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In the movie God's Not Dead, college freshman Josh Wheaton rises to the challenge of defending his Christian beliefs in the face of the cocksure atheism his philosophy professor attempts to impose on the entire class. The story, which plays out like a kind of academic David and Goliath, has reportedly made some audiences rise to their feet in applause at the end. As the credits rolled following one Sunday matinee in Berlin, Connecticut, a twenty-something man stood up and invited anyone interested in learning more about what Josh had just done to meet him outside.
A few minutes later, about 25 people, roughly half the audience, listened as Rich Porter gave an impromptu message on apologetics and the need for it in the church. Some of his listeners followed up by exchanging contact information when he was done. Rich is director of the newly forming chapter of Ratio Christi at nearby Middlesex Community College and one of a growing cadre of confident apologetics evangelists rising to the challenge of giving reasons for Christianity under the banner of Ratio Christi.
"A Mass Movement Ready to Happen"
Ratio Christi was born in the spring of 2008, when a handful of students at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, formed an informal apologetics club to help them address the counter--Christian questions confronting them at the university. That summer, two of the group approached Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) in nearby Charlotte asking for support in expanding the concept of their club. SES agreed, and the nascent body came under its wing and took the name Ratio Christi—Latin for "the Reason of Christ." Very soon afterward, calls started coming in from people wanting to place clubs at universities across the country.
Meanwhile, Rick Schenker, who'd left public office in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2006 out of a desire to work with things of more eternal significance, particularly evangelism, had been praying what he knew was "a rather outrageous prayer": Father, make me the greatest evangelist to this generation without ever having to preach a sermon. One day in 2010, while researching Master's programs in apologetics, he came upon the SES website and a little link there labeled "Apologetics Gateway." It mentioned something about a student outreach whereby apologists from the seminary helped start clubs on university campuses. It was called Ratio Christi.
He called his wife in to see it. "This thing is a mass movement ready to happen," he said, "and I want to run it." Then he called SES. A seasoned, straight-to-the-point executive, he told them he wasn't asking for any money. They didn't even have to pay him a salary. "I just want to run that organization."
Nothing happened right away, but Ratio Christi had been growing far beyond SES's capacity to manage, and early the next year, Ratio Christi was spun off as an independent, 501(c)(3) organization with Rick at the helm. He credits the providential hand of God for orchestrating it from the beginning, and it's been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.
Boots on the Ground
More grassroots movement than conventional, organized ministry, Ratio Christi differs from existing campus ministries in that it focuses specifically on apologetics, a term derived from the Greek apologia. Often used in legal settings, it means "speaking in defense." To give an apologia is to give an explanation or a rebuttal against formal charges. Ratio Christi, then, is about supplying "apologias"—not trite, "just have faith" responses, but sound reasons grounded in history, science, and philosophy for the truth claims of Christianity—and creating apologists where they're most urgently needed today, which is in academia.
Each chapter has a trained apologist as its director. Some are volunteers, serving in apologetics ministry in addition to their day jobs. Others are supported missionaries in full-time ministry. In August 2011, Ratio Christi satisfied the thorny legal requirements necessary to enable it to hire and deploy full-time apologists as missionaries responsible for raising their own support, after the manner conventional mission organizations have used for years. So far, clubs have been established on about 130 campuses across America, with several more abroad and new inquiries coming in daily.
The clubs are usually small, averaging ten to twenty members. They are student-led, and membership is open to anyone—students, faculty, or people from the wider community—of any belief or no belief. To serve as officers, however, students must profess faith in Jesus Christ.
Ratio Christi isn't at all competing with established campus ministries, but rather hopes to serve as a resource for them and co-laborer with them. In an environment where secularism is the presumed norm and any belief in the supernatural is at best viewed as passé and irrelevant, these clubs create a space for thoughtful engagement over pressing questions such as: Does God exist? Is faith rational? Is Christianity viable intellectually? What about science, evil in the world, or this Jesus guy that my philosophy professor says probably never existed? Moreover, these topics are addressed, not as matters of subjective feeling or opinion, but as discussion-worthy matters of consequential, objective truth. It happens regularly in weekly meetings and through sponsored public lectures and debates.
Far and away, the biggest challenge before Ratio Christi leadership is keeping up with exponential growth while building an infrastructure to shepherd and service the chapters well. Ultimately, the purpose is not that Christian students win debates or even that they know factual information. It's to bring together faith and reason to establish the intellectual voice of Christianity at the university.
Tom Gilson, who came on as National Field Director last year, points out that we live in "a golden age of apologetics," where we have a wealth of resources with good, solid answers to all the hard questions bedeviling the culture. "But," he says, "there's one last, great, unanswered apologetics question that just drives me. Now that we have all these answers, how are we going to change the world?"
Ratio Christi aims to be a big part of the answer to that question. Rick Schenker says his only goal in life is to help create one of the greatest evangelistic movements of this century. He tells chapter directors, "Gimme five!"—not a hand slap, but five new, confident, lay apologists each year who will become ambassadors for Christ in the world, and who can in turn teach five more.
It's happening already. University and high school campuses are the most hostile places for Christianity around, Schenker says. "But the kids learning this stuff are the most open to going out and talking about it." Their parents' generation or adults in the churches? Maybe not so much. But the kids are having these kinds of conversations on a daily basis.
And Ratio Christi ambassadors for Christ have answers. •
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