Street Smarts: The Value of Cultural Awareness

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from Persuasive Apologetics: The Art of Handling Tough Questions Without Pushing People Away
by Jeffrey M. Robinson

Gordon R. Lewis recognizes that while rational arguments do not manufacture faith, they may create “the atmosphere in which belief can come to life.”[1] Rational arguments serve as a tool to unlock areas of the mind that would otherwise remain closed to the claims of Christianity. Nevertheless, apologists should not only receive their “what” from Jesus but also their “how.” Scandals too numerous to list sadly result in a general societal distrust of political and church leadership. To effectively communicate in this climate, apologists must realize that many of their listeners are guarded against those who expressly or tacitly say, “Trust me.” So here’s the uncomfortable truth: in the current cultural environment, apologists may be the most significant aspect of their apologetic. In many eyes, character and credibility precede argumentation. Trustworthiness clears the debris from the hermeneutic of distrust and opens a necessary receptivity to truth. The apologist is the showcase for that truth. Hence Scripture’s emphasis on gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Another factor is likeability. Yes, likeability. The apologist who presents an excellent case for the gospel yet lacks winsomeness (the fruit of the Holy Spirit translated through one’s character) will experience a lessened effectiveness. Groothius warns, “The bad man with a good argument is only half clothed. One may have a sword (arguments) but lack a shield (godly character), and thus become vulnerable and ineffective. Therefore, it is wise to consider briefly the spirituality and character of the apologist before looking at the details of apologetic method.”[2] Thomas Manton, the Puritan minister, exclaimed, “Rickets cause great heads and weak feet. We are not only to dispute of the word, and talk of it, but to keep it. We must neither be all ear, nor all head, nor all tongue, but the feet must be exercised!”[3]

To be clear, there is a difference between a personal, one-on-one apologetics conversation and a public presentation. On a greater level than public, personal apologetics rises and falls with one’s ability to relationally connect with others in a meaningful way. Personal skills cannot be overestimated for disarming bias against Christianity. A respectful demeanor and integrity are indispensable. Jesus speaks to the importance of a good reputation formed by good works, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14–16). During the 2012 presidential election, a driving factor for many American voters was whether or not the candidate “understood” them.[4] Likeability is a central ingredient in emotional perception and reception. One’s character and likeability could serve as a way to prepare persons to entertain evidence for Christianity. Incorporating one’s life story into one’s apologetic has deep roots in Christian history and may bridge the experiential and personal divide. For instance, Josh McDowell once informed his audience at a major apologetics conference, “Years ago I would give the evidence and people would get saved. Now, I have to incorporate my testimony in order for people to ‘connect.’ ”[5] Groothius says that a case for Christianity in a postmodern culture should be presented “carefully, slowly and piece by piece.”[6] It does seem that conversion takes longer today than in years past.

Christians down through the ages have consistently pointed to the evidence of life change in their apologetic. Few will contest the impact of Christian martyrs on encouraging disheartened believers to remain faithful and on confirming to doubters that Christianity is worth a look. Of early Christian persecutions, Thomas Aquinas observes,

And after considering these arguments, convinced by the strength of the proof, and not by the force of arms, nor by the promise of delights, but—and this is the greatest marvel of all—amidst the tyranny of persecutions, a countless crowd of not only simple but also of the wisest men, embraced the Christian faith, which inculcates things surpassing all human understanding, curbs the pleasures of the flesh, and teaches contempt for worldly things.[7]

The early church father Athanasius (c. 296–373) also appeals to the transformative power of the gospel when he says, “Or who has so rid men of the passions of the natural man, that warmongers are chaste, and murderers no longer hold the sword, and those who were formerly mastered by cowardice play the man?”[8] There seems to be a cry for authenticity in the culture, especially among younger persons.[9] Lee Strobel humorously shares why his book The Case for Christ became so popular. During the writing process, he feared few young people would be interested in it. Only after publication did he fully realize the combined power of a candid personal journey and substantive evidence. Yes, his book contained massive amounts of evidence from world-class scholars, but it was in the form of his personal odyssey. The combined impact of individual experience and substantive data formed a story that people could identify with.[10]

In his 1968 book, Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer recounts how many Christians he surprised by how well he connected with the culture. He even uses the phrase “far-out.” You can almost feel that 1960s vibe:

Often people say to me, “How is it that you seem to be able to communicate with these far-out people? You seem to be able to talk in such a way that they understand what you’re saying, even if they do not accept it.” There may be a number of reasons why this is so, but one is that I try to get them to consider the biblical system and its truth without an appeal to blind authority—that is, as though believing meant believing just because one’s family did, or as though the intellect had no part in the matter.[11]

Schaeffer’s story may be stating the obvious, but in order to be a persuasive apologist, one must talk about apologetics with more than just other Christian apologists. To influence non-Christians, one must actually speak with non-Christians. There always lurks the danger of becoming conversationally isolated inside a Christian bubble away from the very persons Jesus calls his followers to reach.

Murphy records the stark distinction between a culturally nimble apologist and a professional theorist, “[Van Til] conceded much in a letter he wrote to Francis Schaeffer, saying, ‘You have the advantage over me. You constantly conversed with modern artists, modern existentialists, etc., as they eat at your table, study their literature. Whereas I am only a bookworm.’ ”[12] Let me be clear: In no way am I disparaging Van Til’s character or passion for the glory of God. I only seek to illustrate the critical importance of talking with the locals and learning the culture in order to be, once again, a maximally persuasive apologist. Involvement within the culture—rather than condemning the culture from the safety of pulpits or Christian conference—is a requirement for learning how to speak to the culture.

Given the accessibility of social media and other venues, it should be relatively easy for some Christians to locate the cultural pulse. We should strive toward James’s admonition, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Writing in 1968, Schaeffer raised the issue of Christian parents, ministers, and teachers not realizing how out of touch they were with their own students and children, not to mention those outside the church.[13] If this was the case in 1968—the year often identified as the crucial turning point of the cultural revolution[14]—then where is the needle today? Awareness of current scholarship is crucial to engaging with professional academics, but consistent interaction with nonacademics may be the secret sauce of truly persuasive apologetics.

Such a simple suggestion may appear less than scholarly, but the Christian apologist should seek to be characterized by the humility of Christ, who made it a point not only to associate with but also effectively communicate to societal outcasts. Christian apologists, in order to be true to their name, should follow suit.
Schaeffer concludes,

It is much more comfortable, of course, to go on speaking the gospel only in familiar phrases to the middle classes. But that would be as wrong as if, for example, Hudson Taylor had sent missionaries to China and then told them to learn only one of three separate dialects that the people spoke. In such a case, only one group out of three could hear the gospel. We cannot imagine Hudson Taylor being so hard-hearted. . . . In a parallel way we are being as overwhelmingly unfair, even selfish, towards our own generation, as if the missionaries had deliberately spoken in only one dialect. The reason we often cannot speak to our children, let alone other peoples, is because we have never taken time to understand how different their thought-forms are from ours.[15]

How should apologists bridge such a gap? Schaeffer suggests, “I try to approach every problem as though I were not a Christian and see what the answer would be.”[16] Smart thinkers listen, and those who listen grow smarter. Listening trains us. The degree to which we listen—I mean, really lean into what others are saying—is one of the most accurate barometers of our love for people and our effectiveness in helping them come to know Jesus.

Remember, people are not incarnate arguments to be intellectually chided without concern for their total personhood. Loving the discipline or the fruit of the discipline more than the Author of the apologist’s arguments. C. S. Lewis warns, “We may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger.”[17] If not exercised with appropriate humility, apologetics can become an idol, and the persons for whom apologetics is intended to reach can become mere props of the apologist’s veiled self-promotion.

In conclusion, doubt does not necessarily equate to unbelief. Gary Habermas rightly distinguishes between volitional unbelief (active rejection of God’s existence) and doubt, “Christian doubt, defined as a lack of certainty concerning the teachings of Christianity or one’s relation to them, is a very common and painful problem affecting many believers. The subject is complicated by the misconceptions and caricatures concerning doubt, which tend to militate against the finding of solutions.”[18] Persuasive apologetics involves directly addressing objections while remembering there may be other factors at play. Apologetic tactics should be servants rather than masters. Learn the traditional methods, and adapt them to your audience. This is the entire point of eclectic apologetics.

[1] Gordon R. Lewis, Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics (Chicago: Moody, 1976), 23.

[2] Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 37.

[3] Thomas Manton, An Exposition of John 17 (Evansville, IN: Sovereign Grace Book Club, 1958), 117; quoted in Stott, Your Mind Matters, 82–83.

[4] NPR Staff, “Presidential Politics: Does Likeability Matter?,” National Public Radio, October 7, 2012,

[5] Josh McDowell, “Reaching a Postmodern Generation,” Enrichment Journal: A Journal for Pentecostal Ministry, Summer 1999.

[6] Groothius, Christian Apologetics, 50.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Contra Gentiles,” in Bush, Classical Readings in
Christian Apologetics, 279. Athenagoras’s plea exudes this power:

Allow me here to lift up my voice boldly in loud and audible outcry, pleading as I do before philosophic princes. For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such like instructions to make them happy: who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them (to abstain from which of itself an evidence of no mean forbearance), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? (“A Plea for the Christians,” in Bush, Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics, 43–44).

[8] Athanasius, “On the Incarnation,” in Bush, Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics, 187–88.

[9] Carl F. H. Henry writes, “Contemporary philosophy’s extremity is historic Christianity’s opportunity.” Remaking the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 7.

[10] Lee Strobel, “The Case for Christ” (lecture, National Apologetics Conference, Charlotte, NC, October 18–19, 2009).

[11] Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 84.

[12] Murphy, Voices of Reason in Christian History, 3; quoting Cornelius Van Til, “Letter from Cornelius Van Til to Francis Schaeffer,” Ordained Servant 6, no. 4 (1997): 79.

[13] Murphy, Voices of Reason in Christian History, 94. Schaeffer identifies “speaking a foreign language” in one’s attempt to communicate as hard and fast evidence of being out of touch.

[14] See Michael T. Kaufman, 1968 (New York: Flash Point, 2009).

[15] Murphy, Voices of Reason in Christian History, 93–94.

[16] Francis A. Schaeffer, “How I Have Come to Write My Books,” in Introduction to Francis Schaeffer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), 35; quoted in Groothius, Christian Apologetics, 21.

[17] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 50; quoted in David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 211.

[18] Gary R. Habermas, Dealing with Doubt (Chicago: Moody, 1990), 4.

This post is adapted from Persuasive Apologetics: The Art of Handling Tough Questions Without Pushing People Away by Jeffrey M. Robinson.  This title is scheduled to be released on September 19, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

We cannot love others well without speaking the truth

Loving our neighbors well includes engaging in robust conversations that destabilize false belief systems. In addressing the mind, will, and emotions of actual, complex people, Christian believers must develop various approaches to meet diverse personalities and multiple connection points.

In Persuasive Apologetics, pastor and professor Jeffrey M. Robinson explores what’s below the surface of intellectual-sounding objections to Christianity. He shows what it means to contend for the truth through real-life examples of communicating with those who hold differing beliefs. Robinson covers foundational and practical issues, such as:

      • the importance of demeanor in being persuasive
          • various apologetic approaches
          • the influence of worldview presuppositions
          • using undercutting defeaters to expose faulty thinking
          • causes of nonbelief
          • the historical Jesus compared with figureheads of competing belief systems
          • the hope that Jesus offers

Persuasive Apologetics will challenge serious seekers to peel back the layers of skeptical arguments and equip committed Christians looking to hone their apologetics skills.


About Author

Jeffrey M. Robinson is the lead pastor of Grace Fellowship: A Church for All Nations, a large multicultural church in West Palm Beach, Florida. Grace has seventy-one first-generation nations represented and is a regional leader in evangelism. Jeff also serves as a subject matter expert in apologetics for the Lee Strobel Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics. He earned his PhD in Apologetics under David Baggett and Gary Habermas at Liberty University. He also holds an Advanced Master of Divinity in Apologetics from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Jeff resides in South Florida with his wife, Jenn, and their children. You can find further resources at and

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