Something is happening.
The pieces began to fall into place for me late last summer in the small town of Turlock, California, while having dinner with colleagues before an event.
Seated around the table were Craig Hazen, Frank Beckwith, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and myself—each deeply involved in publicly defending the faith on a national level for years. One by one we reflected on the people who had made a difference for us when we were all wet-behind-the-ears pups during the Jesus movement and soon after.
The list was short: Norm Geisler, John Warwick Montgomery, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, and Walter Martin.
Moreland set the tone, expressing his gratitude for those pioneers in our field who laid the foundation for our own work. His point was simple. We are in their debt. Let’s stay faithful. Let’s stay united. Let’s leave a legacy behind in the lives of others, just as those men had done in ours.
The First Column
These five men were our mentors—the first column in the fight, in a sense—paving the way, setting the example, establishing a beachhead.
They taught us. They set a standard for us to shoot for, maybe even to exceed. They inspired us to imagine a day when thoughtful Christians would once again be active players in the marketplace of ideas. And it was about time.
Back in 1925, when state legislatures began to pass laws against teaching evolution, the ACLU stepped in to test the law in Tennessee using high school teacher John Scopes. William Jennings Bryan was the spokesman for the fundamentalists. The ACLU had Clarence Darrow for the defense.
The infamous "Monkey Trial" was a watershed event for Christians. Scopes and the ACLU actually lost the court battle,[i] but it was an empty victory for believers. For the most part, followers of Christ abandoned the field and took refuge inside the walls of the church.
Choosing cultural monasticism rather than hard-thinking advocacy, they left the public square to the secularists. The disciples of Dewey, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Skinner and a host of others replaced the disciples of Jesus in the cultural conversation.
Puritan Christians had been the founding fathers of the intellectual community in the United States, but in the years that followed the Scopes trial, Christianity lost its claim as a player in the marketplace of ideas. As Os Guinness pointed out, Christians had not been out-thought, they just had not been around when the thinking was being done.
Then things began to change. Sharp and fair-minded men like those I mentioned above began to slowly chip away at the stranglehold non-Christians had on the world of ideas. It was just a start—a small start in light of the challenge—but a column was beginning to form, nonetheless.
And just in time. Nearly ninety years after Scopes we are balanced on the cusp of another historical watershed. On one side is a public square crying out for answers to the critical issues of life, but also heating up against virtually everything that historic Christianity stands for. On the other side is the cultural and intellectual monastery that provided sanctuary—and ensured impotence—for Christians in the past.
Which way will the church go this time? Will Christians engage in careful, compelling ways, or will they retreat? An answer to that question—at least a partial answer—is starting to come into focus.
The Second Column
Those of us seated around the table all had our own individual stories of what God had done in us and through us since the early days. One thing was clear to me, though. What God had been doing amounted to more than the sum of our individual contributions. Something else was happening.
For over twenty years now a second column has been forming, one much bigger than the first. In the first column were the pioneers. In the second column are leaders who were influenced—either directly or indirectly—by that first small band. They are now heading up enterprises of their own that collectively have a much larger impact than our mentors could have ever accomplished on their own—the result of the simple calculus of discipleship and multiplication.
We in the second column saw the need to equip rank-and-file Christians to defend classical Christianity and classical Christian values with people who didn’t understand our language and who no longer accepted our source of authority. We were convinced that Christianity could compete in the marketplace of ideas if it was properly understood and properly articulated. And we were committed to a diplomatic model of fair-minded advocacy to make the point that Christianity was still worth thinking about, even in this new era.
Our little band of brothers at the table that summer evening was just a small portion of the second column. There are many more whose names you’d recognize, people like Ravi Zacharias, Nancy Pearcey, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, David Noebel, Gary Habermas, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross, to name just a few.
But the second column is small compared to the one that is coming next.
The Third Column
A third column has begun to form. Everywhere I travel I meet sharp, committed, ambassadors for Christ who are students of those in the first two columns and are grouping up with others of kindred spirit in their local communities.
Their names will probably never grace the cover of a book or be in lights on an apologetics conference marquee. Instead, they are foot soldiers with boots on the ground, individually being faithful to defend the Gospel in smaller arenas their Commander in Chief has entrusted to them.
They are small bands—“little platoons,” Edmund Burke called them—of ordinary people making a difference right where they live. They are not large organizations or huge institutions. Collectively, though, these platoons scattered around the country and, more and more, the world, growing into an army of clear-thinking Christians.
You’ll find them in places like Montgomery, Alabama; Calgary, Alberta; Olympia, Washington; Dallas, Texas; or Atlanta, Georgia. You’ll also find them in places you’ve probably never heard of, like Mt. Airy, Maryland; Woodruff, Wisconsin; Denton, Texas. You’ll even find them in Turlock, California. They’re the third column, laying it down where their feet hit the ground.
Let me give you a few examples of the groundswell of activity the Holy Spirit has been building for years.
- Gracepoint Church [link] in Berkeley, California, has been actively discipling its college students to engage the intellectual community at Cal. Over half of their college seniors, a group normally enjoying private apartments off campus, take up residence back in dorms on campus as part of a deliberate strategy to impact that community. And they’re flourishing.
- In 1992, J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae founded a rigorous Master of Arts program in philosophy of religion and ethics [link] at Talbot School of Theology. Their vision: place 100 of their graduates in Ph.D. programs in top secular institutions, expecting many to eventually become university professors themselves. As philosophically trained, faithful followers of Christ, they would begin changing the academy from within. Moreland and Rae have exceeded their goal, having placed 140 in Ph.D. programs to date, with 40 of them working as professors in universities around the country. And there are many more on the way, propelling
thatthe third column forward.
- In the last 12 months, Matt Burford has organized a cadre of friends and businessmen in Montgomery, Alabama, to launch Tactical Faith [link]. Their goal: help connect churches and Christian schools in the Southeast with apologetics speakers and training materials and assist church pastors and lay leaders with the training needed to get their local congregations equipped. They can’t keep up with the requests for help coming in.
- Two years ago Chris Shannon, a commercial real estate loan underwriter, started a Reasonable Faith [link] chapter in Dallas, Texas, to do his part in making a difference for the Kingdom. The group is an extension of the work of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, helping like-minded Christians graciously and carefully defend Christianity in our culture. In just a few short years, Reasonable Faith has exploded, with local groups meeting together in 37 cities in 20 states and four countries. Requests for new chapters are flowing in faster than Shannon (who now directs the initiative) can process them—truly an overwhelming third-column
- Many beyond our borders are also feeling the surge. Andy Steiger and his small but committed team at Apologetics.com Canada [link] are igniting fires of smart Christianity in local churches in Vancouver, B.C. Jojo Ruba [link] has been doing the same in Calgary, Alberta, for years. In Tauranga, New Zealand, software engineer Rodney Lake formed Thinking Matters [link] to sponsor regular gatherings of those passionately committed to defending the Christian faith in their secular society.
- Reasons to Believe [link] was founded in 1986 to demonstrate that sound reason and scientific research consistently support the truth of the Bible, thus strengthening believers and equipping them for productive dialogue with skeptics. In addition to their writing, speaking, and training as part of the second column, RTB now has chapters in 39 cities in 20 states and five different countries—little platoons of educated third-column Christians engaging doubters in their local communities.
- Ratio Christi [link] is a grassroots campaign for Christian worldview engagement specifically intended to help connect second-column speakers and organizations to third-column groups on campuses and in churches around the country. Their goal is to have clusters of thoughtful Christians in 500 universities and 1500 churches in the next five years, a task requiring 1000 new full-time apologetics mentors to lead those local groups. That’s a big column.
Each of the examples above (and I’ve just scratched the surface) describe the efforts of more formal enterprises, but most of those in the third column are not officially organized.
I wrote in Tactics[ii] [link] about a small group of housewives with kids who met together weekly in my own community. They gathered not principally for fellowship and prayer, but for study and stimulating discussion so they could love God with their minds, not just their hearts.
On virtually every trip I take, I encounter dear people who tell stories of how God is using them and their friends in ways they never thought possible. They have grouped together with others of kindred spirit to plant a flag, claim a territory, establish an outpost—to make a change that endures. And their numbers are legion.
People like these—people like you—are the future of thoughtful Christianity. The next years do not belong to best-selling authors or popular speakers at big events, though we still need both. Rather, the future will be determined in relatively quiet corners of our Christian communities—small groups of committed disciples in the local church with warm hearts and sharp minds demonstrating that Christianity is worth thinking about.
How can you join the column? It’s easier than you might think.
Gather, then Scatter
First, gather. Gather together in “little platoons,” then gather information. Find others around you of similar vision —at school, in church, in your social circles. Think of yourselves like sparks in dry tinder igniting a larger fire in your spiritual community. This may be a church-sponsored class or an informal fellowship of like-minded Christians like Lewis had with Tolkien, Williams, and Sayers.
When you meet, ask questions, raise issues, entertain the hard challenges—ones skeptics have raised or ones that have vexed you personally. If you’re a pastor, make sure those in your church—especially young people—feel safe voicing honest objections, even if you don’t know the answers just yet. This one thing can have a liberating—and energizing—effect on youth.
Then find answers. They’re everywhere. Read books, listen to podcasts, search the web. I promise, you will not come up with a problem others have not pondered and someone else has not answered well—many of them connected with groups I’ve mentioned here.
Second, scatter. Scatter into your larger community and scatter the seeds of information you have gathered as a group. Start conversations simply by asking questions if you like (the Columbo tactic), finding out what people believe and why. Then, be on the alert for opportunities to weave truth into the dialog in a friendly, diplomatic way.[iii]
Stay calm. Don’t overstate your case. Don’t overreact to opposing ideas. And don’t get into a fuss or a fight. Don’t swing for the fences—don’t try to win all the arguments. Just put a stone in their shoe. Give them something to think about.
And here’s one, final bit of advice that may be the most important.
Bloom Where You’re Planted
I want to pass a thought on to you that has served me well for almost four decades as a follower of Christ. I hope it will be your servant as well. Here it is: Bloom where you’re planted. Make the best of the opportunities within your immediate grasp, even if they seem small or inconsequential.
If you can’t speak to 100, speak to 10. If not to 10, then one, maybe a solitary soul at Starbucks. When you can’t speak, write—in your own blog, on someone else’s, to the editor, in a diary of personal reflections. Don’t let your seeds of insight slip away. Find some soil for them to take root in. When possible, do both—talk and write, if you’re able.
Keep your eyes open. Take what opportunities come your way. Do whatever you can, wherever you are, even if modest or unexceptional. Then watch to see how the Lord decides to use your offering. Sometimes it’s the smallest of seeds that grow into the largest of trees. That’s how the third column works.
This notion of blooming where you’re planted meshes seamlessly with a basic biblical principle: We must first be faithful in smaller things before we can be entrusted with larger ones. And if bigger things never come our way, then the small acts of faithfulness will be enough. God is honored in every act of fidelity, grand or simple.
The first column was tiny. The second column is larger. The third column is massive, and you are part of it.
J.P. Moreland’s advice to each of us around the table that night in Turlock is the same advice I pass on to you. We are in debt to those who came before us. Let’s stay faithful. Let’s stay united.
Gather. Scatter. Bloom. Make a difference, even if it’s small. Leave a legacy behind in the lives of others, just as those men have done in ours.
[i] The ruling was eventually overturned on a technicality.
[ii] Gregory Koukl, Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
[iii] Again, Tactics is invaluable here, providing an easy-to-follow, step-by-step game plan. It’s available at str.org.