How can we be effective witnesses in an impersonal digital age?

by Tan Huey Ying // January 22, 2020, 6:51 pm


Apologetics is about understanding that God is present, not just in the Church, but also in pop culture, says Rev Wilkinson, who presents four handles for believers to build bridges within the digital world. Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash.

The classical approach to apologetics has been an intellectual defence of the Christian faith.

It is the kind that waits for difficult questions when the world attacks the Gospel, and then finds ways to defend the question.

But Rev Dr David Wilkinson, a theologian, astrophysicist and Methodist minister, is not sure how biblical that approach is.

I can be a bridge because of who God has made me and the kind of experiences that he’s given me.

“There is a place for us to defend the Christian faith to answer questions about the Christian faith. But the biblical background is much more exciting than that,” he said at ChristianX: The Church in a Digital World conference in Singapore in November 2019.

Given that many people today believe that religion is a private affair, our apologetic task is more about relevance rather than defence.

Quoting Alister McGrath, author of Bridge-building: Effective Christian Apologetics, Rev Wilkinson said: “The chief goal of Christian apologetics is to create an intellectual and imaginative climate conducive to the birth and nurture of faith.” 

How then, do we build the bridges that allow others to see the relevance of the Christian faith within our culture and in their personal lives?

Rev Wilkinson shared four aspects to consider in your own witness online (or in person, for that matter):

1. Personal relevance: How can God use me?

I can be a bridge because of who God has made me and the kind of experiences that he’s given me. When I sit in front of my phone and connect with people in every part of the world – in real time – what does it mean to think about the Gospel? And particularly my understanding of the Gospel?

We don’t have to be a brilliant apologist to everyone, but what do you bring from your experience?

I’m a scientific nerd. My background is in theoretical astrophysics, and people ask me questions such as: How can you be a scientist and a Christian? Or: What about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, the end of the universe and the Big Rip, or the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

As a Christian theist, there’s something I can personally contribute to this arena because I believe in a God who sustains every moment of the universe’s history.

Physicists like Stephen Hawking and Paul Davis talk about the absence of God, but they ask questions that actually help the Christian faith.

So when Professor Hawking died, I did 26 media interviews within the first 12 hours of his death – many of them within the digital environment. People were asking questions about God, because Hawking brought them to attention and because I have a small background in this.

We don’t have to be a brilliant apologist to everyone, but what is it that you bring from your testimony and experience of the world that allows people to see the Word incarnated, even within an impersonal digital environment?

2. Engage the imagination, not just the intellect

In the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-7), Jesus doesn’t go up to her and say: “My dear, have you ever considered the eschatological dimensions of the atonement?”

The Holy Spirit is about engaging people – not just in the intellect, but also the imagination.

He talks instead about “living water” (John 4:10). His argument is: I want you to imagine what it would be like if you had living water.

Here you are, He says to the woman. You come in the heat of midday, to get water, put it on your back, take it home. You’re going to come back day after day after day. But what would it be like to have a kind of water that refreshes you for eternity?

And then, with that image, Jesus talks about how God is that source of renewal transformation and energy.

John’s Gospel is full of these invitations to imagine. The Holy Spirit is about engaging people – not just in the intellect, but also the imagination.

In my own area of science and religion, what does it mean to stimulate a sense of awe of the universe? To go, “Wow, isn’t that brilliant?” Or, “Where does this universe come from?” That’s a different kind of engagement to: “What’s the intellectual answer to the beginning of the universe?”

3. Maintain authenticity 

We don’t need an answer to every question that people ask us; we don’t know all the answers. (And sometimes, that’s very difficult for Christians to say. Then we often find ourselves saying things that are theologically inaccurate.)

But we do know Jesus and we do know the truth that is in Jesus.

What we need to do is to maintain our humanity – a part of which is our authenticity. What does it mean to be the same person online, as we are meeting someone face-to-face? Shouldn’t how we relate, at least, be the same?

And it is also about acknowledging that we don’t know the answer to every question.

We don’t need to defend our Lord; the Lord is big enough to defend Himself.

4. Learn from Jesus’ use of His culture

When Jesus approached culture, He viewed it from the perspective of the Kingdom of God; God is present and at work within culture.

God is present and at work within culture; the inauguration of the Kingdom is on its way to fulfilment.

Jesus affirmed the good within our world. One fascinating story in John’s Gospel is Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). There’s a question that bugs me: Why did Jesus turn so much water into wine? He turned about 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine!

We can talk about the extravagance of God and all the rest of it, but I think one of the reasons is that Jesus seemed to love parties – He enjoyed it!

If I’m honest with you, as a Christian preacher, I’m very good at the critique and less so at the affirmation. In fact, I often condemn or judge the world, but God so loved the world (John 3:16).

So I’m always asking: Is there a balance between affirming and critiquing?

How big is your vision of God?

Apologetics is about understanding that God is at work, not just in the Church, but also in the world.

Rev Wilkinson challenged: “Wherever you start, if you have a big enough vision of Jesus, there’s always a connection. There’s always a path to Jesus because He is the source of all things, and in him all things hold together.

“It may be difficult to find the apologetic bridge, but it is there.”

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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".