I met Harry through a friend. Harry recently walked away from Christianity, but was seeking out conversations with local pastors to process his thoughts more. “I’ve met with just about every pastor I can, but no one ever wants to meet more than once,” he told me later. Maybe they saw Harry as a hopeless case. Or maybe his questions were too hard. I don’t know. After a few meetings, I wasn’t sure how much I was helping. But eventually he explained why he enjoyed our conversations. “When I ask a question, you pause and give it serious thought. You don’t have a quick answer.”
Truth be told, he stumped me sometimes. Not that I couldn’t offer a stock answer—I’ve got plenty of those. But some of his questions were ones I also wrestle with, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, offer an answer that I didn’t find satisfying. Since that time, Harry has attended three different apologetic presentations I’ve given, two of them to Christian audiences. I’ve had him speak in an apologetics class. Our families have become friends. But as far as I can tell, he’s no closer to embracing Christ again.
Working Humility into Apologetic Discourse
My relationship with Harry illustrates, in faltering fashion, the way I’ve tried to go about the ministry of evangelistic apologetics in the past few years. It’s been a paradigm shift for me. I’ve been trying to work humility into the dough of my apologetic discourse. (It’s a daunting thing to write about one’s own efforts at humility—it tends to vanish like mist as soon as you talk about it. But it’s important to try nonetheless.) Over the last several years, I’ve felt the need to move away from what I call the “competitive model.” This model sets winning the argument as the goal. Interlocutors become opponents; conversations become contests. Too much of what passes for apologetics is done in this mode. What I’ve tried to move toward is what I call the “servant model” of apologetics—a way of interacting that sets the good of the other as the goal.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Several factors have caused my shift. The most significant factor is the one I will focus on in this essay—effectiveness in persuasion. Over the last decade, I’ve become more convinced that the competitive model is ineffective in most ordinary contexts. The servant model, I think, best embodies the humility of Peter’s admonition to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). Below, I give a brief sketch of what the servant model looks like, and why I believe it to be more effective than the competitive model, preceded briefly by some clarifying remarks about apologetics in general.
A Breakdown of Apologetics
Roughly, I take ‘apologetics’ to be the ministry of helping people become more convinced that the gospel (and the Christian worldview in general) is true. David Horner also points out that apologetics can defend the goodness and beauty of God, so perhaps we’ll limit our discussion to alethic apologetics, as opposed to moral or aesthetic apologetics. (Henceforth, I’ll let ‘apologetics’ refer to ‘alethic apologetics.’) But alethic apologetics can be carved up into ministries that aid both Christian and non-Christian audiences. The latter I will call evangelistic apologetics, and the former I’ll call (for lack of a better term) non-evangelistic apologetics. My primary focus in this essay is on evangelistic apologetics.
We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
But even evangelistic apologetics seems divisible into more than one species. Apologetic ministry with non-Christians works as both a preventative and as a corrective. Preventative apologetics attempts to extinguish the fallacious memes that circulate in our culture and poison the heart’s soil against the gospel. (Perhaps what Paul had in mind in 2Cor. 10:5?) Calvin alluded to this kind of ministry in his Institutes as working to “stop the mouths of the obstreperous.” When engaging in preventative work, the apologist is not necessarily concerned with the redemption of her interlocutors. Rather, it is the collective zeitgeist of the culture and the particular plausibility structures of individual seekers that are in focus. The competitive model of apologetics may be appropriate in preventative endeavors. As J. Gresham Machen wrote in Christianity and Culture (1951):
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. (pp. 162-3)
On the other hand, corrective evangelistic apologetics is “weed pulling.” Like its horticultural analog, corrective apologetics seeks to neutralize and remove beliefs and ideas that hinder the germination of faith on an individual level. We need the humility of the servant model here—perhaps today more than ever. Below, I offer a sketch of the servant model (and its contrast to the competitive model) and give two reasons why it is the preferred mode for corrective evangelistic apologetics, if not all apologetics.
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Contrasting Approaches to Apologetics
Contemporary apologetics seems dominated by the competitive model. If all apologetics were preventative work, this might be fine. I consider the traditional debate, such as those of William Lane Craig, an excellent example of preventative apologetics appropriately done in a competitive model. However, when the debate paradigm becomes the ideal, evangelism suffers. The debate approach is mostly ineffective in leading individual non-Christians closer to conversion. At best, its primary value lies in the impression it makes on observers and in the encouragement other Christians may receive from seeing the apologist “win,” or hearing stories about it later. Unfortunately, the Christians who sit in the audience and applaud at events like these often seek to imitate them in personal conversations, and end up either feeling inadequate to duplicate the method, or mired in futile, competitive interactions.
The vast majority of apologetics is done, not at the “big event” level, but at the grassroots level—one-on-one conversations between Christians and non-Christians. This is corrective apologetics. It is in these contexts that we need a shift away from the competitive model and toward the servant model.
Though I think the concept of a “servant model” is somewhat self-explanatory, I have found some helpful thoughts in Dallas Willard’s book The Allure of Gentleness. He describes the humble attitude of the servant-apologist in three parts.
The first is to have confidence in God and his truth. We’re not nervous, and God’s not nervous either. You can ask him any question. . . Second, we are to be humble, generous, and open toward other people. If someone has a position to spell out, we listen to it. . . And, third, we are to have a true desire to lovingly serve.
This captures well the spirit of the servant model. But Willard also describes what apologetics is not, where he puts his finger on what happens when the competitive model is used in corrective apologetics.
Christian apologetics is not an attempt to prove we’re right. . . My being right might be of use to somebody, but probably not. . . The value of being right isn’t in its ability to impress someone—not even God. . . There is no need to set out to vindicate yourself, for Christ has already vindicated. . . Intellectual bullying can also be a problem. Some people feel as if their main job is to just win! One way of doing that is to belittle all objections.
The servant model takes a stance of self-emptying, to serve and be of help to others. There is little concern with one’s own reputation or status—only the other’s welfare matters. The servant apologist does not seek to win any argument. Showing weakness, admitting error, and conceding good points are anathema to the debater, but virtues of the servant.
Why We Need the Shift
Since the aim of corrective apologetics is persuasion, we should ask, “Which model best aids persuasion?” I don’t measure success in persuasion by conversions only. We must count the slow progress, often evidenced by our interlocutor’s willingness to return for ongoing conversation. “We want to hear you again on this subject,” they told Paul on Mars Hill. There are three reasons why I think the servant model is more persuasive than the competitive. First, the servant model demonstrates greater ethos; second, the servant model fosters better communication; and third, the servant model provides greater spiritual power.
One’s character is essential to one’s ability to evangelize and defend the gospel.
“We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others . . . Character is almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion.” Aristotle’s insightful observation, found in his Rhetoric, tells us that if we want to be persuasive, it is better to be kind than clever. Debates in the competitive mode don’t always showcase our good-hearted disposition. Debates can be rough. Setting aside the need to win and trying to humbly serve, with no concern for reputation or rightness, communicates ethos. In a time when Christians are portrayed as combative and mean-spirited, we need displays of ethos more than ever. Humility is the music we want accompanying our words.
The Biblical writers agree. One’s character is essential to one’s ability to evangelize and defend the gospel. The classic apologetic passage in 1 Peter 3 is often quoted without including the entire thought. Peter intentionally weds together the logos with the ethos. “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Jesus emphasized the importance of ethos in those seeking to represent him (John 13:35). Paul tells us that “[T]he Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all . . . patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition”(2 Timothy 2:24). And let’s not forget Proverbs! People listen to those whom they trust as good.
Contemporary psychological research also supports the idea that humility, powerful in its ethos, is of great significance when attempting to communicate with and persuade another person who holds a contrasting worldview. In a 2017 study, psychologists observed that humble people were less likely to generate negative impressions in others, and that humility fosters cooperation and sharing in others. Another paper argues not only that humility is significant in improving communication in certain contexts, but that it is of greater significance than knowledge and expertise (logos). The sharpness and cogency of our answers to the objections of our interlocutors is less important than the humility with which they are dispensed. The servant mindset, which focuses on ethos rather than logos, aids persuasion, while the competitive mode bogs it down.
Clear, on-target communication is essential for persuasion in apologetics. There are at least two reasons why the servant model will produce more effective communication than the competitive model. First, the humility required in the servant model enables the apologist to be less self-focused and more focused on the needs of their interlocutor. This, in turn, enables the apologist to tailor their communication for greater effectiveness. Second, the humility of the servant model allows us to avoid the pitfalls of common cognitive biases that inhibit effective apologetic engagement.
I have found from experience that novice apologists often approach each person with a cookie-cutter strategy. Rather than asking questions and carefully diagnosing the intellectual obstacles, they launch into pre-prepared arguments for standard objections. Often, these miss the mark and are of little help. I have also seen and experienced highly educated apologists give responses that miss the mark, often because they resort to the answers in which they are well-versed or which sound the most impressive. In his book, Tell It Often, Tell It Well, Mark McCloskey describes three stages that communicators go through in developing their effectiveness. The beginner is self-centered, more concerned with what others think of them than with the needs of their interlocutor. The intermediate communicator is message-centered, focused mostly on the logos and getting the message right. The mature communicator is other-centered, intent on listening and understanding the needs of their interlocutor in order to maximize effectiveness.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
The servant model also helps the apologist enhance effectiveness in persuasion by avoiding common cognitive biases. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a documented phenomenon in which the person with little knowledge of a particular subject overestimates their competence relative to other people (the reverse is true, as well). Apologists with a servant mindset are less likely to fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect because they are more likely to honestly admit areas of ignorance. Those using the competition model will feel additional pressure to put on a good front and minimize their own shortcomings. In the same way, I think that apologists using the competition model are also more likely to fall prey to confirmation bias and something called “bias blind spot.” Bias blind spot is thinking of yourself as less biased than other people. Again, I think the apologist who takes the humble stance of a servant, rather than competitor, will be more likely to honestly assess themselves and even admit their own biases. The servant has nothing to lose by doing so, where the competitor does.
Power and Persuasion
Finally, the Christian apologist should remember that her project is ultimately a spiritual one. Given the natural resistance to the gospel present in every human heart, the apologist’s efforts will fall short without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This fact should, of course, generate a response of humility in the apologist. But humility must also precede the apologist’s efforts if they are to expect God’s participation and blessing. The scriptures are clear that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Those who lean on and revel in their own intellectual prowess and skillful speech should expect humbling, not exaltation (Mt. 23:12). The student of Biblical history knows that God delights in displaying his power through broken, weak vessels (2 Cor. 4:5-12), and that God’s power is perfected in weakness and humility (2 Cor. 12:9-10). This model embodied by Paul, in which he paradoxically “boasts” in his weaknesses (2 Cor. 11:30) is profoundly counter-cultural. Most of the apologists I see appear to be working very hard to impress their audience with their intellect and wit. Instead, we should admit our weaknesses to our skeptical friends, and make more room for the grace of God.