The Ecclesial Apologetic for God: Becoming a Good Church in the Eyes of a Watching World

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As a lecturer in apologetics, teaching others to defend and commend the Christian faith, I’m convinced that Christianity makes more sense of our human experience than any other worldview, religious or secular. Followers of Jesus, today, need to share a coherent faith that corresponds to the way the world actually is. And we must answer secularist ideas proudly declaring that the material universe is all there is, so ‘God botherers’[1] should get back in their box, privatising their faith. I praise God for the courageous and wise work of intellectual apologists like John Lennox, who swim against the tide of atheist scholars and boost everyone’s confidence to proclaim Christ’s Lordship in the public square.

It’s just that arguing this case to my secular friends often leaves them cold. By itself, it’s not enough.

I remember iniviting one such friend to a university talk I gave on arguments for God’s existence. From most accounts, I was understandable and even-handed while pulling apart common atheistic objections. Together we explored philosophical arguments for why the universe needs a first cause; we judged the fine-tuning of the cosmos as consistent with a wise and powerful Creator; and we considered the historical case – especially through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – that ‘God is there and not silent’, as Francis Schaeffer liked to say.

My friend politely watched on as, after the talk, I engaged with sceptics angry at my supernatural take, and Muslims appreciative of the Kalam cosmological argument, but questioning the nature of this God. When chatting afterwards, though, it was obvious I’d missed the mark. The arguments failed to speak to the logic of her heart. Her desires. Her loves and hates.

My friend only showed up because she trusted me personally, and could see in our church community a quality of grace in short supply elsewhere. She wasn’t wrestling with abstract questions fired by detractors like Richard Dawkins and the not-so-new atheists. Rather, she was wanting to make sense of why we would give our lives for something bigger than the here-and-now, building a community around Jesus’ way of life.

We were intriguing to her, and broke the mould. Based on media portrayals and some of her encounters with proud apologists quick to answer but slow to listen, she expected Christianity to be full of bigoted hypocrites. Religious conviction looked irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst, characterised by church abuse, religious violence, financial scandals, and judging the LGBT community over sexual ethics. The apologetic my friend needed would address these stumbling blocks with the evidence of attractive lives. She wanted to see the effect Jesus had in everyday living, at the heart of what was truly important in her worldly experience: work, family, friendship, and managing mental health. What kind of apologetic can do this in post-Christendom Europe?

As countless studies, like the European Values Survey (EVS), demonstrate, Europe continues to secularise. Christian belief and practice is falling away. But for most citizens, they can’t be bothered debating what looks unimportant in their day-to-day. In his analysis of the EVS, Jim Memory concludes, ‘Apologetics that is targeted on atheism is only reaching a tiny proportion of Europe’s population. The much greater challenge is reaching the huge number of unbelieving Europeans who are indifferent to Christianity and consider religion an irrelevance to modern life.’

We desperately need a broader agenda for apologetics.

What if, as John Stackhouse argues, apologetics is ‘anything that points to the plausibility and credibility of the gospel; all we say and do that can help those who are not (yet) Christian take Christianity and the gospel more seriously than they previously did’? How might this shift our imagination and way of representing Christ in the public square? The force of persuasion suddenly shifts from abstract arguments to the integrity of a community whose life together puts skin on the claims of the kingdom. Sacred arguments are embodied in the secular realm.

Take one of the church’s first apologists, Justin Martyr. He made brilliant arguments in the second century to defend Christians against accusations that their brand of religion poisoned everything. He even made the case that Christianity was morally superior to its competitors, drawing on philosophy to defend the freedom to follow Jesus and point people to him in the marketplace. And yet, his neighbours needed more than this for his apologetic to stick.

As historian Rodney Stark explains, it was the whole-life witness of Christian martyrs following Jesus’ path of loving sacrifice that transformed the Roman Empire and made this strange faith worth believing in. When facing plagues far worse than the Covid pandemic, Christians stayed in the cities to nurse neighbours back to health or hold them close as life faded away. It was this embodied ‘moral argument’ that first Christianised Europe.[2]

In Julian the Apostate’s Epistle to Pagan High Priests, written as the last pagan emperor of Rome, he complains of Christian goodness and charity enticing local citizens to change faith: ‘These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes…. Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.’

This apologetic is arguably more important in Twenty-First Century post-Christian Europe than it was in Justin Martyr’s day. In a secular age, winning arguments comes less from robust debate or even the historical record, however well we can tell this amazing story. More powerful is the authority of authenticity: lives lived beautifully and compellingly among our neighbours as a witness to something (or someone) beyond the here-and-now.

This is not an intellectual argument, but a moral one. The biblical understanding of ‘the beauty of holiness’ (1 Chr. 16:29; 2 Chr. 20:21; Ps. 96:9; Heb. 13:18) can help us: the NASB translates Psalm 29:2 as calling for us to ‘Worship the LORD in holy array’, in brilliant colour reflecting the rainbow-like unity-in-diversity that is our triune creator. What might this look like today, through our churches sent together as witnesses in the world?

Redemption required incarnation – not a clever tweet from heaven or precise syllogism scrawled onto a sandwich board. Missiologist Michael Pucci explains, ‘for the gospel is not a law or a disembodied message that God wants to convey, but the living, breathing word of the Kingdom exampled in its messengers. … Our brokenness and continuing transformation is a key part of what we testify to. The authenticity of transparency is a powerful vehicle of the gospel.’[3]

In his letter to the scattered exiles, the apostle Peter urged the growing Christian church to ‘live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Pt. 2:12).

This is the context within which we find Peter’s other famous exhortation, ‘to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Pt. 3:15). His wider call was

for the whole church to live a countercultural household code, exemplifying holiness even as they suffered persecution. Peter knew that the reasons for their hope became meaningful when they were incarnated in Spirit-empowered exemplary character, and a Kingdom-focused approach to life and work.

We might also consider Paul’s logic in his letter to the Philippians. In chapter one, God’s good work in them is working its way out, bearing fruit as a witness to Christ as they live blameless lives. Paul’s gracious suffering under persecution advances the gospel; this is their greatest source of confidence. In chapters two through four, Paul pleads with the ekklesia—that is, the church, as the ‘called out’ ones representing Christ in their specific time and place—to turn away from the idolatry of power, success, and greed, and instead embrace Jesus’ demand for humility, integrity, and simplicity.

What difference would it make if, today, we were not only to ‘hold firm to the word of life’, but to ‘shine like stars’ as we did so (Phil. 2:15–16)? If we were to control our bodies and sexual desires, channelling our energy instead towards works of righteousness(3:1–7)? If we resolved arguments with each other, were free from anxiety, always mindful of God’s peace, practicing material simplicity and financial honesty, and displaying contentment in all circumstances (3:17–21; 4:1–13)?

Both Peter and Paul are putting forth an ecclesial argument for God’s existence. The church makes credible to every citizen, past and present, that God exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6).

The way we love each other, and overflow in love for the life of the world, makes our common creator known. As we practice humility, integrity, and simplicity, individuals—whatever their intellect and ability to craft an argument—are fused into a body that looks like Jesus. We become a truly good church in the eyes of a watching world.[4] And, over time, the alluring beauty of holiness, best seen when we suffer for doing good, will be evident. The gospel is not made more plausible with better arguments alone, but with lives that allow it to take on form.

What, then, might this ecclesial apologetic look like for us as ‘called out’ ones representing Christ in our specific time and place? I long to see a movement of disciples, a community of ‘wise peacemakers’ (Mt. 5:9), who can make sense of the times we’re in and know what it takes to out-love evil with good. When we gather, we’re formed to become people who seek the shalom of the places in which we are scattered throughout the week. We are one good church commissioned to bear the presence of God in diverse cultural contexts, making a difference in whatever we do, wherever we are, whoever we are.

These whole-life disciples will have learned to follow the way of Jesus in their particular situation and moment, empowered to listen, imagine, create, and communicate. It might look like a senior accountant humbling herself to truly listen to her colleagues at work, making sense of why they’re feeling undermined by the leadership, and everyday bringing their needs to the Father in prayer. It might look like a football hooligan with a fascist bent and a history of violence, being radically saved to imagine his enemies in a rival club becoming friends and part of the same community house.[5] It could be a young mum in a close-knit accountability group where she practices Examen and open confession to keep short accounts with God, helping her deal with underlying anger; only then does she have what it takes to create a brave space thats heals rifts between parents running the toddlers’ play group. And it might look like a retiree trained to communicate to everyone on his street just why Jesus is good news, as he follows in the footsteps of the church in bygone pandemics: his evident love for each person and practical care on a first-name basis earning him the right to speak peace over their anxiety.

This is the beauty of holiness. It’s a good church filled with the Spirit, making plausible and credible the reign of God through good lives that stoke the curiosity of the most ardent sceptic. Of course, this apostolic witness works in tandem with the genius of philosophical apologists who answer tough questions and stand against the tide of European secularists who are drifting ever further from Christian belief. Nevertheless, first things first, for ‘unless we are content to answer questions no one is posing…the most urgent apologetic task of the church today is to live in the world in such a way that the world is driven to ask us about the hope we have.’[6]   

In my experience, I have seen that Christianity cannot prove or legitimate itself apart from our Christlike lives. May we, then, participate in the Lord’s work of making his church ever more radiant and beautiful, without stain or wrinkle or blemish, but holy and blameless (Eph. 5:27–28). May we once again be ‘good’ in the eyes of a watching world, ‘shining like a beacon on a hill’.  May our essential apologetic be an ecclesial one.

[1] ‘God botherer’: demeaning British slang for a person who persistently promotes religious beliefs to others, even when unwelcome.

[2] See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton, NJ: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 83–88, 189, also chapters 4 and 8.

[3] Michael Pucci, ‘The Gospel and Human Poverty,’ in Hearts Aflame: Living the Passion for Evangelism, ed. Michael Tan (Singapore: Eagles Communication, 2008), 222–224.

[4] See Mt. 5:43–48; Jn. 13:34–35; 1 Tm. 3:15; 1 Pt. 2:9–12; 1 Jn. 4:12. See also Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, ‘Creating a Goodness Culture,’ ch. 5 in A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020).

[5] This true story of Revd Dave Jeal, chaplain to the Bristol Rovers, is powerfully told by Dan Morrice in Finding the Peacemakers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021), 95–134.

[6] Philip Kenneson, ‘There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing’, in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 169.