Unapologetically Apologetic: A Conversation With Andy Bannister

I first met Andy Bannister when he was doing some lectures at Tyndale University College. I was impressed with how he communicated but even more so with his content. I have been able to hear him a number of times since and I always learn something. As a Canadian apologist myself, I am thankful for what Andy is doing in Canada through RZIM Canada. Andy is the author of An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an and The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.

Could you share a bit of your background and how you came to faith?

I grew up in a Christian home in England and first made a public commitment to Christ aged about 13 at a youth camp. I then kind of bumbled along in my Christian faith until I was 18, when I took a gap year and went to work for a church in the far north of England for ten months. That experience was transformative as it forced me to learn to trust in God in so many varied and different ways, as we were thrown in at the deep end on everything from youth ministry to street evangelism. I think every young Christian should be encouraged to step beyond their comfort zone: it’s faith-making.

The next major piece of my spiritual journey came in the mid-1990s. The church I was attending had the bright idea of sending teams of young adults to Europe for a series of summer missions and I ended up co-leading the team to Spain to do beach evangelism—which really is as much fun as it sounds. One of the mission teams was going to Turkey and so as part of the training week, a session on Islam was organised.

Now I’d never heard anything about Islam, but the speaker that morning was one of the most dynamic, the most engaging I’ve ever heard—his name was Jay Smith, now a close friend. Jay led a ministry at a place in London called Speakers’ Corner—famous as being the “world centre of free speech.” Every Sunday afternoon, anybody can go along to Speakers’ Corner and stand on a ladder or a soapbox and speak about anything—religion, politics, sport, you name it. On sunny afternoons, Speakers’ Corner attracts thousands of visitors—it’s a huge tourist attraction.

Well, Jay was using Speakers’ Corner as a platform to preach to Muslims (who were using it themselves to preach Islam). After his seminar we got chatting and Jay said to me: “Hey, Andy, why don’t you come along to Speakers’ Corner next week and see what we do?” Well, it sounded fun, so the next week I took the train into central London, arrived at Speakers’ Corner and discovered that Jay’s understanding of the words “come and see what we do” meant “stand on a stepladder next to me and preach to 300 Muslims.”

To say that those 300 Muslims took me to pieces that afternoon is to flirt casually with understatement. They ate me alive, firing questions at me like a machine gun, questions I’d never thought about, let alone had answers to. They attacked everything I held dear and I got down from the stepladder with my head reeling. I went home, my head still spinning and laid awake most the night wrestling with what had happened even wondering if I ought to become a Muslim—after all, they had all the answers and all the questions, I had nothing. I tossed and turned and tossed some more and about 3am in the morning, my long-suffering wife finally poked me in the ribs and muttered “Why are you tossing and turning and keeping us both awake?” I shared my sad little story and her sage advice was: “Why don’t you try reading a book. Ideally in the morning.” Wise words. And so the next morning I went to the local Christian bookstore and bought my first book on apologetics—I believe it was Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I read and read and read, devouring books, and went back to Speakers’ Corner the next week, with answers to every question. And the Muslims had new questions—and they humiliated me all over again. And so we repeated the exercise, each week, for the next few months. But God used Speakers’ Corner to do something: to give me a love of apologetics, evangelism, sharing my faith, answering questions, and a love of Muslims, too, by the way.

But God did something else through the process: he showed me that I had an academic streak. Nobody in my family had ever been to university and I’d never thought about before. One thing led to another and I eventually took a degree in theology and then, in a very curious turn of events, a PhD in Qur’anic Studies. During my time doing the PhD, I came across Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, started doing bits and pieces with them in Europe, and then got posted to Canada.

What do you see as some of the differences between the Church in the UK and Canada?

The secularism in the UK is older and more advanced and so the Church has been wrestling through how to respond for longer than the Church in Canada. I think that has led to the UK church being more organised and more energised: apologetics is taken more seriously, mission and evangelism more seriously.

That’s not to say the Canadian church is asleep in those areas: but I still think a lot of churches haven’t even begun responding to the new cultural situation. One of the effects of that in the UK has been that nominal Christianity has been largely burnt off, meaning that if somebody tells you they attend church, that’s a pretty clear sign they’re actually a Christian. Canada is more similar to the USA, in that church going still has a cultural component.

A further related aspect would be church unity: it breaks my heart how disunited the Church can be here in Canada. I could tell you story after story of churches or organisations refusing to work together, for fear the other party will “steal their sheep”. We went through that stage in the UK, but I think the British churches are now moving beyond it to a recognition that if we don’t work together or stand together, we fall together. I guess I could sum up the differences by saying I fear much of the Canadian Church is asleep, whereas European evangelicals are now rubbing their eyes and waking up.

One last difference I would note: the whole “religion and politics” piece plays out differently here in Canada (and as a relative newcomer, I’m still learning some of the differences). As a European, I see Canada culturally sitting halfway between Europe and the USA: “More American than most Canadians realise, and more European than most Americans realise.” That shapes a number of issues, one of which being that in the British church, there’s a bit less tendency to play the culture wars game. (We tried it, and we lost). I think we always need to ensure that our non-Christian friends and the culture generally know what the Church is for, not just what we’re against.

What is your role with RZIM?

I’m the Canadian Director and Lead Apologist. My role is growing and developing the ministry here (we’ve grown about four-fold in my five years here) and taking on speaking, writing and broadcast engagements. As a ministry, our primary focus is evangelism, not apologetics (we see apologetics purely as a means to an end) so I’m always working hard to ensure we’re in front of as many non-Christian audiences as possible: whether that’s open forums, or university talks, or media interviews, or TV shows (like our recent Burning Questions documentary). It’s a fast-paced, challenging job, but it’s where God called me and I love it.

Why is apologetics important?

Every Christian has an apologetic, the only question is whether it’s a good one. “Apologetics” simply means “giving a reason” and if we can’t give a reason for our Christian faith, we’re in trouble. Biblical faith is faith that has reasons. If somebody asks you, “Why are you a Christian?” you need to be able to say why. In a culture in which there are a thousand and more different options, from atheism to other religions, we need to be able explain why Jesus.

I believe it was Blaise Pascal who said that you can’t argue somebody to faith (a common misconception about apologetics), evidence and arguments help create a climate in which faith is possible. Too many Churches have neglected to help their members think through how both to listen and to answer the questions of our culture, our friends, neighbours, colleagues and classmates.

Apologetics is also important to address the many questions that Christians themselves often have. I see this so often in university students, especially those who are former Christians. You explore why they left their faith and it was often because of nagging questions that were never addressed. So apologetics is vital for evangelism and for discipleship.

How can the Canadian Church integrate apologetics into local church ministry?

First, by partnering with organisations like RZIM and others who can help bring evangelism-undergirded-by-apologetics to their communities. Not everybody is called to be a specialist in everything. RZIM is a resourcing organisation—we exist to resource and equip others.

Second, I think pastors should think about integrating apologetics into their sermons. (Tim Keller is a great example of how to do this well). If you’re preaching on a passage where, for instance, Jesus does a miracle, why not use that as an opportunity to talk about how we can believe in miracles in an age that tells us that miracles are impossible. Weave apologetics into the Sunday sermon.

And then, third, I think churches should be weaving apologetics into their children’s, youth and Sunday school programmes as part of the DNA. Apologetics should not be an optional add on: it should be integral, for any Christian who claims to take faith in Christ seriously. Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul and mind”. We often preach/teach the first two. Let’s ensure we don’t neglect the third.

Thank you Andy.


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