Telling a Better Story | Book Review


In an increasingly post-Christian America, apologetics — the defense of the Christian faith — is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship. Christians need to “be prepared to give an answer [Greek, apología] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). How they can do so well is the subject of Joshua D. Chatraw’s excellent new book, Telling a Better Story.

Apologetics has a bad rap in some quarters. Chatraw tells the story of a student at a Christian university who asked him, “What is your best argument for Christianity?”

When Chatraw answered, “It depends on who I’m talking to and what the situation is,” the student seemed unimpressed.

He was looking for a “knockout punch,” a “winner take all” argument. Here’s a pro tip: Those arguments are vanishingly rare, and anyway, what we want to win is a person, not a debate.

And then apologetics seems far removed from the concerns of everyday life. Chatraw describes the kind of apologetics in which many Bible-believing Christians were trained as “Building Block Apologetics.” The foundation of the pyramid is “universal logic,” rules of thinking that validate a “general theism,” on top of which is “historical evidence” for the Bible. The capstone is “the message of the gospel.” The problem with this kind of apologetics, which moves from the abstract to the concrete, is not that it’s false but that it’s irrelevant to most people. It answers questions they’re not asking and leaves little room for genuine conversation.

Rather than a “knockout punch” or a “rigid system,” Chatraw offers a “way” of doing apologetics that he calls “Inside Out Apologetics.” He explains, “The goal is for both sides to be willing to ‘try on the other story’ and see how it ‘fits’ rationally, psychologically, and experientially.” For the Christian, this involves internalizing certain questions and applying them prudently in conversations:

Inside:

  • What can I affirm [in the other’s story], and what will I need to challenge?
  • Where does this story lead, and is it internally consistent and livable?

Outside:

  • Where do competing views borrow from the Christian story?
  • How does the Christian narrative better address our experiences, observations, and history?

Chatraw cites Paul’s Areopagus speech as an example of an inside-out approach (Acts 17:22–31). Inside: “[Paul] quotes pagan sources and affirms where Athenian thinking is correct,” but he also “challenges their culture by using one of their own beliefs to demonstrate that God must be independent from his creation.” Outside: Paul invites the Athenians to view life through a Christ-centered lens: God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

If Acts 17:32 is any guide, inside-out conversations do not guarantee conversions, either for Paul or for us. They do lead to more productive conversations with those willing to invest the time, however. And that’s what budding Christian apologists should aim for.

The bulk of Telling a Better Story demonstrates how an inside-out approach might work in conversations about five common cultural assumptions in post-Christian America:

  1. I don’t need God or religion.
  2. You have to be true to yourself.
  3. The ultimate goal of life is to be happy.
  4. It’s okay to be spiritual, but not to say that your religion is the only way, or attempt to bring it into the public square.
  5. We’ve progressed beyond faith and myths to reason and science.

I don’t know about you, but I see variations on these assumptions every day in my social media feed. These are the questions people are asking, and therefore the questions Christians need to be prepared to discuss.

Of course, once you commit to having a conversation with someone who does not share your Christian faith, you’re committing to hearing their pushback on that faith. Chatraw rounds out his book with three common objections to Christianity: it’s oppressive, unloving, and untrue. He concedes— rightly, in my opinion — that our skeptical friends sometimes have a point. Christians have not always acted Christianly: liberatingly, lovingly, rationally. There are nonetheless reasons to believe, and to act on the belief, that the gospel is true.

Telling a Better Story concludes with a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is.” In post-Christian America, it is important that we Christians “speak the truth” as we answer the questions of our unbelieving neighbors. More importantly, however, we need to “embody the truth.” This, as Chatraw puts it, is the “greater apologetic.”

Book Reviewed
Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Review of ‘Missional Church Planting’ by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im


Missional-Church-PlantingEd Stetzer and Daniel Im, Planting Missional Churches: Your Guide to Starting Churches That Multiply, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).

Though I am neither a church planter nor the son of a church planter, I read the second edition of Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im with interest. Why? Because it raises questions and teaches ways of thinking about the answers that all North American church leaders need to consider in our increasingly post-Christian society.

The process of post-Christianization may be further along in Canada, but of late, the United States seems to be making up for lost time. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent of the population between 2007 and 2014. In that same period, the number of Americans practicing non-Christian faiths grew by 25 percent, from 4.7 to 5.9 percent. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew by 42 percent, from 16.1 to 22.8 percent. Given that 34 percent of “Older Millennials” (b. 1981–1989) and 36 percent of “Younger Millennials” (b. 1990–1996) are religiously unaffiliated, the trend of post-Christianization is going to gain rather than lose steam in the coming decade.

To counteract this trend, North American Christians need to plant missional churches.

Stetzer and Im define mission as “all that God is doing to bring the nations to himself.” They define missions as “the pursuit of sharing and showing the gospel to all corners of the earth,” that is, presenting the gospel in word and deed. Missional means “adopting the posture of a missionary, joining Jesus on mission, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound” (emphasis in original). Missional churches, then, understand themselves as missionaries to their respective cultures.

The image of missions as “planting” is well known in the New Testament. It is found in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9). Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 3:6 when he writes, “ I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Taken together, these two passages suggest that there should be a relationship between personal evangelism and church planting. A church plant that merely draws existing Christians from other churches is not acting missionally. Church plants should focus on evangelizing those who have not already heard or seen the gospel.

Planting Missional Churches outlines for readers how to do this. Section 1 addresses “The Foundations of Church Planting.” Section 2 outlines various “Models of Church Planting. Section 3, “Systems of Church Planting,” answers questions about systems and structures that should be in place before and immediately after a church plant launches. Section 4 describes “Ministry Areas for Church Planting,” namely, teambuilding, evangelism, small groups, worship, preaching, spiritual formation, and children. Finally, Section 5, “Multiplication and Movements,” shows how church plants can (and should) themselves plant churches.

Obviously, Planting Missional Churches is a manual for church planters. So, why should non-church planters like me and (maybe) you read it? I can think of three obvious reasons:

First, to familiarize yourself with the theory and best practices of church planting. Here, the goal is understanding. Far too often, existing churches and church plants are viewed as competitors. This competition can be turned to cooperation when you remember that the goal of church planting is to evangelize non-Christians.

Second, either to consider a call to become a church planter yourself or to help your existing church plant other churches. Here, the goal can be either a change in your ministerial vocation or an expansion of your church’s efforts to evangelize people in word and deed.

And third, as I suggested above, to better understand what ministry in an increasingly post-Christian society looks like. Here, the goal is to change the mindset of American church leaders so that they think more like pioneer missionaries rather than institutional chaplains. By nature, institutional chaplains have the support of the institution. They can assume certain things about people in their care. Pioneer missionaries can’t assume anything. They must listen and talk to people who do not know and in many cases do not care about the gospel story.

So, while I strongly recommend Planting Missional Churches to prospective church planters, I also think it might be a helpful read for established church pastors, whether or not they are considering planting a church. In an increasingly post-Christian society, all church leaders—whether pastors of church plants, revitalized churches, small churches, or megachurches—need to think and act like missionaries…for that is what we in fact are. Just as God sent Christ, so Christ is sending us (John 20:21).

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P.S. This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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