Recently, I hosted an Apologetics Conference called Veritas 2015 our guest speaker was J. Warner Wallace. He was absolutely phenomenal. This is actually my second endeavor at hosting an apologetics event. I have hosted many other large outreach type events but an Apologetics Conference is all together different. It has a different set of challenges and hurdles to overcome. The targeted audience and the objectives are also major differences. It is important to reflect on the positives outcomes as well as the areas that need to be improved (if possible) when planning to host a future conference. Some of this is self serving but hopefully posting this to my blog will enable others to avoid some planning land-mines. Feel free to "steal" some of these tips that worked and learn from my mistakes! It is my hope and prayer to see other ministries hold similar events. We live in an age where apologetics training is desperately needed. The goal is to equip the ordinary businessman, the hockey moms and the students on campus to be Christian Case-Makers! When working in the business world we would debrief projects using Plus/Delta T charts to evaluate various projects on what went well (PLUS +) and where we need to improve (DELTA).
Things That Worked - The Plus Side!
#1. Partner with a Local College or College Ministry
We partnered with a local Christian College (Grove City College) and it was a tremendously positive move. Our apologist/speaker (J. Warner Wallace) had three engagements in one day. The first event was a voluntary chapel service where there were about 1,300 in attendance. Students were hanging on every word and the feedback that came back was that he was the best chapel speaker that they have had in some time. It also set the stage for the longer evening event. At this venue, the apologist set the stage for the need for skilled Christian Case-Makers. Second, a smaller group lunch-time venue ministry leaders were challenged to see just how ill prepared they were to answer typical questions from skeptics or atheists. Then challenged to equip themselves. Third, the evening event was a voluntary 60 minute event at the chapel where over 400 students attended. A good apologist speaker recognizes the vital importance of young adults and the challenges that they face with their own peer group. Tragically, even the finest Christian Colleges do not equip all their students with current training in Christian apologetics. This is why you partner with a local college!
The growing rise of hostility for people of faith and the challenges that come with an increasing number of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" is staggering. Students are well aware of the challenges of spiritual dialog with their peers. In addition, they are confronted with these challenges on television, social media and every day life exchanges. They don't fully grasp just how ill prepared they really are when confronted. In four short years or less they will hit the marketplace where they will be confronted with a wide range of world views. The good news is the students had a true hunger to learn and become equipped. Even with midterms looming, they could not get enough of the apologetics training. I would suspect that a local State University or college that has Cru, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, or CCO would also be a fine place to start. Perhaps a united effort to provide an evening of training for combined ministries would be a great cross-pollination of campus initiatives. The idea is to equip and train believers who are college age! I cannot overstate the positives of partnering with a local college.
#2. Target High School Students
We intentionally promoted the event to include high school students. Local youth leaders are always looking for new ways to impact students. One Christian HS teacher required his students to attend four of the sessions or they had to write a lengthy paper on an apologetics issue. What a superb concept! Recent statistics indicate that there is a rapid rise in students abandoning their faith rather quickly after they enter college. This teacher has a vision for his students to be better equipped by hearing a world class Christian apologist. It is in our best interest to include and target HS students to attend something that sets the bar higher as it relates to equipping them to be Christian Case-makers. If students take AP classes, why should they settle for something less stimulating and strenuous when it comes to their faith! Lets face it, what will have the biggest impact in future years - another fun & game night with pizza and Cheetos or attending an apologetics conference where they are equipped to deal with their spiritual "none" next door? Intentionally target high school students because their future depends on them being equipped with strategic answers!
#3. Establish Credibility
When you plan your event be sure that it will challenge those who attend and that it will equip them for real life situations. While some conferences will feel like attendees are drinking from a fire-hose this is exactly what they should expect. Metaphorically, we are essentially equipping people for a spiritual battle. Our speaker was phenomenal and he established credibility within the first 5 minutes. I have never heard of a military recruit "enjoying" the 12 weeks of basic training that they are required to endure. But when that soldier enters the demands of battle he resorts to the training he received in basic by instinct. Just as basic training is demanding, so should your apologetics conference. They should walk away encouraged, excited and prepared to enter into a spiritual conversation. If they have access to materials from the guest Apologist, they will be able to access that material afterwards for reinforcement of what they learned after the conference. When you host an event that gives the attendee practical but demanding material it will automatically establish credibility. When it comes time to attend next years event they will be "all in" and they will invite at least one or two friends (maybe more). They will be there because the events you sponsor have great credibility and proven to have practical usefulness.
Tough Lessons Learned - Delta
#1. Establish Realistic Expectations
I have dedicated 17 years of my life equipping and training people in apologetics and the practical use of being "Christian Case-Makers" in small groups, sermons, and various teaching venues in full-time para-church ministry. I have always believed that evangelism and apologetics fit together like a hockey stick and a puck. Both are essential to play the game! While different, they fit together perfectly and both are dependent on each other. When speaking with someone who is not a Christ follower, it is hard to communicate the gospel today without using some form of apologetics. My passions and convictions about being a prepared equipped apologist are in my spiritual DNA. However, few believers share that point of view. Tragically, few believers recognize a need to be equipped in basic or even advanced apologetics. This is more than likely due to the fact that few believers really engage in meaningful spiritual dialog with unbelieving people. If they did, they would rapidly understand the need to be better prepared. When you schedule your apologetics event just remember you are attracting a small percentage of people who really see a compelling need to attend the event (no matter how notorious your speaker might be). Be realistic in your expectations. The end result will likely be far lower than your excitement or initial attendance projections!
#2. Have Some Type of Advanced Registration
My most recent event was open to anyone to attend and we decided to take a "free will" offering during the event. Our rationale was that we did not want to have cost play a part in people not attending. We wanted to maximize attendance so we thought that making it "free" would make it more attractive for people to attend. Further, It was my belief that when people learned who the speaker was going to be they would flock to the event in droves! I was expecting three times the number of people that actually showed up. Yes, you are likely saying.... wow that is pretty dumb, but learn from my mistakes! We honestly believed that an apologist the caliber of J. Warner Wallace would have had people jumping at the opportunity. A lot of work went into promoting the event- announcements, videos, recruiting, social media, phone calls, etc. I was wrong! It would have been very helpful to know the "numbers" even if the event is free. Regrettably, I made a horrible error! It helps you gauge how well you are doing getting the word out and it allows you to plan for snacks during breaks, book sales and other logistical issues. Further, it allows for you and your speaker to plan for the event logistically. There are a number of on-line registration tools that are very helpful, use one. Have a registration process - even if your event is free!
#3. Ministry Silos vs Synergistic Kingdom Thinking
As much as one would like to think that there is a thriving "Kingdom" mindset among churches the reality it is a rarity to say the least. This was without question one of our largest hurdles - creating ministry synergy and seeing a healthy ministerial cross section at Veritas 2015. There was some but this is the most challenging obstacle. In all fairness, church calendars get filled up with their own programs, special events, and initiatives. Most churches find it difficult to get their own parishioners to attend their own events let alone supporting the endeavors of another ministry! The natural tendency is to function as independent ministry silos of ministry. In all fairness, most solid churches would see not only great value in promoting and/or hosting an Apologetics Conference but biblical imperative! The challenge comes in uniting those churches under one event banner to support such an endeavor. Let's also be honest, there is always a latent fear of pastors that they could "loose" sheep to another church that might be hosting a conference. All of these hurdles are real and genuine. My first year hosting a conference brought to light the brutal realities of this challenge. We all like to think these scenarios do not exist, but the fact is, they do. Don't underestimate this harsh reality.
How are these reservations and fears overcome? It is my vision to create ministry synergy based on trust and love to equip people of the Kingdom in a united effort. Is this feasible? A lot of reflection needs to be made on this area to see what the next steps will be. Prayer, seeking wisdom from others and consider a range of options. The location is the one of the biggest factors that must be nailed down and how do you get others to attend from the region. It is imperative that the Host Church (and partner ministries) honestly possess a genuine burden to reach the spiritually lost of the region and Leadership must have a proactive plan to engage with our culture to take the good news of the gospel to a wide range of generations. Outside of this, apologetics simply becomes a fruitless mental exercise of acquiring greater levels of knowledge and less engagement with the spiritually lost. It takes visionary ministry leaders who understand the value and benefit of ministry synergy in Kingdom work but most of all a true burden to reach the spiritually lost of our culture.
Take the Plunge - Think Long Term!
It is critical to remember that a successful Apologetics Conference does not happen over night and it does not happen on the first event. Learning and fine-tuning is a part of the process of sponsoring a great event where people are equipped and trained. It takes time to build anything worthwhile and unless you are a ministry that has loads of staff with multiple responsibilities you are simply going to have to bite the bullet and learn from the experience and wisdom of others. Everything has a learning curve. Remember the only way hundreds of people get trained is if your first 100 attend and become Christian Case-Makers at your first conference. Prayerfully take the plunge!