What are the two things that should not be discussed in polite company?

If you answered “religion and politics,” you understand the essential rules of etiquette for anything from family dinners to boardroom discussions. On the other hand, if you spend any amount of time on social media or reading the news, you’ll find the fruits of this mannerly maxim.

Chaos. Animosity. Miscommunication.

The problem is that avoiding a problem rarely brings about the desired result—it merely postpones it. By avoiding discussions on topics that may invite controversy, we have effectively lost the art of communication. On the other hand, we’ve gotten pretty good at trumpeting unverified opinions louder than the person next door. What we lack in decorum, we make up for in decibels (or capitals, as the case may be).

The same can apply in the realm of Christian apologetics.

Apologetics is a defense of the faith or the art of understanding and dialoguing with those who have questions about or objections to Christianity. Dr. Rod Rosenbladt explains that the Gospel is “Christ died for sinners, and you qualify.” Apologetics is how we understand and respond to those who have questions about—or issues with—this Gospel statement. But our attempts to defend Christianity can also suffer from “Social Media Politics Syndrome.”

When disagreements break out we unfriend, unfollow, and unburden our minds by surrounding ourselves with only the right sorts of people.

The problem is that the answers we want to give are just pithy and witty enough to not only fit a 280 character limit but also settle us firmly into the correct camp. We want to have the winning argument without actually having a discussion. We don’t have time to engage in ongoing conversations or to respond to things we might not know how to answer, so when disagreements break out we unfriend, unfollow, and unburden our minds by surrounding ourselves with only the right sorts of people — namely, those who think exactly as we do on all of the important subjects.

We have forgotten that grammar and logic precede rhetoric, and that true communication is built upon a relationship.

The Trivium, or classical education’s “three-part process of training the mind” (to quote Bauer and Wise), is composed of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. When and how these stages occur is a discussion in and of itself, but the gist of the matter is that being educated in a certain subject is a prerequisite to dialoguing on the subject. Learners go through these stages (think the historic “grammar school”), but subjects also have their own grammar, logic, and rhetoric facets built into them. Each subject has specific terminology (grammar), structures or frameworks for organizing data (logic), and a way in which the subject motivates two or more individuals to have meaningful dialogue (rhetoric). Rhetoric is the final aspect of the Trivium for a reason. The highest form of rhetoric is both persuasive and informative, seeking to clarify the grammar and the logic of the subject to others.

One of the problems with both political controversies and misunderstandings in Christian apologetics is the fact that we are so eager to get to the rhetoric stage that we ignore grammar and logic altogether. Sometimes we do this quite literally, especially in the case of online discussions. If we listen to opposing arguments at all, we do so with the intent to respond to them instead of with the intent to understand both the speaker and the argument. We become, in effect, the ill-mannered party guest who asks, “How are you?” and then interrupts your answer with a lengthy exposition on how he is doing, his recent vacation to the Bahamas, and a not-so-abridged version of his life story. If our goal is to speak louder and longer than our opponent, this will work quite nicely.

If we listen to opposing arguments at all, we do so with the intent to respond to them instead of with the intent to understand both the speaker and the argument.

If our goal is to have a meaningful conversation about difficult topics with an individual, a unique soul who was specially created by God Himself, we will need a different approach.

First, we need to excise the notion that firing one-line retorts is, “being prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within us” (1 Pet. 3:15). We need to shift our focus from “How do I respond to this question?” (a rhetoric stage activity) to “How can I understand what this individual is asking me?” (a grammar and logic stage inquiry).*

Second, we need to understand that “doing apologetics” doesn’t mean we’re out to win a debate. Our goal is not to convert anyone (we can’t convert anyone since only the Holy Spirit works faith). Our blessed calling is to have a conversation with someone who has questions or objections to Christianity. We are going to fail, probably more often than not. We’re going to say the wrong things, we’re going to use the wrong approach, and we’re going to miss opportunities. And when we do, we are turned back to the cross and the empty tomb to see a Savior who loved us enough to die a gruesome death and rise again from the grave in order to spend eternity with us.

Third, there is (ironically) no three-step plan for how to do perfect apologetics. If there were, we wouldn’t be able to do it anyway, because you and I are both miserable, sinful creatures who are justified by Christ alone and declared righteous for the sake of His perfect life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 7:15-25). Sound bites won’t cut it. Twitter-worthy quotes aren’t usually that helpful in real life. Real communication is messy, awkward, and the only way to form lasting relationships. Investing time in the person who is coming to you with questions isn’t easy, but it’s how communication begins. Ask her what she believes and why—and listen to her answer. Ask him to help you understand his point of view—and genuinely care about his answer.

We are not talking about enemies to punish or opponents to shame. We are talking about individuals who are loved with an everlasting love by the Creator of the universe, just like you are, just like I am. It is our privilege to speak the truth of the great I AM in love to those around us. Regardless of who the political leader is in our country, the Word of the LORD endures forever. May God grant us His Spirit to proclaim and defend His Word in season and out of season, and to rejoice in the knowledge that our success is not based upon anything that we do or do not do, but upon the life of Christ Jesus, whose resurrection ensures that we will live forever in His presence.

To learn more about a classical approach to apologetics, see Called to Defend: An Apologetics Handbook.