What does a pastor’s preaching have to do with apologetics, if anything at all? Some conclude that the two are separate activities, that preaching is preaching, and apologetics is apologetics. However, as T. J. Gentry’s forthcoming series “Pulpit Apologetics” will argue, preaching and apologetics not only can go together, but should, and every pastor has an obligation to learn to bring apologetics into the pulpit. In this series the general relationship between preaching and apologetics is considered, as well as the special connection between preaching, moral apologetics, and abductive argumentation. Further, as a practical offering to those seeking to better unite preaching and apologetics, a model of sermon preparation will be developed for both negative and positive apologetic concerns. The series will feature a new installment every Friday. Don’t miss it!
Preaching and Apologetics
Sheila’s friend, Mary, invited her to a special Sunday evening service at her church designed to answer questions about the Christian faith for skeptics and seekers. As a curious non-Christian, Sheila was intrigued by the invitation and decided to attend one of the services. Mary’s pastor began each message at these services with a question about Christianity, and the night Sheila attended the question was, does God really exist? As Sheila listened to the message, the pastor explained that each person has an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong, and that this innate sense of morality is a clue to God’s existence. Sheila was challenged by the message and, though she did not respond to the brief gospel invitation offered at the end of the service, she did promise to attend again with Mary. The preaching Sheila heard offered answers to questions about God, and she began to seriously consider the claims of Christianity.
Raised in a Christian home, John regularly attended church and other activities, including participating in his youth group and actively sharing his faith in Jesus. Upon graduating high school John enrolled as a commuter student at the local state university and, as part of his course of general studies, took a course in cultural anthropology. His professor was an atheist and an outspoken critic of religion in general, especially Christianity, and soon the professor’s challenges led John to wrestle with profound and persistent doubts about the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. Thus, when John’s pastor began a series of sermons on why the Christian worldview makes sense and the Bible can be trusted, John found answers to his doubts and his faith was strengthened. The preaching John heard helped him find reasons to believe, and he grew as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
What do these examples of preaching have in common? Though the primary purpose of the preaching in Sheila’s instance was to make a compelling case for Christianity to skeptics and seekers, and the primary purpose in John’s instance was to strengthen a disciple’s faith, both messages involved apologetics. However, is this a legitimate role for preaching, whether to those who are already Christians or to seekers and skeptics? Is there a nexus—a central link or connection—between apologetics and preaching for discipleship and evangelism or are these separate activities?
Preaching is a fundamental and regularly occurring expression of a pastor’s work within most congregations, both in terms of evangelism and discipleship. Wayne McDill concludes that “of all the tasks to be done in ministry, preaching is surely one of the most important.” Paul the apostle admonished his young protégé, Timothy, who was also a pastor and mentor to other pastors, to “give attention to…exhortation” (1 Tim. 4:13), to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2), and to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). In these directives to Timothy, Paul describes the centrality of the pastor’s role as preacher—to exhort, teach, and evangelize. Haddon Robinson explains that the pastor’s call to preaching is so significant because “through the preaching of the Scriptures, God encounters men and women to bring them to salvation…and to richness and ripeness of Christian character.”
Yet, amid the prevailing post-modern and post-Christian milieu in much of the world, the audience to which the pastor delivers his message is increasingly ignorant of and unsure of the veracity of even its most basic elements. According to J. E. White, 23% of adults in the United States consider themselves as having no religious affiliation, and nearly 19% of adults claim to be former Christians. Add to these statistics the widespread veneration of philosophical and religious pluralism and one begins to recognize the challenge today’s pastor faces when standing in the pulpit and proclaiming the Christian message. As White aptly states, “It’s simply a cultural reality that people in a post-Christian world are genuinely incredulous that anyone would think like…well, a Christian—or at least, what it means in their minds to think like a Christian.”
Further, it is not difficult to see that God’s greatness and goodness are under attack directly and indirectly in various challenges presented by antagonists of the Christian faith. If God is great, the skeptic asks, then why are there so many examples of slavery in the Bible, and why would He order the slaughter of Canaanite women and children? If God is good, the struggling Christian wonders, then why did individuals kill thousands of innocent people in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and why did an earthquake kill thousands in India? These are challenging questions that strike at the very heart of God’s character, and the Christian message offers answers that reflect sensitivity to the issues and assurance regarding God’s greatness and goodness. Preaching can and should help with these challenges to God’s character.
Thus, it seems reasonable and practical to conclude that preachers should expect to engage in various forms of apologetic encounters—helping answer challenges to belief posed by unbelievers while also helping strengthen the faith of believers. What a pastor should do and what a pastor can do, though, are not necessarily the same when it comes to apologetics, and this reveals a fundamental problem: Pastors may have little knowledge of apologetics in general, and less in how apologetics relates to preaching. For those pastors who do have knowledge of apologetics, they may not know how to integrate apologetics into their ministry of preaching in a holistic manner that avoids turning sermons into dense apologetics lectures or trite and simplistic messages lacking relevant depth and substance.
What, then, is a pastor to do concerning apologetics and preaching? The answer to this question provides the impetus for future articles in this series. In the next installment we will consider further the general rationale for the nexus of preaching and apologetics. Until then, remember that Peter’s command to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) applies to everyone, including those who preach.