Winding through a town north of north and mostly forgotten, I was reminded that New England is all that it's cracked up to be . . . including the roads: potholes and all. The scenic views, rustic streets, and refreshing chill in early May was a reboot of my youth and early married years in New England. But this wasn't just New England. I was in Bangor, Maine for the Why Jesus? 2016 Northern New England Conference on Evidence for Christian Faith.
The small town felt evaporated upon entering the convention center that quickly filled with about 6,300 people. That's not a typo. The proof is in the "pews."
Lee Strobel wrapped up the morning that had started at 8:30 a.m. making a case for the historical Jesus, and Ravi Zacharias brought it home about 9:00 p.m. presenting on "Why Should Anyone Follow a First Century Religious Figure?"
Now, THAT . . . is wicked cool!* And if you are from around here, you know I'm not talking about an evil winter.
That's six thousand three hundred living breathing persons for an apologetics conference in a sold out arena in a region of the country that is considered by some missions organizations to be "an unreached people group." No kidding. I received a letter from a Ratio Christi student a couple of years ago fundraising for a summer mission project to an area with only about 2 percent evangelical Christians: Boston, Massachusetts. The whole northeast is the most unchurched and under-evangelized area in the U.S. With a rich Christian intellectual and missions heritage in the distant past, it is now much closer to the secularism pervasive in Europe than a former seminary-rich training ground and launch pad for missionaries. Harvard, Yale, and many more great universities started as training centers for Gospel outreach. No more. The "frozen chosen" is an apt phrase for the few dear Christians isolated among the universalist churches, hip communities, and industrious people of the area. Some baptist groups from the Bible belt have called the northeast the "church planting graveyard." A quickly put together praise band and a swanky preacher doesn't a church make like it might below the Mason-Dixon. The people are strong and strong of mind, well educated, and used to thinking for themselves. Religion has been tried and found wanting or not tried at all. The Christians that are there are so because they mean it and not because it's easy. The few small churches--with a lot of distance between them--are full of serious and good people. Yet there are so very few.
A part of my heart has always remained in New England and with my friends and family there, though I'll admit I don't miss the dreary snow filled winters. I want to see a great multitude from this needy place coming to their Saviour. I've hoped that God would once again use this tucked away land and it's people in a powerful way. If ever a place needed a Renaissance of Christian thinking, it is here. Ratio Christi launched efforts in New England some four years ago and the work is hard, requiring leaders with patience and fortitude--and Ratio Christi has been blessed with such leaders. In the hard soil of the heart from Connecticut through Vermont, evangelism and discipleship take the exhortation of "put your hand to the plow and don't look back" to a whole new level (Luke 9:62). I've often thought that apologetics was even more needed in New England--similarly in the northwest--than in most other U.S. locations where we might put our hand to sharing the Gospel. It's the same reason by which I think re-spreading Christianity in Europe will only see limited results until the church discovers apologetics in its tool bag.
So, imagine the joy in seeing over 6,000 followers of Christ gathered to better understand how to explain and defend the truth of Christianity in a small city north of north. Lee Strobel said,
[Why Jesus? 2016] may be the largest event of Christian apologetics or evidence for the faith ever done.
The atmosphere was electric and many--including myself--were rather dazed that so many had traveled so far from around the region to attend a long day of intense training. It was an oasis experience and reminded me of the LORD telling Elijah,
Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18)
There is much to report from the event and Ratio Christi made contact with many similarly minded faculty, students, and apologists. We have six more campuses in Maine and New Hampshire begging for apologist leaders. The equipping and inspiration will, no doubt, bear fruit. Yet, there is another story I would like to tell. One that is vital to the apologetics movement and to the evangelization of our world.
The question is. . . Why? Why did over six thousand people descend on Bangor? I can tell you it wasn't the location. And it wasn't the food--the convention center ran out of food and had to have more shipped in because (I was told) the venue didn't really believe there would be that many people in attendance even though the tickets had sold out ten days before the event. Was it the speakers? In addition to Strobel and Zacharias there were other top-tier teachers. I'm sure that was a big factor--it's not often that you gather such speakers in New England. It was a big draw.
But the real reason for this truly unique experience was someone who I consider to be one of the best apologists in the world. I want you to be like him. I want you to learn from him and do what he has done. Although he made only fleeting appearances on stage during this day, the event happened because of the sheer will and determination of Daryl Witmer. You haven't heard of Daryl? I'm not surprised. But you should get to know him. He doesn't seek the limelight and he doesn't usually speak to thousands of people. Few in the apologetics world know of him. Why would they? He lives in Monson, Maine--still further north than Bangor. He doesn't have a PhD and he hasn't written a best seller. Yet, I would say that if you are looking for an apologist to emulate, it is Daryl Witmer. Through him, God has impacted a whole region of the U.S. He is not famous in the eyes of the world, but I am convinced he is a hero in the eyes of heaven.
In the early '70s, Daryl studied at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship which launched him as a worldview thinker and apologist. For over 30 years he integrated these values into his life as a circuit-riding pastor of local churches where he labored and loved Christ's people. He is also in a wheelchair. Guillain-Barre syndrome has left him a quadriparetic since 1984. That didn't stop him or his steadfast wife, Mary.
Then, just over 25 years ago Daryl and Mary founded the AIIA Institute (Areopagus II America). The goal? Spread a reasoned defense of the faith throughout New England from a home base in Monson. Over time, they converted an old church beside Lake Hebron into an apologetics study center situated along the route of the Appalachian Trail. It has a small but well-equipped apologetics and media library, meeting rooms, offices, and space for teaching and training. Youth and adults are invited in for equipping, discipleship, seminars or retreats, regularly scheduled lectures, and an Apologetics Academy. They send out a regular equipping newsletter and have a plethora of available resources for churches, believers, and skeptics. Hikers and tourists can stop by to find friendship and stimulating discussion.
Did thousands of people attend Why Jesus? 2016 simply through inviting people to the study center? No. For 25 years he traversed snowy roads from Maine to Pennsylvania in his wheelchair-equipped van to take the message to churches and groups. He believed in the necessity of apologetics and the urgency of the Gospel. So, Daryl preached and prayed, taught and trained: at churches, camps and conferences, youth retreats, vacation Bible schools, and home groups. He didn't ask for a thousand people to teach. He would pour his heart into five people or ten people. Women, youth, seniors, men's groups. . . you name it. He and Mary were there faithfully executing the task God had given them and serving whoever would listen to truth. For 25 years they sowed seeds and tilled the soil. During the last four years, they gathered a team and planned for Why Jesus? 2016. Daryl worked with churches throughout the area, building toward this event. There was a need and he tenaciously followed through with a plan--a great apologetics gathering in his beloved north. It was a labor of love, servant leadership, and collaboration with dozens of churches and ministries. Neither would it have been possible without Mary's support and abilities. The Witmers understand Christ's example: "coming not to be served but to serve" (Matt. 20:28). Years of building relationships and teaching whoever would listen has born fruit--much more fruit than we can know or saw at the conference.
It's also more than diligence and hard work. Daryl has had a vision informed by biblical wisdom combined with astute observations of how churches operate. I have had a strong desire for many years to see apologetics infiltrate the church. Sometime in early 2008, I called Daryl in preparation for a lecture I was giving on integrating apologetics into local church ministry. I had Providentially connected with Daryl several years earlier and he was the only person I knew that had demonstrated success integrating apologetics directly into a variety of churches over a long period. He was gracious and shared a lot of wisdom gleaned from years of experience in many churches all over New England. If you want to know how to incorporate apologetics into church ministry there is no better man to learn from than Daryl Witmer. You may just need to take a trip to Monson, Maine! You won't regret it.
It's here that things come full circle to Ratio Christi. It was not many months after my call with my Maine friend that Ratio Christi was born. Many of the principles and practices that Daryl shared impacted the vision and values of Ratio Christi as we launched a brand new ministry into a different environment--the university. The concepts of local grassroots mobilization, servant leadership, and a recognition that it is often the small unseen discipleship that is most valuable in the end has guided Ratio Christi to this day. We can only hope that our successes are as real and spiritually genuine as the fruit that has come from the man from Monson, Maine. As he has in many ways emulated Christ, I would encourage you to emulate him. Be a servant to all. Do not despise the day of small things. Do not seek fame, but seek first the extension of Christ's kingdom.
Are you looking for a place to serve as an apologist/evangelist? We have a university for you. It just get's a little cold in the winter.
Please pray for New England. Pray for fires of reasoned faith to spread. Pray for the staff at AIIA and the follow-up to the conference.
There are several AIIA events coming up in the near future. See our Event Center and look for Monson, Maine on the list.
Click on the pictures below for a slide show of the event and Daryl's world.
* And if you don't know, "wicked" is a long used New England slang term for anything great, awesome, or generally pretty "cool"
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