What Is the Key To Being an Effective Debater? Stories and Tips from Josh McDowell.
SEAN: Dad, you’ve done over 250 debates on college campuses around the world on a host of topics. What is the key to being an effective debater?
JOSH: First, do your homework. Thoroughly know the subject. Second, love your opponent, because the best way to win a debate is to love your opponent when you’re destroying his arguments. Third, always find a way to work in your personal testimony as it relates to that subject. The person with an argument is almost always at the mercy of the person with experience. The Christian should have both the argument and the experience.
SEAN: Are debates still important and effective in culture today?
JOSH: Not as much as they used to be. When Evidence that Demands a Verdictfirst came out, there was not much access to the evidence for Christianity. And so the book took off and was an instant bestseller. But today there is much more access to the arguments for and against Christianity right on the Internet. The benefit of a debate, though, is that people get to both sides challenged right before them, and then they can decide which side is most reasonable. This rarely happens on the Internet, as so much bad information gets passed on as if it’s true. So, debates provide the opportunity for truth correction.
SEAN: What was your most memorable debate and why?
JOSH: One of them was definitely with the Muslim apologist Ahmad Deedat who was probably the top Islamic apologist in the world at that time. He was literally destroying everyone who debated him. Christians were deeply embarrassed at how badly he beat them. I received a personal letter from about 40 churches in South Africa, asking if I would debate him. And to this day, I thank God I said yes. It was probably the best debate because of the impact of it. It literally changed evangelism in the entire continent of Africa and beyond. I loved him personally, and cared for him, but he was humiliated after the debate. He only distributed his half of the debate through all Africa. Once the rest of the debate was released, his credibility and trust was completely undermined.
Amazingly, a close relative of his came to me a few years ago when I was visiting South Africa and said, “I felt you needed to know some details around the death of Ahmad. The day before he died, he asked me to find a copy of your book More Than A Carpenter. So, I brought it to him and he read some of it.” We won’t know until after this life, but there’s a chance Ahmad Deedat is in heaven.
SEAN: If you were starting again in ministry in today’s culture, would you do debates?
JOSH: I’m not totally sure. Debates have certainly lost some of their pizazz and some of their influence. Thousands of people used to come to each of my debates. But now with the Internet, they’re much more common and accessible. One reason I might do debates, though, is that they forced me to study and master a subject. I probably spent 300 hours in preparation for a debate. I knew I could use the material the rest of my life in talks, books, and future debates. At times, some of the leading scholars in the world helped me prepare. Those times were some of the best experiences of my life.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D.is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.