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Southern professor: evangelism, apologetics go hand in hand


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Baylor University freshman felt confident in his decision. He passionately loved sharing his faith. He knew young people needed the gospel. And, to him, that meant he should drop out of college to pursue full-time youth evangelism.

So, when the young James Parker proclaimed his plans to James Flamming at his home church in Abilene, Texas, Parker’s pastor had plenty of convincing to do.

“He didn’t just raise his hands and holler, ‘What are you thinking?!’ — which is what I would probably do if someone came into my office and told me that,” said Parker, associate dean of the worldview and culture division of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology. “He just gave me some wise advice.”

Flamming, now pastor of the First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., encouraged Parker to reconsider the matter. He did and stayed in school. But the evangelistic fervor that nearly compelled Parker to forgo college has never abandoned him. Indeed, evangelism has shaped his career course — teaching others the knowledge needed to defend the faith while sharing the faith.

Parker’s path began in Abilene, Texas, where he was raised and received a solid Christian foundation from the First Baptist Church there.

“I came home from the hospital and was in Training Union the next Sunday night,” he quipped.

Though he had knowledge of Christianity, the 10th grade marked the year when Parker completely committed himself to Christ.

“I understood very clearly Christ had a claim on my life to be my Lord and to direct my life,” Parker said. “From that point, there was sense of calling for ministry.”

As a junior in high school, his calling became more evident, and evangelism was to play a prominent role. That year, while counseling for a Billy Graham film in Abilene, Parker experienced sharing his faith for the first time.

“That was a shaping influence — just that kind of hands-on, direct evangelism,” Parker said.

This passion continued into college, and the evangelistic desires directly influenced his increasing interest in apologetics and philosophy.

“Particularly when I was in college, I began to see the importance of apologetics simply because when I would engage in evangelism with people, they would come up with objections,” Parker said. “I’m not sure I would have ever had much interest in apologetics had I not been so interested in evangelism.”

This interest pushed him to gather as much knowledge as possible. He finished Baylor in three years. He then obtained an M.A. in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. He later received an M.Div. and Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary. And his schooling continued, as he earned a Ph.D. from University of Basel and did post-doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Why all the education?

“I did it mainly because I had a lot of questions I wanted answered and a lot of stuff I wanted to learn,” Parker said.

But he knew he had also been entrusted with a stewardship. He became increasingly aware of “the Pauline admonition of passing on this sacred treasure to the next generation,” Parker said.

In 1992, Parker started the Trinity Institute, a center to equip lay leaders and future seminary students for life in a postmodern age. “The Trinity Institute was founded as a study center for people to learn how to think from a biblical worldview and understand and critique non-Christian belief systems from that biblical perspective,” Parker explained.

Parker still directs the institute and leads the summer tutorial program there. Several hundred students have gained insights into apologetics through Trinity’s seminars.

In 1999, he left for Southern Seminary to become professor of worldview and culture. But his goals of equipping Christians for defending the faith are the same.

“One of my top priorities in terms of the division of worldview and culture is to help our graduates … begin to think worldviewishly,” Parker said.

The prof also attempts to demonstrate how easy evangelism in contemporary culture can be.

“One of the things I do in my apologetics class is show people how natural, everyday conversations lead to ultimate questions,” Parker said. Words like good, fair, just and right all indicate a value judgment and provide an avenue for sharing the gospel.

“That is a very natural way to ease into the question of what is the basis of values,” Parker explained. “You can move from there very easily to a normative basis for making moral evaluations.”

Not only are such witnessing opportunities easy to find, but Christians may also easily respond to critiques of Christianity with the proper training.

“I tell my students, ‘If you take my course in apologetics, I’ll give you the answers to 90 percent of the objections that are ever brought,'” Parker said.

To aptly respond to the non-Christian’s questions, Parker said his students must first understand the culture. Like doctors, they must understand the illness in order to write the prescription.

But more than producing cultural physicians, Parker hopes to encourage his students to become passionate ministers.

“I would feel like a failure if students don’t have more of a love for Christ and a passion for God when they finish than when they started,” Parker said.

Besides his work at Southern, Parker serves in various capacities with InterVarsity’s graduate student ministry. “In general, my goal is to equip the man of God for ministry,” Parker said of his many ministry outlets.

This purpose has led Parker to take a great interest in mentoring young men for gospel work.

“I guess it happened because I was never mentored,” he explained. “I thought, ‘You know, I could save a lot of people a lot of trouble, a lot of blind dead alleys.”

His mentoring arrangements take various forms, from short-term academic counseling to long-term prayer partnering.

“I don’t really go looking for work,” Parker said. “I pray a lot about it. If in the providence of God paths cross and it seems appropriate, then I pursue it.”

Through both teaching and mentoring, Parker hopes to impart the same passion for sharing Christ that has so dominated his life.

“You kindle your passion anew every morning,” Parker said. “There’s a real danger to coast. But, if you keep praying everyday, keep reading your Bible everyday, keep sharing your faith … that will do as much as anything to keep you on track.”
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(BP) photo posted in the BP photo library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: JAMES PARKER.

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  • Bryan Cribb