Great to hear from you, and hope the work is going well in Northern Ireland!
We really appreciate your observation, and we think you are absolutely right about there being a missed opportunity in our all-too-frequent failure to link up the early discipleship of new Christians alongside apologetics. When you think about it, it’s actually a really strange disconnect! After all, before someone becomes a Christian, we invest so much time answering their questions. Then, all of a sudden, as soon as they’ve prayed a prayer of commitment, we often sweep them into Church community with little regard for the fact that Christianity is still going to feel very strange to them in many ways, and that they are at the beginning, not the end, of their question asking.
This was driven home for us just last month, when Jo met up with a student in California that she’d had the opportunity to pray with to become a Christian a year earlier. While it was amazing to reconnect, it was also discouraging to see that in terms of her intellectual understanding of the Christian faith, and consequently her intimacy with the Lord, this student had barely moved forwards from where she was a year ago. She shared that after becoming a Christian, she had joined a campus ministry that she still regularly attended, but she was disheartened as she felt like what she encountered was a bunch of guys who were interested in dating her (!), when what she was seeking was an intellectual community who were interested in exploring with her the deep questions of faith that she was still wrestling with.
We find it helpful to think of becoming a Christian as starting a new relationship. One of the greatest joys of starting a relationship with someone is that, as you say, you are embarking on an adventure of discovery. Two of the key components in any new relationship are that you get to know one another and you enjoy being together.
In some ways, this is a bit of a balancing act. For example, if you focus exclusively on asking questions without also taking the time to just enjoy each other’s company by doing things together that you love to do, then you may wind up compiling a database about the other person, but you won’t be growing relationally closer to each other. This is a bit like a guy who admires a woman from a distance and always inquires of others about her but can’t work up the nerve to actually talk to her.
On the other hand, if you spend all your time just having fun together, perhaps because you’re scared of asking the deeper questions, then the relationship becomes frustrating and shallow, and in the long run it will be unsustainable. The key, then, when it comes to the relationship between discipleship and apologetics (both for new believers, and for the rest of us!) is not to let your intimacy outstrip your knowledge, or to allow knowledge to outstrip intimacy. Rather, we must recognize that knowledge fosters intimacy, intimacy enhances knowledge, and that we need both.
With this in mind, one approach that we are advocates for are seeker Bible studies. It’s good to start with the Bible not only because it’s our primary means of learning how to listen to God, but also because it means that any apologetic questions are first and foremost centered around the core essentials of faith, rather than heading off down rabbit trails that may or may not be helpful for new believers.
But if we are going to ask people to read the Bible, then we need to be sure that they start out by reading it with someone. Sometimes, we send people on their way with a Bible telling them just to go read it, without recognizing just how alien it can be to our culture today, and without giving people the basic interpretative skills to know how to read it. We’d recommend starting by focusing on a gospel, and we think an excellent tool for doing this is Becky Manley Pippert’s ‘Uncovering the Life of Jesus’ (based on Luke’s gospel), which is an extremely accessible seeker Bible study designed for a Christian to read with either a seeker or a new believer, and it includes really helpful questions to direct the conversation.
In addition to this, we encourage new believers not to shy away from their many questions but to write them down in a list and bring them to the person or to the community that is discipling them (one girl that Jo mentors has started putting colored post-it notes in her Bible to highlight passages that she is struggling with from an apologetics perspective, and then they work through them together for an hour every few weeks - these days, her Bible is looking pretty colorful!).
As you go through these questions with a new believer, it’s important to help them think through, “Why am I asking this question? Why is this important to me? Does this have bearing on my faith or my relationships right now, or is this a question that we could put to the side and come returned to later?”
We say this because early on in discipleship, the key goal is first and foremost to get to know Jesus, rather than getting distracted by side projects. There’s a reason that you spend some time getting to know someone well before you invite them home to meet all of your extended relations, and your strange cousins, and initiate them into all the weird and wonderful rituals that make up your family! Otherwise, you may completely overwhelm them! Likewise, we think it’s important with Christian discipleship that we start with getting to know Jesus, and focusing our questions around him (for some resource suggestions, see our answer to Joe’s question above). Once we know Jesus, then there is a stability and confidence to our relationship from which we can go on to explore the mysteries and complexities of faith, but we find it healthy and effective to begin by majoring on the majors.
Another piece of practical advice that we frequently remind ourselves of is that when it comes to discipleship, it’s more important that we help people to become Christians than that we try to make them our type of Christian. This can be a huge temptation, because by default we all believe our own views to be the right ones, or we wouldn’t hold them! But when it comes to answering the questions of a new believer, we need to be careful not to create stumbling blocks for them by always providing them with definitive answers to secondary and tertiary questions that orthodox Christians may legitimately differ on.
Alongside this, patience is key. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how long it took us to come to a specific theological position, and so the temptation is to hurry others along to seeing things our way, rather than allowing them the space and time to enjoy the journey that God is taking them on.
And even as we (rightly) encourage their questions, we still need to be careful that we don’t give the impression that once you become a Christian, you should expect an answer to everything. It’s a privilege how much God does reveal to us about himself, because he truly wants us to know him intimately. And yet, to slightly adapt an analogy used by Tim Keller, becoming a Christian is like falling off a cliff to find yourself caught by a tree branch stops your fall: it’s not your own strength that saves you, it’s the strength of the branch. Likewise, even as we learn to love God with our minds, we also have to hold to the truth that our salvation doesn’t rest upon our reasoning abilities, or the strength of our arguments, but upon the sacrifice that God made on our behalf.
Over time, however, encouraging new believers to write down their questions and bring them into a forum or context where they feel comfortable asking them can be a powerful exercise. Then, as the months go by, they can look back on their questions, see just how many have been answered, and realize just how robust the Christian worldview is in dealing with their biggest questions of life.
One other crucial practice that we would recommend would be not to wait to invite new believers into evangelism, but to get alongside them and encourage them into it early on. We say this in part because the longer a new believer waits in telling their friends and family that they’ve become a Christian, the more it hinders their own discipleship. It’s like a having a secret relationship; it is difficult to really live it out fully until you are sharing about it with others.
Additionally, the sooner a Christian begins talking about their faith, the sooner they will come to realize what the key questions really are, and what they themselves need to know not only to be effective in evangelism, but to grow in confidence in their own faith.
We also believe that while it can sometimes be difficult to see God at work in your own heart or your own life, there is nothing more compelling or faith building than seeing the Holy Spirit at work in evangelism, convicting and transforming other people’s lives. We can both say that nothing was more confirming of our faith than the first time that we saw someone’s eyes light up as they began to see Jesus for who he truly is.
People often think that they need to take some kind of course, or have a certain number of years in church, or have a certain amount of theological knowledge before they are qualified to share with others about Jesus. We don’t see biblical warrant for this thought, and our experience is the opposite: that it is precisely by getting out there and sharing the faith that we are in turn built up and established in faith, as we receive the incredible encouragement that the God of the universe delights in using us—despite all of our faults and imperfections—for his grandest purpose of inviting people into his kingdom.
We see a biblical example of this in John 4, when after encountering Jesus, the Samaritan woman (the first evangelist described in John’s gospel!) immediately runs back to her town and declares to them, “Come, see the man who told me everything I ever did! Could he be the Messiah?” (John 4:29) So compelling was she in both her witness and her transformation that the town first believes because of her testimony, before going on to encounter Jesus for themselves. Likewise, in Mark 5, after Jesus heals the demon-possessed man, rather than taking him along even though he begs to go with them, Jesus commands him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done or you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). So he does, “and all the people were amazed” (Mark 5:20). How remarkable that while our instinctive response in that situation would be to think the man needs further discipling before he is anywhere near ready to bear witness, Jesus’ response is the exact opposite. He tells him to go.
The week after Vince became a believer in college, he was taken on a mission trip over spring break to Panama City Beach. At that point he didn’t even know what a missions trip was, and he had almost no idea what he was doing. Yet he traces his passion for sharing the gospel and coming alive in the Christian faith to that week when for the first time he had the chance to share with others about what Jesus had done in his life. Holding people back from evangelism only creates fear of evangelism, so let’s come alongside new believers and invite them into a life of not only discipleship but disciple-making!
These are just some of our own reflections on evangelism and apologetics within the discipleship process. For further suggestions on specific resources for new believers, both in terms of discipleship and apologetics, please check out our answer to Joe’s question above, which we’ll be posting later today. In the mean time, keep up the good work, Mitch! You are blessing so many young people in your country both in your evangelism and your discipleship, and it is a privilege to work with you and learn from you.
Jo and Vince