Warning: Competing in Apologetics Can be Dangerous by: Joel Erickson

So many students decide not to compete in Apologetics. The number one reason I hear… fear. Fear in saying the wrong thing, fear of not knowing enough. Setting off on a quest can feal intimidating… especially alone. This is why we created Online Apologetics. This group is a friendly, encouraging place for students and families to build each other up, as well as equipping them for life. Below is an article by one of our 2018-2019 leaders, Joel Erickson. If you are wanting a community in your Apologetics journey… join us!

Remember- Isaiah 41:10 – Do not fear, for I am with you…


You’re probably like, “thanks, Captain Obvious… everybody knows Apol is a hazard.” Naturally, you’re right. Watch your fingers—the potential for paper cuts exponentially increases, and you’ll probably lacerate them on the razor-sharp hinge of your specialty Vaultz® container. Speaking of boxes, the category also endangers your wallet. Vaultz boxes aren’t cheap, and you’ll invariably forget the combination (done that), forget how to reset the combination (that too), or forget where you left it at a tournament (but not that). Let’s also not forget about its dangerous effects on your precious time… the way it causes you to scour Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, and every iteration of the Dollar store for those elusive five-by-six-inch index cards or the countless hours you spend trying to get Microsoft Word to print on said index cards before resorting to handwriting them. And, of course, Apologetics presents all the perils of any limited prep event, with the added twist of you being paralyzed between the Scylla of “I’ll get a card that I don’t have and look like an idiot” and the Charybdis of “how will I ever write one hundred and five speeches???”

The actual danger that competing in Apologetics presents, however, is far more insidious than inadvertently spewing heresy before a judging panel of last-year’s-national-champ-turned-alum, your region’s legendary pastor parent, and Chap Bettis. To understand the danger, we have to discuss competition.

Every competition has two components—the means (getting to the finish line, scoring points, persuading a judge, etc.) and the end (winning). Most educators recognize that competition is powerful because it incentivizes skill-development: People want to win (the end), so they cultivate the skills to achieve it (the means). Wanna break a world record? You’ll have to train every day to hone your speed, strength, or stamina. The incentive to win causes you to become physically fit. Aspiring to give your speech on the Showcase of Excellence? You work assiduously to become a better speaker. The incentive to win makes you a better communicator. We see competition is valuable because it produces benefits, but the benefits are only byproducts, not the end.

Of course, these incentives aren’t inherently problematic. Researching US-China policy nonstop, drilling rebuttal redoes, perfecting that impeccable outfit coordination with your partner—there’s nothing wrong with mastering these means to achieve an end. It’s all well and good when the means you use to achieve the end are just means in and of themselves.

In Apologetics, what’s your subject matter? Scriptural truth. An end.

It’s downright dangerous when you forget this. When you deem Scripture as a mere means to achieving the end of winning that vaunted “first place trophy in Apologetics”, the repercussions are drastic. You risk spiritual stagnation, focusing only on gaining knowledge rather than growing in your relationship with God. You hazard creating hierarchies of spirituality, where you think the people who win are better Christians, or worse, that your room of “fifth and below” ballots reflects your standing with God. You can lose appreciation for the gospel… the grand, overarching narrative of God’s love becomes a trite story you tell round after round.

There’s good news, though. You don’t have to succumb to the danger.

You don’t have to make my mistakes.

Rewind to January 2015. Sporting a baggy suit, one of my dad’s ties, and a horrendous haircut, I’m a high school junior on the cusp of my second-ever NCFCA tournament. I feel the fear of inferiority gnawing away at me, the pressure to perform consuming me. Nobody knows you now, the voice says. You’ll prove to everybody—your friends, your club, everyone at the tournament, even God—how smart you are, how articulate, how knowledgeable. Nobody knows you now. But they WILL. Every prelim round, I tug the judges’ heartstrings, inundate them in Scripture, deliver spiritually stirring messages, all the while using God’s word as a stepping stone to my own glory. Semifinals breaks are announced. My name isn’t called in Apologetics. I’m devastated (my younger sister advancing doesn’t help salve the ego bruises either). The voice’s urgency intensifies. I double my efforts at the next tournament. I don’t advance again. I feel worthless. I’m leading the apologetics program at my club and I can’t even break.

About this time, I’m confronted by the words in John 3:30: “He must increase; I must decrease.” Radical? Certainly. Preposterous? Maybe. Satisfying? Absolutely. Yet, somehow, it’s compelling, even satisfying. My senior year, I start praying before every speech for God’s will, praying with competitors outside every room, praying in my own personal devotions for judges and spectators. Some tournaments I break; other tournaments I don’t. For some reason, the latter doesn’t bother me anymore. When the tournament director announces at 2016 Regionals that I qualified to Nationals in Apologetics, I hear the voice try to speak to me again. I ignore it. I’ve never felt so free in my life.

I’m immensely excited and blessed to have the privilege of leading Online Apologetics this year. The vision for next year is simple: Remember the real ends. We’ll be delving into lots of quality, rigorous content—systematic theology, church history, philosophy, and comparative religion—and skill development. As a result of this, some students may experience success. But we’re flipping the script on the typical competition narrative. In this setting, trophies and accolades are the byproducts. The real ends we’re trying to cultivate are:

– Deeper relationship with God
– Confidence and clarity in articulating God’s truth
– Answers to personal doubts
– Robust understanding of the Christian worldview

Competing in apologetics can be dangerous. It doesn’t have to be.

Joel has competed for five years in speech events, LD, parliamentary debate, and mock trial. He currently studies philosophy at Wheaton College with the intent to pursue graduate studies in philosophy or attend law school (or both, if his parents will let him). As a coach, Joel can’t wait to immerse you in the big ideas of politics, philosophy, and economics. He’s passionate about communication psychology and elegant organization, and wants everyone to understand that forensic competition is not about the accolades one achieves, but the person one becomes. Joel has coached hundreds of students in speech and debate through summer camps, private coaching, and local clubs, many of whom qualified to Nationals, won tournaments, or advanced to elimination rounds for the very first time. He is the founder of and head coach for Aspire Debate Camps and also coaches for Ethos Debate and Lasting Impact!

photo by: Julianne Photography