Apologetics as Conversation

"What's stopping you?" During a training session for those interested in apologetics, I asked if anyone knew of family members, classmates, or coworkers who did not have a relationship with Jesus. Hands went up throughout the audience.

"What's stopping you from sharing the Christian perspective with them?" I asked. When I present this question to audiences, several responses surface.

Some answer, "I tried to bring up God with a family member, but he quickly became defensive, so I changed the subject. I have yet to bring up the issue again." Others, "I imagine having a conversation with a coworker, but always envision it going poorly. I continually psych myself out." Last, and most common, "I have no idea how to organize such a potentially explosive conversation."

Can you relate?

Is there someone you want to share the Christian perspective with but have yet to do it? If so, what's stopping you? Have you psyched yourself out or just lack a clear strategy for how to engage?

Most of us – through participating in social media or watching cable news shows – are aware of the argument culture, which Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen defines as a pervasive war-like atmosphere that makes us approach anything as if it were a verbal fight. "The argument culture urges us to regard the world – and the people in it – in an adversarial frame of mind."[1] Regularly witnessing such incivility makes us want no part of contentious conversations, so we get into the habit of ignoring certain topics.

For the past couple of years, as I have watched our culture simultaneously lose the ability to have respectful conversations and become more hostile to Christian beliefs,[2] I have found myself wrestling with perplexing questions:

How can I remain faithful to my convictions but communicate in a way that produces dialogue, not uncivil debate?
How can I balance truth and love when discussing my worldview with people who disagree with me?
What if the person I'm struggling with is a spouse, family member, coworker, or neighbor? Can I protect our relationship while sharing a worldview people increasingly find offensive?
Most importantly, where can I look for guidance?

I found the communication principles I needed in the book of Proverbs. This unique book is the collective counsel of teachers to their students. Israel's teachers were watching their best and brightest leave to take leadership positions in Jerusalem. This move put young Israelite men in touch with non-Israelites who did not share the sacred beliefs of the Jewish community. The writers of Proverbs faced the same challenge we do: How do we prepare individuals to meet and engage people whose beliefs are radically different from our own? These wise teachers knew they could not write a script for every interpersonal situation their pupils would encounter. People then were too diverse, just as they are now. Instead, they carefully crafted broad principles and sayings, which we can use today.

These proverbial principles are expressed in four essential questions that we must ask during a conversation with someone whose beliefs are different from our own.

Question 1: What does this person believe?

Proverbs 18:13 (NASB) states that "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him." In almost every personal interaction mentioned in Proverbs, the first step is listening. Why is listening so crucial? Because to neglect it is to respond to a person in both folly (speaking without knowing all the facts) or shame (treating the person as an inferior). Rather than talking prematurely, the wise conversationalist will "store up knowledge" (Proverbs 10:14 NASB). The importance of listening cannot be overstated. Before you respond to a person find out exactly what he or she believes.

Many Christians, however, view listening as an unnecessary and unwelcome step in sharing the Christian worldview. Humorist Dave Barry made this stinging observation about people who are eager to start religious conversations: "People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them."[3]

Before you respond to a person find out exactly what he or she believes

Why is that? In apologetic conversations, why do we Christians usually find ourselves doing most of the talking?

I think most of us suffer from what one communication scholar described as "agenda anxiety", which he defines as the overwhelming anxiety to "get across all points" of a subject regardless of the spiritual state of the person we are speaking with.[4] Let's face it, most of us struggle with guilt at having not said more concerning spiritual issues with friends and family, and we desire to relieve that guilt by sharing everything we've always wanted to say about God in one conversation. The problem is "one can be satisfied with his coverage of content and still fail to communicate."[5]

In the end, listening is sacrificed when so much needs to be explained and opportunities are few and far between. To listen to a person will require that we temporarily set aside our objections to what a person is saying and allow him or her to speak openly without fear of being challenged. After listening to a person's perspective, we need to dig even deeper.

Question 2: Why does this person believe?

Scholars at the Harvard Negotiation Project have served as mediators in thousands of difficult cases. They argue that when we discuss differences, most of us make the mistake of only trading conclusions, not how we arrived at those conclusions. In the heat of the moment, we merely give another person the bottom line of our convictions, not the backstory of how those convictions developed.

Proverbs 16:25 (NIV) tells us, "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death." During this crucial step in the conversation, we need to resist the urge to explain to a person why we think his position will lead to intellectual or spiritual death. Rather, we need to first understand why this way seems right to him. What a person believes is deeply entwined with his or her personal and social history. The goal is to understand why a person has embraced convictions or behaviors we find unreasonable or offensive.

All of our convictions and passions have a history to them

Psychologist and gender scholar Carol Gilligan states, "you cannot take a life out of history."[6] All of our convictions and passions have a history to them that can be traced back to the influences of our family, personal experiences, and influential people.

All three of these influences were on display with the death of Steve Jobs. While Jobs is considered one of our finest American inventors, his perfectionism and bouts of anger made it nearly impossible to work with him resulting in his once being fired by the very company he created. Understanding what fueled his anger and impossible standards would have been crucial in attempting to engage him. Biographer, Jeff Goodall, after being given unprecedented access to Jobs in the last years of his life, offers this insight:

The central trauma of his life, after all, was being given up for adoption by his parents, and now he was being kicked out of his second family, the company he founded. A close friend once speculated to me that Steve's drive came from a deep desire to prove that his parents were wrong to give him up. A desire, in short, to be loved – or, more precisely, a desire to prove that he was somebody worth loving.[7]

What impact does it have on you to know that what in part undergirded Jobs's perfectionism and anger was not narcissism but the desire of an adopted kid to prove to himself and others he was worthy of love? How much would this insight change how you interacted with him?

If we want to effectively engage people from differing perspectives, we must first create thick, not thin, impressions by asking: "When did you first start to think this way?" "Who has influenced your thinking the most concerning this issue?" "What books or movies have shaped your perspective?" "Does your perspective deviate from your parents' perspective?"

The next question is perhaps the most neglected by Christian apologists.

Question 3: Where do we agree?

The book of Proverbs extols wisdom and encourages its readers to pursue it at all costs. Wisdom is personified as a woman calling above the roar of a busy street inviting all to come to her. The writers of Proverbs firmly believed that her voice could be found not only in Israel but far beyond her borders as well. That is why the words of two non-Israelite leaders, Augur (chapter 30) and Lemuel (chapter 31), appear in the inspired book of Proverbs. "All truth belonged to and ultimately derived from their Lord no matter who experienced and expressed it", suggests Old Testament scholar David Hubbard.[8]

Focusing on common questions allows us to recognize our similarities while probing our real differences

The greatest skill needed by Christians in today's argument culture will not be the ability to debate but the ability to recognize and affirm God's truth buried in the perspectives of our neighbors and friends. In today's vitriolic communication climate, differences will be apparent; it will take skill to cultivate common ground. Like the writers of Proverbs, we need to seek out and affirm God's truth in each perspective we encounter. My ability to discover where a person's worldview overlaps with the Christian worldview often depends on where I focus the conversation. Do I focus on a person's questions or on his or her answer?

Students taking my introduction to communication theory class are surprised to see one particular textbook: the Qur'an. They are even more surprised when they learn that the first assignment isn't to attack it but to find common ground. Even though most have never read the Qur'an, they are convinced there can't possibly be agreement between it and the Bible. To start their assignment I share a quote from C.S. Lewis: "The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our friend. He need not agree with us about some answer."[9]

As they begin reading, students soon learn that while the two faith traditions often have differing answers,[10] they ask and value similar questions. "What is God like?" "Who is Jesus?" "What is our responsibility to the poor?" "What is the role of prayer?" "Is there an afterlife?" "Is there a final judgment?" "If so, how can one be saved?"

Focusing on common questions allows us to recognize our similarities while probing our real differences.

Question 4: Based on this knowledge, how should I proceed?

What should the Christian communicator do once he or she has listened and cultivated common ground? In other words, what should you do when it's your turn? The answer in part comes in the book of Proverbs' careful description of how a discerning person sets out to build a house of wisdom. "By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches" (Proverbs 24:3-4 NASB). This proverb mirrors the communication strategy we have been considering.

In step one, by asking, "What do they believe?" we are gathering knowledge – facts, information, beliefs, and convictions. In steps two and three, the answers to "Why do they believe?" and "Where do we agree?" help us prioritize facts and cultivate common ground, which is the foundation of true understanding. Step four requires that we allow our personal communication to be molded by wisdom – in this case, the artful application of knowledge and understanding to people.

I chose to dig deeper rather than challenge

Step four requires that we ask the oft-neglected question: "With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the one thing I should say?" Notice the question asks what is the next thing, not three or four things, you want to say. When teaching this method to others, I force them to identify a single communication goal – to rebut, clarify, cultivate more common ground, gather more information, affirm the relationship, or set up the next conversation.

When I was in grad school first developing this strategy, I had a memorable opportunity to apply this question. During a public speaking course, a young woman began her speech by lifting up a Bible and saying, "The holy Word of God." She then threw it on the floor and proceeded to kick it across the room. With each kick pages were sent flying. In her speech, with powerful emotions surfacing, she argued that the Bible was an intolerant book that had emotionally damaged thousands of individuals. When she finished, all eyes turned toward me. How would their self-professed Christian professor respond? How would you respond in such a situation?

I was angry and insulted. I sat there, eyes looking down on some incoherent notes scribbled on a legal pad. Then, God powerfully brought to mind Proverb 12:16: "Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult." Still not looking up, I thought to myself, At this time (class is almost over), under these circumstances (roomful of watchful students), with this woman (I didn't know her well), what should be the one thing I say? I chose to dig deeper rather than challenge her harsh claim about the Bible.

I applauded her for the passion she put into her presentation. I asked her where the passion came from. What had happened in her life to foster such anger? She told the class that last year her younger sister had courageously confessed to being gay. Her small church responded by excommunicating her on Christmas Eve. You could see the hurt and anger etched on her face. Along with the class, I sat and listened as the period ended. By temporarily overlooking her offensive actions, I had preserved the relationship for future interaction.

I wish I could say that I always respond in such a way toward those who belittle or attack things dear to me. I don't. Sometimes I surprise myself how easily I respond to anger with anger or I choose debate over listening. And yet, I find that the four questions explored in this chapter give me tracks to run on when engaging situations such as this one.

The Power of Communication

As followers of Christ, we are desperate to share our story with a world that seems to be rapidly moving away from God. However, in our zeal we forget that communication is a give-and-take proposition, a right to be earned. The communication strategy we have been considering is grounded on the central presupposition of the book of Proverbs – our personal actions operate according to a cause-and-effect pattern. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes this universal pattern:

Like yields like. You get back what you put in. What goes around comes around… No matter what we sow, the law of return applies. Good or evil, love or hate, justice or tyranny, grapes or thorns, a gracious compliment or a peevish complaint – whatever we invest, we tend to get it back with interest. Lovers are loved; haters, hated.[11]

If we want our friends and neighbors to listen to our story, then we must listen to theirs. If we want others to attend to our convictions, then we must first attend to theirs. If we desire for others to cultivate common ground with us, we must do so first. In doing so, we will create a communication climate in which we can fulfill our deepest longing – engaging others in a respectful, civil way that allows us to share a perspective that has changed our lives.


  • [1] Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Random House, 1998), p.3.
  • [2] The late Christopher Hitchens expresses this hostility when he writes, "As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in different ways planning your and my destruction... Religion poisons everything." God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), p.13.
  • [3] Dave Barry, Dave Barry Turns 50 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), p.30.
  • [4] Reuel Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: The Seabury Press, 1963), p.30.
  • [5] Ibid., p.110.
  • [6] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p.xi.
  • [7] Jeff Goodall, 'The Steve Jobs Nobody Knew', Rolling Stone, Issue 11452, 27 October 2011, p.41.
  • [8] David Hubbard, Proverbs (Dallas, TX: Word Publishers), p.29.
  • [9] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p.96.
  • [10] While Muslims and Christians often disagree on how to answer these questions, there are times when the answers are similar. Christians and Muslims believe God is one (monotheistic) not a thousand like the Hindu gods or no god found in Buddhist teachings. There is also agreement that when a person dies, she or he is not caught in a cycle of rebirth (samsara) governed by the principle of karma commonly held by Buddhists and Hindus. While differing on the standards of judgment, both Muslims and Christians believe each of us after death face our Creator.
  • [11] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p.69.