How often does your church host an apologetics conference?

ConferencesAs I wrote in an earlier post, many churches have given up on any kind of organized evangelism program. And those that still have them seldom find them to be effective, but they soldier on out of a sense of duty. The problem with both giving up and staying committed to an ineffective methodology is that the results are the same. Few new converts are entering the average Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church. When asked why the American church is not experiencing the explosive growth it experienced in the mid-twentieth century, few seem to have an answer.

Some complain that the world has changed. Of course the world has changed! It is always changing. Since its inception, the church has always seemed able to adapt to the political and spiritual climate wherever it has found itself. Today in the West, however, we seem completely stymied about the solution. Many churches have resorted to what theologian David Wells calls the therapeutic approach. They view themselves as dispensers of good experiences, meeting the felt needs of attenders (meaningful membership? Old-fashioned!), and assisting them on the path to self-fulfillment.

What is abandoned in this psychologically-driven approach is serious thinking fueled by serious engagement with the Scriptures, sound doctrine, and church history. Many American believers don’t know enough about the historic Christian faith to sustain a five-minute conversation. This has had profound effects upon the average Christian. With the church’s almost-exclusive focus on big events intended to draw the community into the building, believers no longer need to know how to engage unbelieving thought. All they need to know now is the date and time of the next big event so they can invite their neighbors and co-workers. Once they get their unbelieving friends to the event, the experts take over with their slick presentations and studio-quality programming. As Marshall McLuhan taught us fifty years ago, the medium is the message, and if the religious therapists are on their game, “converts” are made, a lot of back-slapping takes place, and everyone goes home to await the next big event.

All this comes at a steep price, however, and I don’t mean the hundreds of thousands spent on lights and smoke machines. The cost to the church is the loss of a congregation of discipled and well-trained members scattering to their neighborhoods, workplaces, and families, sharing the gospel, refuting unbelief and being salt and light in their own little sphere of the world.

Is this even possible? The answer is definitely yes, because that is what we are called to do in a number of passages of Scripture, most notably Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, and 1 Peter 3:15-16. The problem, however, is that we have ignored the incredible resources available to us. The corpus of church history, systematic theology and apologetics, not to mention the Scriptures themselves have been left untapped by most churches. Why? Mostly because it requires effort. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; rather it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s challenge to unbelievers needs to be heard in the church today. It is much easier to read a book by Bill Hybels than to wrestle with the roots of unbelief. It’s much easier to encourage someone to invite their friends to rocking good concert than it is to train them to engage objections to the gospel.

I spoke at an apologetics conference recently, hosted by a church in the hills of central Pennsylvania. In the middle of nowhere, this rather large and vibrant church has sprung up in recent years. I was curious how this could be, and then I discovered that the conference was an annual event. That’s right, folks. This church understands, like few others I’ve encountered, that instilling a true passion for the souls of men requires regular reinforcement and equipping. What I found was a congregation of working joes who spoke the language of engagement with unbelievers. Many of them had read the best books on apologetics and were putting into practice what they were learning. Their questions at the end of my presentations were thoughtful and demonstrated a mature wrestling with the contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. I walked away wondering why more churches do not see the need to seriously equip their members for evangelistic engagement with unbelievers.

When was the last time your church had an apologetics conference? When was the last time a significant portion of the year was given to training in evangelism for the 21st century? Such an effort would be different than training 40 years ago when the majority of people one might encounter were Roman Catholics or liberal Protestants. Today we must be ready to engage skeptics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and more. How is your church planning to fulfill this need.

If there is no ongoing program for training in evangelism and apologetics, I would question whether your church takes the Great Commission seriously. Occasional encouragements to merely share your testimony will not cut it. As the Western world becomes more hostile to Christianity, the more seriously we must engage this task. The resources are abundant, and we have no excuse for not excelling at reaching unbelievers with the gospel of Christ. While some say that the world is more unreachable than ever before, I believe that the opportunities for the light of the gospel increase as the world gets darker.

So, when was the last time your church hosted an apologetics conference?


Mark Main Pic Camp BrochureApologetics for the Church is a local church training ministry designed to equip the average Christian. Over the course of one weekend, church members can gain the skills and confidence necessary to share the gospel with anyone. Mark Farnham (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) has been teaching Apologetics in local churches for the last ten years. His doctoral work in Apologetics has opened doors to interact with all kinds of unbelievers, from doctoral students in philosophy at a Philadelphia University, to Muslims inside the mosque, to everyday people on the streets of Lancaster, PA. To contact Mark, call 215-206-7249 or email him at

What I’m Reading Wednesdays-10/28/15

Gaining by LosingGaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send, J. D. Greear (Zondervan, 2015). 256 pages. $19.99

Frankly, I did not expect much from this book. I’m not a fan of the multi-site, megachurch pastor who writes books that become best-sellers simply by getting all his church members to buy the book. However, early in this book Greear says something that flies in the face of everything the multi-site megachurch has banked on for decades. He argues that “increasingly, in a ‘post-Christian’ society, unbelievers will simply not make their way into our churches, no matter how ‘attractive’ we make them.”

This is exactly what I have been increasingly talking about in my apologetics ministry. The days of the big “Come and See” events as the primary evangelism strategy is drawing to a close. As the culture becomes more hostile, people are simply not going to darken the doors of a church, no matter how “cool and relevant” we seek to become. Greear proceeds to say that “if we don’t equip our people to carry the gospel outside of our meetings, our events, our gatherings and programs, we are going to lose all audience with them. A few flashier and flashier megachurches will likely keep fighting for larger pieces of a shrinking pie.” His solution? We must teach our people to engage people outside the church. Exactly.

This book is worth the read and may serve as a kick in the pants to get pastors moving on equipping their people to confidently engage unbelievers in apologetic evangelism. Buy it!

Stale White Bread: The State of Evangelism in the Church

In an article last month in Christianity Today on the state of evangelism in the American church, Ed Stetzer summarizes two recent studies by Lifeway Researchers and the Barna Group. The Lifeway study concluded what any observant ChristiaWhite-Breadn already knows—evangelism has dropped off significantly in recent decades. Most Protestant Christians (85%) believe they have a responsibility to share the gospel, but only a few (25%) actually do so, or plan to do so.

Why is this? As with any issue, the answer is complex, but I can suggest several reasons.

First, evangelism training has not changed much in 50 years. The last evangelism training many Christians received was the same as what their grandparents received, even though the world has drastically changed. Post-WWII evangelism was primarily aimed at Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants, both of whom held to a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of man’s ability to merit God’s favor to some extent through good works. These were people who already believed in the Christian God (to some extent), and who already respected the Bible. Evangelism, therefore, was primarily focused on showing the listener from the Bible that salvation was by grace, not works. From the 1940’s through the 70’s, this strategy worked quite well, as untold numbers were saved and churches grew. But it inherently lacked any great substance, like white bread. It appeared to be nutritious for the church, but it lacked any substance.

By the 80’s and 90’s this form of evangelism began to decrease in its effectiveness. Postmodern skepticism, the public failure of influential Christian leaders, and the influx of world religions through immigration changed the fabric of American society. No longer could evangelists assume that their hearers believed what had been widely held a few decades before. Now they were encountering objections to the Christian faith from a variety of directions. Believers found themselves having to defend the Bible and Christianity in ways many felt ill-equipped to do well—textual criticism, the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith among world religions.

Coinciding with this change in the culture was the Church Growth Movement’s emphasis on the “come and see” approach to reaching the lost. This is the second reason many Christians don’t share the gospel—the whole idea of serious discipleship and the “go and tell” of the Great Commission has been superseded. Removing anything that could be remotely offensive to unbelievers, these proponents sought to massage the unbeliever into the kingdom. I have met many attenders of CGM that were no clearer on the gospel than the average Muslim or Mormon, because the sharp edges of sin, wrath, repentance and belief had been whittled down to having an emotional experience with God. Christians in these types of churches, like toothless, domesticated bears at a roadside attraction, are reduced to inviting their friends and neighbors to the next “super” event at their megachurch, because they themselves have never been equipped.

The stale evangelism training of the previous generations fails in today’s world. This was brought home to me powerfully while speaking at a family camp in St. John, New Brunswick last summer. A retired pastor of 50 years, now in his late 70’s, approached me after I gave a session on apologetics. He grabbed my hand firmly and said, “That’s what we should have been teaching all these years! We have been teaching evangelism all wrong!” In other words, the canned approach of spitting out a gospel formula failed to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles in their evangelism, and therefore was unable to deal with objections and challenges. This elderly saint recognized the power in an apologetic approach that enabled one to “go and tell.”

That brings us to the Barna study, which found that 65% of Millennials (those born between 1980 and the mid 2000’s) had shared their faith in the last year with an unbeliever. This is encouraging news. And it doesn’t surprise me as an undergraduate professor. Much more than my generation, the Busters, younger Christians seem motivated to know their faith and to boldly share it.

There are many factors involved in this generational shift, but one I believe is a major part of this move is the resurgence of apologetics. With the advent of the internet the availability of resources for defending the Christian faith have become ubiquitous. Younger Christians who are tech-savvy can easily find and learn apologetic answers to the challenges that arise against their faith.

The younger generation may be able to revive the evangelistic fervor of the American church that the Busters and Boomers lost. Rather than see the declining state of evangelism as something to mourn, we ought rather to perceive it as an opportunity for a new, more potent and effective form to rise from its ashes. This new evangelism will be apologetically equipped and ready for the challenges that arise. We may yet see a great revival of evangelism in our day.

God Rests Too Inconsequentially in the American Church


Twenty years ago Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary church historian David Wells wrote,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.

David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 28.

A Worship Book that Will Edify and Instruct

imagesIn the last few years, books on worship seem to be either so practical as to be thin on their biblical and theological development, or conversely so abstract and philosophical that they are of little value to the church. Daniel Block’s newest book, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014) splits the difference between these extremes. Rather than being arranged chronologically, the chapters are arranged topically in a most helpful way. Block’s approach is thoroughly biblical, plumbing the depths of worship throughout Scripture, yet it is very accessible. There is a heavy emphasis on principles derived from the Old Testament (which he argues should be called the “First” Testament), since, as he argues, the majority of instruction concerning worship comes from that part of Scripture. He does not shy away from the New Testament, however, and spends a fair amount of time in the Gospels, which are often under-represented in books on worship.

Because we often use the term “worship” to refer to congregational singing in a corporate church service, some may be mistaken about the contents of the book. Although Block does apply his biblical theology to congregational singing, the focus is much broader. His early chapter topics include: the object and subjects of worship, daily life as worship, and family life and work as worship. The content of these chapters is simply outstanding. My copy of the book is so thoroughly marked and highlighted that there is hardly a page on which I did not find an insightful gem worth noting. The later chapter topics still follow the format of biblical theology (moving through Genesis to Revelation while noting the progression of revelation), but they have more application to corporate gatherings of the church.

Block helpfully sums up his 400 page study with a one sentence definition of worship: “True worship involves reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord to his will.” This careful thesis is eloquently developed throughout the volume, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting both an academic and personally edifying guide to biblical worship.

Preachers should be like naughty children

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills…and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross–and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they wont be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone–and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness–they will be of very little use in the pulpit.

Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.

Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.

To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.

Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:

This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account?  Not the man in the small church.  Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context.  And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach.  What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?  The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday.  Yes, I would love a few hundred more.  If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch.  But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful.  I guess that is the word.

So what about the successful?  Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church?  One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score.  Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.

The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply.  This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so.  It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true.  You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.

… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.  Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success.  You just can’t beat it.

And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone.  “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”

I think we would do well to consider.

10 Mistakes Churches Make in Choosing a Pastor

1. Not choosing the right people for the pastoral search committee
2. Prayerlessness
3. Being people-centered rather than Word-centered
4. Lack of follow-through and due-diligence by the pastoral search committee
5. Impatience that leads to the wrong decision
6. Failure to properly administrate the pastoral search
7. Inadequate communication
8. Failure to adequately budget for the pastoral search
9. Allowing the experience with the previous pastor to direct the calling of the next pastor
10. Spending too much time trying to call pastors who are not “reasonably gettable”

Chris Brauns, When the Word Lead Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles & Practices to Guide Your Search (Moody 2o11)

Pastors on Pedestals

The first danger I want to highlight is that of the celebrity pastor who is ultimately so big as to be practically beyond criticism.  Some pastors are just so successful as communicators that, frankly, they are placed on a pedestal and become, in both their precept and example, authoritative sources of wisdom to their followers.  In part this is because many rightly think that thankfulness, not criticism, should be the appropriate response to seeing the Lord bless a ministry. Who really wants to criticise a man who brings so many the good news? Yet in an age where sheer numerical success and the ability to pull in the punters and keep them enthralled is often assumed to be a clear sign of faithfulness, there are dangers of which we must be aware…

Praise God for preachers whose ministries are extraordinarily blessed; but let us hold them to the same exacting standards as Paul held the super-apostles in Corinth.   Celebrity ministers who act as influential lone rangers in constituencies where there is no accountability can prove remarkably dangerous.  And if they do not come up to snuff on standards of life and doctrine, let us not pretend otherwise, or trade off fidelity for eloquence or stage presence.  Make no mistake: tomorrow’s church will be the epitaph of today’s leaders.

Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary