Apologetics, the defense of the faith, is an important activity but in my experience it is one that has many hidden dangers lurking in the nearby bushes. Indeed, apologetics can become a barrier to mission.
First, there is a danger of deciding the questions we feel people ought to be asking rather than looking at those they are asking. For instance, one student mission I was involved with was based around a set of evangelistic meetings that focused on issues such as, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” and “Are the Gospels reliable?” Now these are important questions that require sensible answers but they were not burning issues for most of the students.
The opposite side of this coin is avoiding the questions that people actually are asking about the faith (e.g., why do you treat gay people badly? Why has Christianity inspired so much violence in its history?), perhaps because they are harder to answer in such a way that Christians come out looking good.
Second, at least in the mainstream, there is a tendency to give crass and simplistic solutions to genuine and complex issues. For instance, I have been in seminars in which we have been told ‘the answer’ to give if we’re asked why God allows suffering. The ‘answer’ we were provided was trivial nonsense. The impact of such ‘solutions’ on intelligent and sensitive people (Christian and non-Christian) is to reinforce the suspicion that Christian faith is stupid and callous.
Third, there is the danger of a ‘battle’ mindset descending upon Christian apologists, especially those who do know what they are talking about and can ‘wipe the floor’ with their opponents. I have seen very gracious atheists brutally demolished and mocked in debates. Such apologetics is utterly counter-productive. As Kierkegaard says, this intellectualist approach, which thinks ‘Christianity is an objective doctrine and it makes no difference how it is served, . . . has abolished Christianity.’
Fourth, the pressure created by apologetic contexts is that we feel that we have to go in to discussions with non-believers with the answers all pinned down, closed to the possibility that we might learn something new. (Even Alpha with its healthy encouragement of open conversation has over-prescribed end-points for the discussions.)
Fifth, there is a tendency in some circles to think that the route to faith is an intellectual one. The problem with a faith that lives on brain alone is that it is ever vulnerable to the latest fads in the academy. One man I knew became a Christian because of apologetic arguments but his faith thereafter was one crisis after another depending on which book he had just read.
Do not misunderstand me; I am committed to a reflective and informed faith and to attempting to offer intelligent and helpful answers to genuine questions. And I believe apologetics can play a role in the journey to faith. One of my students, a very bright atheist, spent a lot of time carefully considering the arguments for and against Christianity. In the end, he had an unexpected existential encounter with Christ during his revision but the credibility of the arguments for Christianity played a ground-clearing role in making faith a live possibility. But, when apologetics goes bad (by giving the wrong answers or the right answers in the wrong way or to the wrong people or at the wrong time) it does more harm than good.
The key apologetic for Christianity—far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions—is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel.
‘[T]he life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community’ (Norman Kraus).
I myself became attracted to Christianity because of the quality of relationships I witnessed among members of a Christian youth group. Without that I would never have been open to consider any attempts to show the intellectual integrity of the faith.
Intellectual apologetics embedded in the context of lives committed to God’s love for the other is a beautiful and fitting adornment. But apologetics divorced from lives of love is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. Apologetics is never just about being right; first and foremost it is about living right.