Because they know that people in the pew are starving for reasons to believe in Christianity, struggling with doubts, and hopeful for answers.
They know that nonChristians are listening in, questioning everything, and wondering why they should change their minds about Jesus.
But pastors don’t want to bore people, be overly rationalistic, or lose focus on their main point. And they are busy. So how can pastors add apologetics into their sermons?
Here are six simple, easy-to-implement suggestions for time-crunched pastors.
1. Explain the historical context of the passage.
These are basic facts that most pastors know or have easy access to in their commentaries. They are so basic that we often think they are boring and not worth mentioning.
But many people find this information to be fascinating. For instance, one summer I led a Bible study on 2 Timothy. In our first session, we discussed who Paul was, who Timothy was, the context of Ephesus where Timothy was serving, and the nature of the relationship between Paul and Timothy. Blah blah blah, right?
Except that this kind of information is almost never shared from the pulpit, so it felt brand new and exciting to the students. One of them remarked, “I had no idea this letter was written to someone in particular!” Wow.
Understanding the personal and historical context of 2 Timothy brought an energy and reality to our study of the letter. It helped us understand the book better and encouraged us to take it seriously. Knowing that Paul died for his faith, and that Timothy made great sacrifices as well, motivated us to be bold for Jesus.
Use all of your storytelling and communicative skill to show the relevance and the significance of these historical details. In doing so, you will equip your congregation to know far more Biblical apologetics – who wrote each letter, when, to whom, under what circumstances. Quote Clement, Eusebius, and Irenaeus. Drop hints for those who want to study these issues in greater depth.
Every week, with this one simple tip, you can help your congregation defend the authenticity and integrity of the Bible.
2. Compare and contrast Christianity with other worldviews and religions.
So the Bible encourages us to love one another. That’s hard to do, so you give a sermon talking about God’s love for us on the cross and how that reshapes our love for one another, followed by some practical suggestions for loving one another that week. Very good. But it also might feel like the same old, same old message: Christianity is about love. Don’t we already know that?
You can add some bite to this sermon by adding a little apologetics to it: just contrast the Biblical message with juicy quotes from people in other traditions. Of course, you have to be careful to fairly and accurately represent other people’s viewpoint: we can’t do apologetics (or preaching!) without a commitment to the truth!
For instance, John Paul Sarte taught, in his famous essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’:
Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.
Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstances upon him.
Sarte believed that we define ourselves through our choices. (Hasn’t this become a characteristically American ideal?). But this view is radically different from the Christian view: God made us, God died for us, we are God’s, and so we are (gladly) obligated to love one another.
When you put Biblical ethics up against other systems of thought, you will be better able to highlight the moral clarity and beauty of God’s guidance for our lives.
3. Ask Questions.
Questions are powerful. Really powerful.
Haven’t you experienced the power of a question?
- Will you marry me?
- What if you had a different job?
- How’s that working out for you?
We use questions all the time. So why not use questions in your sermons?
So let’s say you’re preaching on James. You’ve given reasons and evidence to show that this book was authored by the brother of Jesus. You get to James 2:1, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”
You could ask, “What would it take for you to refer to your brother as “the Lord of glory”? And what kind of evidence would you need to encourage other people to worship your brother as God?”
Let’s say you want to give a sermon on “no other gospel” from Galatians 1:6-9. While doing so, you could easily ask, “Why was Paul so concerned to guard the gospel message? What does this tell us about how the leaders of the early church viewed changing the message about Jesus? About their commitment to truth?”
These questions don’t have to be resolved. Let these ideas percolate through the church. Let them stimulate curiosity.
Asking a few apologetic questions can make your sermons far more interesting, thought-provoking, and life changing.
(I recommend Tactics by Greg Koukl for further insight on asking questions).
4. Talk about clues.
Let’s say you give a sermon on “What the Bible Says About Debt.” It is well-researched, practical, and powerful. People are moved to change their financial habits and act with wisdom, glorifying God with their resources.
You can add apologetic punch to this sermon by just asking one simple question:
- If the Bible has so much wisdom about money, could that be a clue that it has wisdom for the rest of our lives?
Now the nonChristian who liked the practical tips about money has to consider: ‘maybe there is something to the Bible. I should look into that.’
Whenever you explain the wisdom, beauty, goodness, or what have you of our glorious God or his wonderful Scriptures, you have an opportunity to gently nudge people to consider: is this a clue that God is really there? If the Bible is right about this, is that a hint that it is right about other topics too?
By using words like ‘clue,’ ‘hint,’ ‘indication,’ and ‘suggestion,’ you don’t overplay your hand. The Bible’s wisdom on debt doesn’t prove that God exists. But it is a little bit of evidence that the Bible isn’t as crazy, stupid, and weird as people have been repeatedly told. Chipping away at that negative stereotype, week by week, sermon by sermon, can be very powerful.
5. Discuss the explanatory power of the Christian worldview.
Wikipedia helpfully summarizes what explanatory power is:
Explanatory power is the ability of a theory to effectively explain the subject matter it pertains to. One theory is sometimes said to have more explanatory power than another theory about the same subject matter if it offers greater predictive power. That is, if it offers more details about what we should expect to see, and what we should not.
People understand that explanatory power is one of many tests for truth. For instance, you walk into the kitchen one morning and all the plates are broken and your kid is crying. You ask how the plates got broken and he says, “A big earthquake did it.” Oh, ok. That theory certainly explains the plates, but it doesn’t explain why the cups and the bowls are still fine. You know you need to comfort your kid, but you also need him to tell the truth.
So many sermons target what it means to be human, how relationships are meant to work, or why we struggle with guilt and shame. And they do so effectively. They explain the data well. The Bible connects with our experience. It makes sense of our lives.
Having gone to all this work in developing your sermon, why not take a minute to highlight the apologetic significance of the Bible’s explanatory power? Other worldviews say that evil is just an illusion, or that there is no hope after death, or that ‘morality’ is merely an evolutionary tool for adaptive advantage.
The Bible explains our lives and world far better than its alternatives. Point this out.
6. Share a story about your doubt and its resolution.
As you prepare for your sermon each week, having doubts is inevitable. You will have questions like: How does this passage fit with this other passage? How are these apparent contradictions resolved? Why would Jesus say such a thing? Is there any evidence for this miracle? How are miracles possible in a world explained by science?
As you take the time to be intellectually honest and wrestle through your questions, you will find reasonable answers to these difficult questions. (If you aren’t finding answers, please get in touch with me and the Christian Apologetics Alliance).
By sharing this process as a story, you communicate a number of points in an interesting manner:
- That Christians have doubts and this is okay
- How you struggle and work to find solid, tested answers to honest questions
- Share about resources that are worth having and consulting
- An answer to a common apologetics concern
As we look at Joshua 6 today, I realize that many of us are concerned about the violence and the apparent genocide of the passage. As Richard Dawkins has said, the God of the Old Testament is, “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Have you heard accusations like this before?
You know, sometimes I brush off exaggerated comments like these because they are simply ridiculous. Clearly Dawkins is unfamiliar with the great themes of God’s mercy, grace and love that the Old Testament consistently teaches us. But as we study Joshua 6, I’ve had to ask: is there something to what Dawkins is saying? To think through this passage with greater clarity, I want to tell you about two commentaries I looked at, as well as the excellent book Is God A Moral Monster? by Paul Copan, which all helped me to understand Joshua 6 far better than before.
The first thing we need to notice is in Joshua 6:17, “And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction.” This troubled me, because it does initially seem very harsh. But there are three key points that I learned from the Copan book and the commentaries. Let me mention them to you and explain how they undercut Dawkins’ attack on the Old Testament…
By working through the tough challenges from the pulpit, you will equip your congregation to work through these tough challenges over the dinner table. Using a personal story to share this information will make it more interesting than an abstract argument.
A Quick Recap:
Every week, your audience almost certainly includes nonChristians.
There are Christians who have profound doubts but are afraid to express them.
And your church is filled with people who know and love nonChristians.
We are made for truth and knowledge: giving reasons to believe in Jesus will honor the humanity of your listeners.
So commit now to adding apologetics to your sermons. With these six tips, you can do it every single week:
- Explain the historical context of the passage.
- Compare and contrast Christianity with other worldviews and religions.
- Ask questions.
- Talk about clues.
- Discuss the explanatory power of the Christian worldview.
- Share a story about your doubt and its resolution.
Want an easy way to remember these six tips? My friend Dr. Tim McGrew suggested rearranging them into the following acronym (THAWED):
- T Talk about clues
- H Historical context
- A Ask questions
- W Worldviews
- E Explanatory power
- D Doubts
My sincere thanks to my friend Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian for the idea for this post.