An interview with apologist Andy Bannister
The tired discourse is that millennial Christians are leaving the church in droves. And while that topic has mostly been beaten to death, the truth is that young Christians are doubting their faith, and often, are finding that their foundations are not as strong as they should be.
Knowing this, I’ve realized how important it is to know what I believe, and be able to explain to people why I believe it. There’s a word for that: apologetics. The word comes from the Greek apologia, which means a formal written defense of one’s opinions or conduct.
Apologetics helps Christians to think through what they believe so that they will be able to make sense of the faith that they may have never questioned before. Knowing this, they’ll be able to engage with others and spread the gospel in a way that’s credible, and in a way that doesn’t shy away from the tough questions that so often catch people off guard.
One of the foremost leaders in the field is Andy Bannister. Hailing from England, Andy is the director and lead apologist for the Canadian division of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), an apologetics organization founded by Ravi Zacharias, an accomplished apologist in his own right.
I was able to catch up with Andy over the phone while he was in Vancouver, to help flesh out how he got involved with RZIM, apologetics, and why knowing why you believe what you believe is so important.
What in particular inspired you to become involved with apologetics?
Well we’ll have to go back to the late ’90s, where I was a youth worker working for a church in London (England) with Youth for Christ. One weekend my church went to a seminar on Islam. The guy who was presenting — one of the most charismatic and engaging speakers I’ve ever heard — he was doing a ministry called “Speaker’s Corner” in London.
Now Speaker’s Corner is part of one our big parks in London and it’s known in some ways as one of those world centres of free speech where you can go up and stand on a ladder and talk about whatever you want, whether it’s religion or whatever. And this speaker was using Speaker’s Corner to reach out to Muslims, because there were hundreds of them there.
So after this seminar on Islam we got to talking, got along really well, and he said to me, “Well why don’t you come on out next weekend and see what we do!” So I trucked along to Speaker’s Corner next weekend, and it turns out his idea of coming out was to have me on the ladder speaking next to him!
So I went up there in front of about 300 Muslims, and they just ate me alive. They had dozens of questions about the Christian faith, and they just destroyed me. I stepped down from the ladder thinking, “This is what I’m supposed to do, but after this I think I may just have to become a Muslim. They just had all the questions, and I have none of the answers.”
I went up there in front of about 300 Muslims, and they just ate me alive.
I lay awake that night, tossing and turning, and that morning my long-suffering wife elbowed me and asked me why. I told her what happened and she told me to read a book to help answer the questions that they’d been asking. So I went off to the bookstore and found a book on reasons for the Christian faith, and I read and I read and I read.
The next Speaker’s Corner I went back up there with the answers to every question they’d asked, but this time they had new questions. They made me look stupid all over again. We repeated this over and over, and I believe what happened was that God used that whole process to give me a love of apologetics and a love of thinking through the Christian faith, and at the same time a love for Muslims. It’s my journey with apologetics that has gone alongside my growing love for Muslims, which led me to getting a PhD in Islam. So it’s Muslims I have to think that inspired me, because if it weren’t for Muslims asking me good questions, I never would’ve grown the way I did.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing millennial Christians?
One of the first I’d say is really understanding the gospel. I think sometimes one of the reasons we don’t know how to relate the gospel to our culture is because all we know is this caricature of the gospel. An example of this is the idea that the gospel is all about moralism. The idea that if you’re a good person, you live a good life, then God will like you, and vice versa. Versions of this myth have been pernicious in the church, and I think that if you don’t understand what the gospel actually is, then you’re going to struggle wherever you are. I believe that the church has not always been altogether clear in helping young Christians articulate and decipher what the gospel is truly all about.
If you don’t understand what the gospel actually is, then you’re going to struggle wherever you are.
In relation to this, is to know why we believe the gospel. Jesus famously said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” I sometimes think that we’ve become very good at loving God with all of them except for one: our mind. I think it’s very important, especially in the age we live in, especially those who are young, is to know why we believe the things that we do.
The typical answer you get from a young Christians as to why they are a Christian is instead a story about how they became a Christian. For example, you met this guy playing hockey, you became friends, he brought you to this program called Alpha, you got involved in the church and you became a Christian. The problem with that is that you’re just telling a story, you’re recalling the narrative; you aren’t answering the real question. The same thing can be said of a Buddhist: you met them playing hockey, you became friends, he introduced you to the tenets of Buddhism, and voila, you became a Buddhist. That’s a bit of a problem.
To answer the question of why we’re a Christian we have to give good reasons for why we believe what we believe.
Where should we start when looking at how to defend our faith?
I think a good place to start is to examine what exactly we’re trying to do when we’re at work, or in university, or in any non-Christian environment. What we should be trying to do is to live as authentic disciples of Christ, who are spiritually as well as intellectually deep. We have to make sure our actions back up our words, that we live our lives with that goal in mind. Examining that, we must make sure we’re constantly building on our relationship with Christ, whether it’s through going deeply into Scripture, working on our spiritual disciplines etc. That way when non-Christians see us, they will be able to see something different about us.
We just need to learn to pause, and learn to listen.
Secondly, I think another thing is really listening to our non-Christian friends. Sometimes I think how we think is that if we read up on apologetics, devour ten books, fill our minds with arguments, then we’ll be useful. But we miss the first thing; we don’t listen to what our friends have to say. What is the culture here? What are the prevailing ideas? Why do our friends believe what they believe?
If we just learnt to stop and listen for a while, a number of things would happen. I think we would have more of an idea of how to engage with the gospel, because we would know where people are. We’d also get a reputation for being people who actually listen and engage with others.
Sometimes Christians have a reputation as people who never stop talking or as people who don’t listen. John Stackhouse from Regent College said that “apologetics is not the art of making people wish they had never asked a question.” We just need to learn to pause, and learn to listen.
Once we’ve begun to understand what the questions are that people are asking, where they’re actually at, then we can start the thinking. We can read, find the resources, and learn the answers to the tough questions that people ask that will help us engage with our culture. It’s an investment of time, but if we take the gospel seriously, we should realize that it’s worth putting time into.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Jonte Edvardson.