrayed against Christianity than ever before. Everywhere students look – websites, books, films – Christianity is being attacked and questions are being raised about its legitimacy. This causes the students to wonder if the faith can actually stand up to scrutiny. Plus, they are getting out of their home for the first time; they are spreading their wings and figuring out for themselves: “Do I really believe this?” I celebrate this. I think it’s great that people are asking questions. Ratio Christi is doing some terrific work and finding there is a lot of interest.
DJ: On a related note, you’ve written: “people are generally more interested in spiritual matters than we think they are.” Do you still find that to be true?
LS: I do. In fact, I find it is more true these days. Because of that, we shouldn’t be so hesitant as Christians. When I was a kid, I would find a spider in my room and I would freak out. My mother would say, “Lee, that spider is more afraid of you than you are of it.” It’s similar in evangelism. We think people aren’t interested and so we shrink back. Yet, they are more interested than we give them credit for. Often I will kind of beat around the bush thinking I need to establish some sort of relational foundation with the person before moving on the spiritual matters, and they are jumping in: “Oh, you go to church! I have a lot of questions about that!” I’m amazed at how easy it is to get into spiritual conversations. As long as we are not trying to shove it down people’s throats; as long as we are sincerely interested in what people think and why they think it, we will have all sorts of opportunities to offer our perspective. I think people are more interested today than they were fifteen years ago.
DJ: You mentioned that you are now teaching evangelism at Houston Baptist University and I’d like to hear a bit more about that. What can students expect in your class?
LS: First, what really bugs me is on Christian colleges is when people dread the evangelism class. They see the course on the schedule and think, “What sort of uncomfortable things are they going to force me to do? How big is the guilt trip going to be?” etc. I want the opposite to happen. I want students to emerge saying. “Wow, this is the unexpected adventure of the Christian life. I can do this.”
One of the key points I make is that we don’t all do it the same way. One of the mistakes evangelism professors and pastors often make is that they say, “Do it my way.” For example, “I’m an extrovert and I like passing out tracts on a sidewalk, so you should do that too.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with passing out tracts, but someone else says, “I love Jesus, too, but that’s not me.”
Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg and I developed a course and identified six different styles of evangelism from the Bible. You may have a relational style or an intellectual style; there’s a testimonial style and service style; there’s different kinds of styles in the Bible. As people learn that you can be who God made you to be and share their faith, they say, “That’s great!” We had a woman in the course named Julie who was very introverted – she couldn’t pass out tracts without fainting. However, she is great relationally, and in the first year after taking the course Julie led 14 people to faith in Christ! She realized she can be who God make her to be. That’s what I want students to discover. They can be who God made them to be, with certain temperaments and personality types, and God can use them that way.
DJ: Thank you very much for your time and wonderful insight, Lee. Last question: Any words of advice for budding evangelists?
LS: Get in the game and stay in the game. There’s nothing to substitute for the personal experience of engaging with a spiritually confused person and helping them in their journey toward Christ. And don’t think that success means having everyone you interact with come to Jesus right then. Cliff Knechtle said something once that I’ll never forget: “A person coming to faith is like a chain with many links.” All the links are important, and when someone comes to faith, all the links can celebrate. Sometimes I’m a last link, but normally I’m a beginning link or a middle link. God hasn’t called me to only be a last link, he’s called me to be faithful and love people. If I’m doing that, God, in his grace and sense of humor, will use me in ways that will exceed anything I would ever had anticipated.
Donald Johnson is the president of Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries and the author of How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics
Atheist turned Christian Lee Strobel, the former award-winning legal editor of The Chicago Tribune, is a New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty books and serves as Professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. Described in the Washington Post as “one of the evangelical community’s most popular apologists,” Lee shared the Christian Book of the Year award in 2005 for a curriculum he co-authored with Garry Poole about the movie The Passion of the Christ. He also won Gold Medallions for The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for a Creator, all of which have been made into documentaries distributed by Lionsgate. His latest works include his first novel, The Ambition, and The Case for Christ Study Bible, which features hundreds of notes and articles. His free e-newsletter, Investigating Faith, is available at LeeStrobel.com.