John Smulo recently interviewed John Morehead on the synergies (or traditional lack thereof) between mission and apologetics in post-modern western cultures:

Unfortunately, missiology rarely informs apologetics, whether in academic or popular circles. Much of our Western apologetic, particularly in the American context, assumes a Christendom and modernist framework and provides an apologetic for questions that many times the culture is no longer asking.


A few writers have recognized the importance of cultural considerations to apologetics, including Harold Netland in an article he wrote on contextualized apologetics several years ago, as well as Alister McGrath and David Wilkinson in the U.K.


Missiology can and should inform apologetics in that it reminds us that an apologetic must be culturally sensitive and relevant, and that apologetics should be at the service of the mission efforts of the church rather than serve as an end unto itself. Some of our work with new religions blends contextual missions approaches with apologetics and we hope to encourage others to engage in this process as well.

Now, I have heard a number of voices within the emerging church dismiss apologetics but I would like to think we could move beyond these either/or dichotomies and explore more integrated both/and approaches. After all, there's a significant difference between post-rationality and anti-rationality.

16 thoughts on “Missional Apologetics

  1. Fernando,
    If we ditch the word apologetics, what do you suggest we replace it with? I’m fine with finding a more appropriate word–it never has translated very helpfully into English, plus it’s so wedded to unhelpul baggage for many.
    But I don’t think we should ditch the term we’ve used all along before we’ve found a recognizable new term.

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  2. Fernando,
    I hope you didn’t feel the need to say sorry to me 🙂 Just my thoughts, and I appreciate yours.
    I’m on the hunt for a better term than apologetics, so if you have anything in mind please do say. The best I have been able to come up with to explain my thinking and methodology for apologetics is add the word “missional”–missional apologetics.
    Thanks for your thoughts Matt and Fernando.

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  3. matt quoting your comment
    But I don’t think we should ditch the term we’ve used all along before we’ve found a recognizable new term….
    semantics get us into all sorts of hot water- but I pick up from your post that you are looking for a way to form a constructive rather than a destructive dialogue, whilst being able to put forward reasonable thinking on your theological view point/ worldview…
    lets not argue over words, but rather reclaim them and use them for building not for tearing down… constructive rather than destructive apologetics are essential…. the need to differentiate between the two is paramount.

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  4. I note the difficulties felt with the word “apologetics”. However the same kind of problem ensues for other terms used by Christians.
    Take the word “mission” and “missionaries”. In some quarters these words are regarded with opprobrium on the basis of judgments made about colonialism and the role of missionaries. So the words have been negatively imputed with the abuse of power, the intrusion and dismantling of indigenous cultures and so on. If that is taken deeply to heart then even EC people should be persuaded to dump the words altogether.
    Of course to what extent those criticisms need to be heard is one matter; to what extent a word should continue to be used or rehabilitated is another. If one was to pursue the case very far we might find ourselves being hamstrung from all meaningful speech.
    Again: Should we drop the word “Christian” because of the bad connotations it has during the course of history (Inquisition, etc)?
    Perhaps “straw man” portraits lead many to make popular rants about specific words. Perhaps those rants tell us more about the ranter than they do about the disputed words???

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  5. Philip says “Perhaps those rants tell us more about the ranter than they do about the disputed words???”
    I think he has hit the nail on the head here, if we alter our alnguage entirely do we solve thhe problem- better to look at the attitudes associated with these emotive words and to decide what we mean by them!

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  6. That sounds odd.
    Surely apologetics is a missiological tool?
    Yes, I know that very often Christians go around giving splendidly accurate answers to questions that no one is asking (and sometimes inaccurate ones too), but without missiology there doesn’t seem to be much point in apologetics.

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  7. Steve
    Unfortunately there is a very deep divide between the missions community and the apologetics community within Protestantism.
    Many within the counter-cult are very resistant to seeing any value in cross-cultural anthropology and critical contextualisation practice. And many within the emerging church reject apologetics as a bankrupt holdover of modernity that is tied to reductionist epistomology.
    I just shake my head at the either/or thinking and lack of historical awareness. I knowyou guys (the Orthodox) were doing apologetics well before modernity and will keep doing it well after.
    I agree with you, apologetics is an essential missiological tool, it just needs to be informed by a missiological attitude.

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  8. On the felt difficulties with the word “apologetics”.
    I feel this keenly also but ultimately agree with Phil where he says, “Of course to what extent those criticisms need to be heard is one matter; to what extent a word should continue to be used or rehabilitated is another. If one was to pursue the case very far we might find ourselves being hamstrung from all meaningful speech.”
    In certain contexts I refrain from introducing myself a ‘Christian’, preferring to just call myself a ‘follower of Jesus’. In other contexts I wont speak of ‘apologetics’ but merely talk of ‘reasons I have for embracing his pathway’. In other, quite different contexts, I never speak of ‘meditation’ but only of ‘listening prayer’. You’ll never know how many hours Ive agonised about how I should temper my language on this blog given the diverse nature of the readership, yes I do feel the problem. Yet here you see me using those words. It is because, yes, despite all the negative connotations, sometimes faithful communication requires it.
    This is not unlike the gender langauge issue. Do you call God s/he or it? Do you call God ‘mother’ with equal frequency to ‘father’. Sometimes the proposed cure is just as problematic as the original problem.
    This is where we come to the limitations of human language.

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  9. Hmmm…
    “Missional apologetics” — but, as I have said, apologetics is essentially missional. It is offering a reasoned defence of one’s faith to those who have attacked it.
    I don’t think that we need to find another word for apologetics, though perhaps we do need another word for what often passes as apologetics these days — perhaps “polemics” would be more accurate. And then one could discuss when and whether to use which.
    Take, for example, The da Vinci code. That may call for apologetics of some sort, but what sort?
    And such apologetics would be missional, I am sure. It is a book that misrepresents Christ and the Christian faith, and at the core of our missionary responsibility is to see that if people accept Christ, they accept the true Christ and not a caricature of him, and if they reject Christ, they reject a true Christ and not a caricature. So how best to make clear that The da Vinci code is a caricature?

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  10. “I don’t think that we need to find another word for apologetics, though perhaps we do need another word for what often passes as apologetics these days — perhaps “polemics” would be more accurate.”
    LOL. Yes, I agree totally.
    Agree of the Da Vinci Code example too. Those who say we have reached the ‘end of apologetics’- would they just leave these characatures stand without any response? The concern to show respect should not render us toothless.

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  11. The concern to show respect should not render us toothless.
    agree completely Matt
    so often we walk a fine line… we often forget that the best place for apologetics is in a dialogue, not a diatribe!

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  12. Steve is correct that apologetics is essentially missional in its purpose and function. There is also a secondary function namely that apologetics also helps Christians in their journey and growth in grasping “why they believe what they believe”. However the primary purpose of apologetics is not some vicious abstract arrogant argument (a sad caricature of the misuse of the discipline). There are as many possible apologetic lines or pathways to explore and apply in witness bearing as there are facts in the universe.
    Thus it is an invidious wedge that seems to be being driven in some quarters today between being “missional” and using “apologetics”. One might as well drive a wedge between being hospitable and friendly and being involved in missions (an oxymoron perhaps??). In other words to be missional means being holistic in one’s deeds and one’s words (one must be pastoral, ethical, theological, apologetic etc — these are inseparable elements).
    It would do us all a dose of good to recall how the Church Fathers and other saints of olden times fused together in their work dialogue with non-Christians, the apologias they developed on behalf of Christianity, their missional work, development of doctrines, the promotion of the spiritual life, commentaries on Scripture and so on.
    It would also help us to recall how those important Church figures who are often revered for their devotional writings and their modelling of a spiritual life were simultaneously engaged in missions and apologetics – like Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs, Patrick among the Irish, St. Columba, Francis of Assisi (missionary and apologist to Islam), Theodore Abu Qurra (Bishop of Harran, missionary and apologist to Islam), Raymond Lull (Dominican missionary and apologist to Islam and to hermeticists), and the list goes on.
    Indeed we might meditate on how the “spiritual writings” of these figures (sometimes looked to with great longing today as founts of inspiration for new or renovated forms of worship) cannot be separated from their actions and writings as missionaries and apologists.
    To have an integrated or holistic understanding of the spirituality of past saints necessarily means that we do not see their devotional writings, monastic rules and spiritual exercises in isolation from the remaining parts of their biographies. That also suggests that we pay careful attention to the respective spiritual and theological traditions in which these saints worked and lived. It is not prudent to cherry-pick from their work those elements we feel drawn to because of a contemporary heart-felt need for spiritual vitality at the expense of understanding and valuing and learning from their entire work (which means also appreciating and discovering insights from them that may apply to our contexts in their apologetic activities).

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  13. Interesting discussion… and a few more comments.
    While apologetics is a missional tool it is not the only one. And like any tool, it should be used on appropriate occasions, as one uses a screwdriver for screws and a hammer for nails.
    I think the objections to apologetics really spring from encountering those who treat it as the only tool in the toolbox.
    Apologetics is the use of rational arguments to counter rational (and sometimes pseudo-rational) objections. But when we make it the only tool in the toolbox, we turn it into an idol, and try to turn the Christian faith into a rational system. And when we do that, Gospel gets transformed into ideology.
    That, of course, is one of the sins of modernity.
    Has anyone here read John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s bastards: the dictatorship of reason in the West? Saul is not particularly Christian, and I think there are flaws in some of his arguments, but he also says a lot of interesting things, which one-dimensional apologists would do well to note.

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