Apologetics focuses on contending for the faith that was delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3). We study to show ourselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15), and always ready to offer reason for the hope we enjoy by the gospel of grace (1 Peter 3:15). The discipline of apologetics has long been strong on offering reasons, but many budding apologists have not always been equally as strong in doing so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:16, CSB). Like Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17), many defenders of Christianity have taken to social media as their preferred platform of evangelism. The digital arenas of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and now TikTok have become the center of public discourse. But a quick scroll through the comments confirms something seasoned apologists have long feared and has only gotten worse in impersonal online discussions: The rational defense of the faith has become an intellectual duel, a shouting match that aims to score points against the opposing team.
What we need now more than ever is the development of apologetic “soft skills” such as listening, interpersonal communication, and wise question asking. We hardly do our cause any favors when we steamroll both arguments and people on the path to making a point. I know I have been guilty of this more often than I want to admit.
Nearly all of us underestimate the power of listening well, I know I have. But if we want to obey God’s commands, we need to develop our listening skills. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19, ESV). A mark of a winsome apologist is our willingness to cultivate being “quick to hear” and “slow to speak.” This means calmly engaging with non-Christians and even welcoming their insights. We need to sympathetically listen to other points of view.
This is a skill that must be developed because it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, since we’re sinful creatures with the natural tendency toward intellectual and moral laziness, we’ll most likely struggle with this for the rest of our lives. As critical thinkers and good listeners, a winsome apologist doesn’t have to be defensive about their convictions. Far too often, apologists come across as smug, not granting the unbeliever a fair hearing. But that very unbeliever is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), imbued with dignity and honor.
Arrogance does not grow in the soil of the genuine gospel of grace. According to Scripture, we’re not delivered because we’re wiser, more spiritual, or more ethical than others. We belong to Christ solely by grace, not by our superior ethical life or intellect, therefore we should expect others to frequently see things and know things we do not.
1 Peter 3:15-16 commands us to be ready to not only to defend the faith, but also to be ready to do so with “gentleness and respect” (ESV). God commands that we respect even those that may potentially harm us (1 Peter 3:14,17). We show respect to others, not simply because it’s nice, not only because it keeps the non-Christian engaged, but also because we want to “[keep] a clear conscience ” that testifies to God’s wisdom (1 Peter 3:16, NIV).
A winsome apologist values the importance of interpersonal communication. Discussing the deepest matters of the heart is difficult. Sometimes we need to utilize conflict resolution skills. Sometimes we have to take a non-reactionary position in discussions on the deep principles of life. For an apologist, unbelief can be unsettling, jolting, or even offensive, but we don’t have to be offensive in response. Sometimes a person’s lack of conviction is due to reasons other than stubborn unbelief. Oftentimes there are other factors that complicate apologetic conversation, and the best response is not to simply repeat the argument.
In interpersonal communication, reading the person is often more important than addressing their propositions. This is why Jesus frequently appears to respond to questions and objections in ways that both get to the heart of the matter and seemingly avoid the actual words of his objector.
A case in point, take Jesus being called the Son of God. For Christians, this is simply a truth we believe because the Bible says it is so. However, for many who were raised in Muslim backgrounds, this is an offensive and odd doctrine. They will be quick to say that God does not and cannot have a son. To say that God is “father” to Jesus, or to say that Jesus is the “son” of God means that Jesus is the result of sexual intercourse (often pictured between God and Mary). Clearly this is not what historic Christianity has meant by the term. We need to provide clarification, not repetition. We cannot keep stating our beliefs without providing context. Nonbelievers will shut down when we don’t provide clarification. Knowing the background that a nonbeliever is communicating from isn’t magic. It won’t necessarily reduce the scandal of the incarnation in their eyes, but it does clear one unnecessary barrier to apologetic dialogue. When you have a clearer understanding of the cultural and personal background of the person you are engaging with, you are better equipped to communicate with them on a deeper level.
Mary Jo Sharp writes, “Out of great love for people Jesus invited them to examine their beliefs and their way of thinking to uncover the truth.” He often did this through the use of wise question-asking. According to one tally of the Gospels, Jesus asked over three hundred questions. Apologists should learn from His example. Questions draw people in and expand curiosity. Questions show that we’re really interested, but they can also help reveal flaws in attacks against Christianity.
Each type of question is a tool we can use to draw out a different reflective process on the part of the responder. Here are a few examples:
- Open-ended questions: require more than one-word answers.
- Close-ended questions: require a direct response. Usually Yes or No questions.
- Probing questions: intended to help the other person think more deeply about the issue under discussion.
- Paraphrasing questions: repeat the other person’s ideas in your own words, retaining the original thought, statement, or question. Great for clarification.
- Hypothetical questions: not based on facts, but rather on a hypothetical scenario. Oftentimes in apologetics these kinds of questions are employed to reveal double standards or consistencies in the other’s point of view.
- Leading questions: prompts or encourages toward a desired answer.
- Reflective questions: designed to encourage someone to discuss and analyze his or her practice.
When we cultivate our apologetic soft skills, we more closely model Christ’s winsome way of connecting with people. Yes, we should familiarize ourselves with apologetic arguments. Yes, we must learn the facts. But when we bring them out, how we present them, and to what degree our apologetics should take the offense is left to the wisdom that comes with being in the moment. Listen. Seek to understand others backgrounds. Ask wise questions. The more you allow others to speak, the better equipped you become (if you’re truly giving them the self-denying gift of listening) to hear their heart. The more you allow others to speak, the better equipped you are to speak the truth in love in a way that doesn’t treat them as an abstract philosophical position. As Proverbs instructs us, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Proverbs 16:23, ESV).
 Mary Jo Sharp, Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2012), 78
Published August 1, 2022