The aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. Like their own form of music, the bubbling of milk frothing and friendly chatter play in the background. It’s December 2016, and Armando Maese Jr. is sitting at a table in a local coffee shop expectantly waiting for the start of his new apologetics study.
Armando, or “AJ” as he likes to be called, is a member of San Antonio Reformed Church, a mission work of the OPC. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, he is focused on something eternal. AJ is halfway through his online master’s studies in apologetics at Biola University and is looking for an opportunity to put the things he’s learning into practice. He posts an invite to an apologetics study group on Meetup.com and patiently waits to see who God will bring.
Flash-forward to today. The folks in OPC Home Missions recently caught wind of AJ’s study, which continues to thrive, and decided to ask him some questions about it. AJ obliged, happy to share some of his wisdom and insight for our website visitors.
What first prompted you to begin an apologetics discussion in a local coffee shop?
AJ: “There were, and still are, so many apologetics ministries that mainly focus on reaching people through social media, books, lectures, debates, etc. There is a necessary place for such outreach, but I began to feel that much of modern apologetics was impersonal and static, lacking a real connection with those it was intended to reach. I began to wonder what ‘grassroots’ apologetics would look like, and I started to glean ideas from other apologists who have taken a more personal and dialogical approach to the apologetic task. Reading works by Francis Schaeffer, Greg Koukl, and David K. Clark most influenced me, in this respect, and I became motivated to start an apologetics discussion group that would center around person-to-person interaction and dialogue.”
Word of Mouth
Tell us about your group and how people join.
AJ: “I started out by putting the group on Meetup.com, and many people found out about the group through that platform. From the outset, I didn’t want to restrict the group to a certain demographic. There were other Christian and Bible study groups in the area, but most were advertised to young people exclusively. I intended my group to be open to persons of all ages, Christian or not, and there has been a good mix of ages since the beginning. Our discussions usually take place at the local coffee shop, and there have been a couple instances when persons would overhear our conversation and join in. Overall though, the group has gained consistent participants through word of mouth. Within the past few months, the group has migrated to a new platform on google sites. I most definitely owe all thanks to God for sustaining the group, and using it to His glory.”
Reviving Forgotten Books
An interesting part of your story is that you published a kindle edition of Francis Beattie’s book on apologetics. Tell us more about that.
AJ: “Over the last few years, I’ve come to take a personal interest in older, lesser-known, and out-of-print books on theology and apologetics. When doing some research, I came upon some of Francis Beattie’s material and found that he had written a book on apologetics, Apologetics or the Rational Vindication of Christianity. His style was systematic and very much in the tradition of Old Princeton, and his apologetic fascinated me. I had some prior work experience in developing eBooks (which I enjoy and believe to be a valuable pursuit), and I just had to put Beattie’s book into digital format and release it. It was also my intention to work through the book’s material in the apologetics discussion group, as we had already worked through other books. I thought that Beattie had many good insights that would spark good discussions.”
When Our Apologetic is Insufficient
Can you share a stand-out discussion from your group?
AJ: “One discussion that impacted me involved a series of apologetics scenarios that I had prepared. They were essentially short prompts for thinking about how to approach common situations that would allow for using apologetics and leading into evangelism. The group really enjoyed discussing the scenarios, and, after we had finished, a young man sitting near the group approached us and asked if we would like a real-life scenario. He stated that he was in the military and would be moving in a few weeks. He also revealed that he was an atheist, and that he had recently been having discussions with a fellow Christian colleague over topics in apologetics. He found it ironic that he just couldn’t escape Christian apologetics, even when going to a coffee shop, and he had a lingering thought that his colleague might be playing a trick on him. We told him that we would be happy to dialogue with him, and he presented some arguments against Christianity.
I let the group participants interact with him for the most part, and it was interesting to see how they approached his arguments, considering we had just gone through different scenarios of a similar nature. The young man eventually thanked us for the discussion and parted ways. We never got to see him again, but we all had the feeling that God was working in his life and that we were privileged to take part in that in some way.
In all honesty, the young man did have the upper hand at many points in the conversation, and some of the group participants were discouraged by this. It was overall a good experience, however, and I think that the Christians in the group learned that God could use us, even when our apologetic is insufficient. Some even began to see the importance of preparing both spiritually and mentally for opportunities to use apologetics in real life.”
Spiritual and Mental Preparedness
What guidance would you offer fellow Christians who want to engage others in apologetics?
AJ: “I would encourage others to begin discussion groups that are open to Christians, non-Christians, and people of all ages and stations in life. Non-Christians are more likely to participate in a group where their ideas will be given a fair hearing, and apologetics allows for that. It is also important to maintain a consistent form with the group and discussions in the process, while not being too loose or rigid. When I first started out, I intended for discussion to be completely open, but I quickly found that this was not beneficial. To remedy this, I began to do short topical lessons and summaries of chapters or sections of books that the group was to go through. This helped, but I soon found that too rigid of a form didn’t allow for vibrant discussions. I learned that a fine balance needed to be maintained between open discussion and prepared lessons, and one only gets better at this with practice. The most effective way to facilitate this, I found, was to just listen and ask more questions. Questions, I believe, are the apologists most practical tool.
In all, I think apologetics isn’t about head knowledge, combative argumentation, charisma, or rhetoric. It’s about spiritual and mental preparedness, and being open to reaching people through the give-and-take of real dialogue. Studying theology/apologetics and honing one’s methodology is great, but it should translate into person-to-person interaction with a desire to clear the way for the gospel message. If a person is already doing this at a personal level, I would encourage them to take the next step and start a group.”