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This week marks the five year anniversary of my Coming Out as an Apologist, the day I posted my very first article here. I’ve been reflecting on all that has come to pass since that day, including the crucial lessons learned, some of which were learned the hard way (in some cases, that is an understatement). Five years doesn’t sound all that impressive when you consider how long many eminent thinkers in my field have been plowing ground, but I believe I have gained some wisdom worth sharing.
Here are three (okay maybe four) insights I wish someone had shared with me very early on.
1. An apologist’s most effective work is often done in small, humble settings (for free) rather than creatively-set stages in mega-church auditoriums. That local group study, where you form real relationships with a few devoted learners who are thirsty for the knowledge you have to impart; that spontaneous, tough question from one of your kids while you’re driving all over town running errands; that coffee with a longtime friend who is struggling with fear and doubt. These appointments matter, and they matter much more than you know. A “sage on a stage” can do marvelous work for the kingdom, to be sure; but all too often, apologists (particularly emerging ones) make the mistake of gauging their fruitfulness by the number (or lack thereof) of public teaching/speaking invitations they receive or by-lines they have accumulated. This is terribly misguided. Always be ministering, in whatever setting entrusted to you; be joyful and thankful for even the smallest opportunity to use your giftedness. This demonstrates obedience and faith in God to open just the right windows of opportunity when you are sharpened sufficiently and your heart is prepared. My prayer is always “Here I am, Lord, send me!” but I have no place being finicky about where that happens to be.
2. Do not underestimate the ripple effect of your work, but realize that you may not see past the first few ripples in this lifetime. Think of the butterfly effect theory. Every action taken in faithfulness reverberates outward and forward as time goes on, in ways we cannot imagine. Treat every ministry moment as if it is the most important of your life! One summer, while teaching a study at my church, I had a conversation with a grandmother concerned by the fact that her unbelieving son (a former believer) and daughter-in-law were raising their kids in a godless home. The grandmother had never studied apologetics herself (a fact she deeply regretted), and asked me to recommend a book to help her talk with her grandkids, who were coming to visit for the summer. I completely forgot about the conversation until one day, months later, she approached me at church to tell me that her granddaughter had become a believer, after spying the book at her grandmother’s house and reading it without prompting. Think about that. All I did was suggest a book title. Only God knows the full impact that one short conversation will turn out to have.
3. Be knowledgeable about the work being done by others in (or coming into) the field, and be willing to promote quality work as often as you are able. My personal practice is to plug the notable work of others at every opportunity, whether it’s previewing a book and offering an endorsement, blogging about a great new resource, or writing social media blurbs about them. Of course, promoting your own work is necessary, but when we exhibit Christian charity towards our co-laborers by drawing deserved attention to their unique ministries, we are building each other up and furthering the mission of apologetics most effectively by making a broader range of resources better known. (I’m very excited about two upcoming books that I’ll be blogging about in the near future: One of the Few by Jason Ladd and Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain.)
4. Do not neglect your own spiritual formation. It is the most important part of equipping yourself for effective ministry. Seek to continually improve the quality of your prayer life and your study time. Be worshipful in both. Mind your moral compass diligently. As Douglas Groothuis has so beautifully put it, “Christian defenders need to know the arguments of apologetics, but they must also find their moral bearings to bear the truth nobly…Rather than packaging and selling an image, the apologist should build his ministry on integrity, service, repentance, and prayer.” (Christian Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2)
There you have it. Go forth and prosper.