In 2007, members of Evangel Ministries in northwest Detroit went out into the surrounding neighborhoods to share the gospel in a summer-long program called Dare to Share. They came back with reports of new connections and conversions—and new questions. Many of their neighbors had voiced powerful objections to the faith.
Senior pastor Christopher Brooks realized that the apologetics he had studied at Biola University, and later at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, needed to be placed in a new context. "We realized that we needed to respond to not just the historic topics of theology and philosophy, but also to the pressing, present question: 'Does the Lord see what's happening in the hood?'"
Brooks's forthcoming book, Urban Apologetics (Kregel Publications), tells the story of how Evangel enthusiastically embraced that challenge. The newly appointed campus dean of Moody Theological Seminary–Michigan recently spoke with CT executive editor Andy Crouch.
You are consciously doing apologetics from and for a minority community. What difference does that make?
Being part of a minority group is a battle for definition: being able to define your own narrative and the world. When you are in the minority, other people begin to define these things for you.
When urban Christians, in particular minorities, have approached apologetics, we've often found a disconnection between what popular apologists are defining as reality and what we are experiencing.
The New Atheism and other intellectual challenges to the faith are real and relevant, but they are not a part of the fabric of everyday life for an African American. When it comes to the quest for the minority to reclaim its narrative and to connect with a heritage, religious movements like Moorism and Egyptology and Five Percenters have been prevalent in our communities since the civil rights movement. If I want to defend Christianity in this environment, I have to talk about them. I can't just talk about atheism and orthodox Islam.
Many people in our community are simply asking, "How do we make it in this country right now?" Unfortunately, traditional Protestant apologetics has rarely addressed questions of justice. Pick up a Catholic catechism, and you will find a section on social consciousness, social responsibility, and social justice. But in the average evangelical systematic theology, it's not there. Sadly, in the black community, we have conceded these issues either to liberation theology or to black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam. There needs to be a strong evangelical voice in our urban areas that says, "Here is what the gospel has to say about justice."
White evangelicals typically are drawn to the righteousness of God—the importance of right doctrine and right practices—whereas African Americans and minorities are drawn more to the justice of God. Yet Psalm 89 says the foundations of God's throne are righteousness and justice. We can't bifurcate the ethics of God into categories of righteousness—issues like abortion and human sexuality—or justice—issues like educational and economic equality.
The pro-life argument, for example, is much more persuasive in our community if you approach it through the anti-youth-violence movement. Our community has already been mobilized to stand against youth violence. It's a natural extension to say, "Shouldn't we protect our children in the womb as well? Shouldn't the womb of a mother be the safest place for a child?"
Some people would say that we can rationally argue for and defend matters of righteousness and truth, but issues of justice are so much more complicated. Can apologetics actually address those issues effectively?
Christians believe that truth is a Person. Truth is more than a proposition. Truth took on "flesh and dwelt among us," according to John, and we beheld him as "the only begotten of the Father." As he comes full of grace and truth, he comes healing us and addressing our woundedness. A truth that is not living, vibrant, and active is not fully expressed truth. Yes, there are intellectual aspects of truth, the dialectic conversation that has to go on to refine our understanding of truth. But for truth to be fully expressed, it has to be incarnated. Apologetics is best done when we have both conversation and incarnation.
The problem with apologetics and why it has not had "stickiness," to use a marketing term, in a lot of minority communities has been that it's been conversational but not incarnational. If we restrict truth to an academic exercise instead of seeing it lived, "dwelling among us" in a visible way, then truth isn't fully expressed.
You also have to reckon with the rise of the "apathist," the person who is simply uninterested in God. How do we awaken the heart to even dig into the question of God? It demands a balanced approach between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Right practice becomes just as important as right doctrine, particularly in urban settings. For example, when I'm speaking on what the Bible says about manhood and womanhood, the Christian definition of family and its purpose, it's just as important that I live that out with my wife as it is that I preach it accurately. You just have to do both.
You've said that the decline of the family, or the lack of intact families with a father present, is the biggest challenge to discipleship.
We are proclaiming a gospel that God is the Father who loves us, who sent his Son to die for us. The very terms are hard to even relate to if you don't know a father.
Think about this for a moment. You're an African American child growing up in a single-parent, female-led home. Your mom is struggling to meet the bills. Who makes up for housing and food and all those things? The government does. Government becomes a quasi-father.
Now consider 2008, when a black President was elected. Now Dad has a face. If a social conservative tells us to "vote your values," meaning vote for the Republican candidate, for the minority population it's like saying, "Reject your dad." My own children aren't going to wrestle with that because government isn't their dad. They have a father in the home. So they're able to approach government on the merits of Scripture, without any of that confusion around identity and psychology. Government is just government to them, because Dad is providing all those things.
So we had better show them what a father is, what a family is, so that when we see analogies to family relationships in the Bible, they can relate. When John writes, "What manner of love is this that we should be called the sons of God?" what does that look like? If I can see that in a visible example, the text will come alive.
How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?
By allowing the biblical text to speak for itself. We have to come to the text not through the eyes first of class or race or social position, but as the self-revelation of God. Then we try to identify what issues are important to him. Taking an exegetical approach to both preaching and apologetics means we ask, "What does the text say?" and, "What does it reveal in its totality?" That approach brings to our attention things that we would not have stumbled on if we had just let our own presuppositions be our guide.
I think about C. S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.
I hope there are Christians who can speak the language of righteousness to minorities. I think that is part of my call. On the other hand, I'm speaking the language of justice to those who haven't had to deal with justice issues. We need more bilingual Christians who can speak the languages of both justice and righteousness.
Has this exegetical approach led you and your congregation to any surprising places?
Yes: adoption. Our church has embraced adoption and foster care in a huge way. The foster-care system is disproportionately populated by minority children. There has been an antagonistic relationship with the state because of the perception that the state somehow profits from pulling our children out of our homes.
But as we were studying Scripture, talking about the Father God, we encountered the language of adoption in Ephesians 1 and the orphan and the widow in James 1:27. We had to ask, "What is our obligation to the orphans in our community?"
We have a goal that there would be no children in our community waiting for a home. There are about 2,000 children waiting, and our goal is to be able to find 2,000 homes for them. We have 3,000 churches in Detroit. So if each church can get just one family to adopt, we can eliminate the need for children to wait. That is a matter of praxis and apologetics: showing how the gospel makes a difference.
It seems like a kind of Christian culture persisted in the African American community longer than it did in the dominant culture: church leaders were granted unquestioned respect. Is that changing?
Absolutely. When I'm doing question-and-answer sessions with high school and college students, I'm hearing questions along these lines: "What is the church?" "What is the church for?" They aren't so much searching for a technical definition as asking, "Where does the church fit in this moment? Where is the place of the church in all the shifts and changes we're seeing?" That is on the table for the first time in our community.
And let's not discount the role of improved social-economic standing, which gives access to the best universities. I come back from that experience and need more from my pastor than a great choir or whooping and preaching. I need something that's going to match what I'm getting not only in the classroom but in my corporate training. If I'm intellectually challenged there, I will want to bring my mind to church as well.
There is a great deal of theological and philosophical dialogue going on in minority communities. There is just as much of an appetite in the urban community in Detroit for that conversation as there is in Manhattan for Eric Metaxas's Socrates in the City. We bring many of the same great theological minds into our setting for our Answering the Challenge conferences, and the philosophical and theological dialogue is just as rich.
Hip-hop addresses theological and philosophical questions as well.
The Christian hip-hop artist is the modern equivalent of the ancient prophet. Hip-hop artists have a very interesting and complex relationship with pastors. The relationship between the pastor and the prophet is always complicated. But hip-hop artists have done a great job at liberating apologetics from the prison of the classroom. They demand to express apologetics in a creative way.
It's beautiful that apologetics has invaded the realm of music and movies and media, through the playwrights and the poets and the spoken-word artists. At our Answering the Challenge events, there's always a spoken-word artist or a poet or a Christian rapper who can give a rhythm to this. For the minority person, truth has to resonate not just in an intellectual way, but in a soul-ish way. There has to be a rhythm to it.
I appreciate Lecrae and the 116 Clique and Cross Movement and all of the young urban apologists who know how to take it to a street corner. Now you're finding hip-hop heads on seminary campuses—you go to Dallas and you go to Biola and there they are. This is how the gospel expresses itself when it hits my community.
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