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29 June 2017

The big interview with Andy Bannister

The big interview with Andy Bannister

Andy Bannister says he’s suspicious about the ‘Christianity is in decline’ narrative. He says while sometimes it’s easier for Christians to believe it, we must be careful not to use it as an excuse. There are ‘green shoots’ of Church growth everywhere and it’s exciting. But with a PhD in Islam and stories of being ‘demolished’ by Muslims who made him question his confidence in his own faith, perhaps he’s not a typical leader of an apologetics organisation. Amaris Cole caught up with the director of Solas, which is based in Scotland. 

Why did you decide to study Islam? It happened accidently. In the late 1990s I was a youth worker, working in Dulwich, South London. A man came to give a seminar at our church about Islam. He was one of the most charismatic, engaging speakers I’d ever heard. He told us he went to preach on a ladder at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, speaking to Muslims. It sounded incredible, so I turned up the following week and he had a spare ladder for me. I told him I’d never preached on a street corner or spoken to Muslims before and he said: “Oh, that’s easy.” Well, that was wrong!

I got on the ladder with 200 Muslims listening that day and they demolished me. They had all these questions and they threw everything at me. When I got down from the ladder, my head was spinning.

I went to a Christian book store the next day and they said I needed apologetics, which I didn’t know anything about. I went to Speakers Corner every Sunday for the next three months and in and between just read, read, read. God did two things during that time – He gave me a love of engaging on an apologetic level, and a love of Muslims. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a theology degree at London School of Theology. Then the BA turned into a PhD. 

What truths about Islam do you wish Christians knew? I would like Christians to realise that Muslims are some of the most incredible people you can share your faith with – one reason being we do have some common ground: Muslims believe in God. They have a different understanding of God, but they do have a God. They also believe in scripture and believe in sin, so it’s unlike talking to atheist friends. 

At least with our Muslim friends we’re not starting from square one. Now, that sometimes causes problems, because we are two very different faiths, but there’s enough common ground to start some great conversations. 

Next—and this shouldn’t have to be said— but it’s important to know that the majority of Muslims aren’t violent extremists. If all you read in the media is the violent, extreme end, that can skew your understanding. Chances are, the lovely Pakistani you’re living next to isn’t building a bomb in his garden shed! 

However, the third thing to remember is that there is a problem with Islam and violence. We can fall into two traps – one of seeing everyone as a problem, but equally naïve is to see no problem with Islam. 

It’s important for Christians to be informed and be realistic.

Evangelicals are often known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. How can we balance the need to speak truth with being people defined by love? Love and truth belong together. If you uncouple that tension, you have problems. If you have truth without love, you are like a resounding drum or a clanging symbol – you can sound arrogant. And if you have love without truth – if you hug everybody and never challenge or say something difficult – that’s not right either. 

Many people also assume that to be a Christian you have to be moral and upright—that being a Christian is a moral position. Quite frankly, that smells of superiority and moralism. Of course, Jesus had a few things to say about this – look at how he attacked the Pharisees. It’s interesting that Jesus spent most of his time with the seemingly irreligious types. 

Yet nor did Jesus compromise morally. Whilst holding the moral line, nevertheless, those who were outcasts were attracted to him, which tells me two things – that it’s possible not to compromise morally yet to be deeply attractive, and that we must be very careful about putting these issues as a stumbling block to people. The gospel invitation of Jesus says we can come to him with all our sin and rebellion, lay it at the foot of the cross and he will then begin that process of change to put us back togetheragain. Moral change follows personal change. Sometimes we put the moral cart before the gospel horse. 

At Solas you talk about “persuasive evangelism” – what does this mean? I like to think there are two types of evangelism – unpersuasive evangelism and persuasion evangelism. Persuasive evangelism is evangelism that’s compelling, that engages people. Sometimes we use the word ‘apologetics’ to describe this but the problem is that many people don’t know what it means. I want to encourage Christians, when we’re talking to our non-Christian friends (be they atheists or secularists or followers of other faiths), to think about how can we engage and talk about Jesus in a way that takes their questions seriously, listens and finds out where they’re coming from, then answers their honest questions—but does so in a winsome way, without banging people around the head with arguments. We want people to want to hear more. 

Taking people’s questions seriously is crucial. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes we’ve bought into sort of narratival evangelism, so that when we’re asked a question we immediately switch into Testimony Mode. Now testimony isn’t ineffective, your story can be very compelling, but the problem is that everybody has a story – our Muslim friends have a testimony, our Hindu friends have a testimony, our New Age friends have a testimony. People are interested by your story, but they also want to know why your story is true – why should listen to your story and not another one?

How do you respond when you’re asked how God can allow the latest episode of suffering seen on the news? It’s crucial with this question to find out why the person is asking the question. If it’s because they’re puzzling over tragedy a newspaper has reported, that’s one thing. If it’s because their best friend has just died of cancer, you’ll want a different approach. On this question, perhaps more than any other, we need answers that address the heart as well as the head. 

That said, in general, I answer like this: I think that the interesting thing about suffering is when you see people suffering (for instance in Aleppo, or whatever war torn part of the world is currently on the front pages), the natural reaction is to say: “that’s wrong.” We feel that such a thing ought not be allowed. But that raises a profound question: where does that ‘ought’ come from? If we’re just atoms and particles, just “dancing to our DNA” (to quote Richard Dawkins) suffering is natural. But our protest suggests that we know that it isn’t natural and I want to say to people only the Bible is honest enough and realistic enough to name evil as “evil” and say it’s not the way the world should be. 

And then from there, we can point to the unique claim at the heart of the Christian faith that God hasn’t just said something about evil and suffering, He has done something. He stepped into history in the person of Jesus and at the cross has dealt with the problem of evil once and for all. As Christians, because of the cross, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can be confident that evil is not the last word. The ultimate battle has been won, and there will be justice. There’s a lot more to be said, but that’s where I’d begin: that Christianity enables us to diagnose evil and to talk about God’s treatment for the problem.

As a leader yourself, how do you think Christians in public leadership should think about truth? It’s incredibly exciting to see Christians in position of leadership, be that in business, or politics, or education. I would encourage them to think about what it means to be a leader who’s a Christian, not a “Christian leader”. You want to be someone who your colleagues look at and say: “That person is a great leader. They’re someone who inspires me and who I want to follow.” But then they figure out quite quickly you’re a Christian and want to find out more. 

When you build that trust, people are going to listen to you on a range on things. Be bold and be confident. There’s a lovely story that Tim Keller tells in his book called Every Good Endeavour, a great book for any Christian in the workplace. He tells a story about a gentleman in his congregation who was an executive working in finance, and one of his team made a mistake. This gentleman took the rap, took the blame for his team member’s error. The next day, this staff member was at his door, saying: “What’s going on? I have worked for bosses who are very willing to take the credit for your successes, but never one who would take the blame for your failure. What’s different about you?” He fluffed it, muttering he thought it was the right thing to do, but the staff member said they weren’t going to leave the office until he told them the real reason. Finally he said: “Well I’m a Christian and I follow Christ, he took the blame for me and I want to model him in my relations with others.” His team member asked what church he went to, and what time the services were on Sunday. The next Sunday the staff member was there, because he was blown away by somebody who modelled the gospel in the workplace. 

As Christians in leadership, we need to be confident, be people of integrity, but also show God’s love and grace – people are looking for a different style of leadership and that offers us a unique opportunity to open doors for the gospel in the workplace.

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