Meet Ravi Zacharias

Interview includes his testimony and thoughts on needs of educated people and advice to ministers

Ravi Zacharias is part of an emerging generation of defenders of the faith poised to help lead the church through the transition into the 21st century.

Born in Madras, India, in 1946, he survived a suicide attempt as a 17 year-old university student. 'It was a very considered decision at that time - not the result of a trauma or depression. It was just the fact that life lacked meaning,' he said. From his hospital bed in New Delhi, he remembers vowing: 'I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.' It was then he became a Christian.
He migrated in 1966 to Canada, worked in hotel management, and settled into a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church. 'My first Sunday there, a missions conference began,' he recalls. 'A Canadian missionary who had gone to India was speaking. For the first time, I heard myself described to others as a mission field.'
Not long afterward, sensing a call to ministry, Zacharias began training for his new vocation. He graduated from Ontario Bible College in 1972, and before starting graduate studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, married fellow youth group member Margaret Reynolds. He was also commissioned by the CMA as an international evangelist, and from 1981 to 1984 held the Chair of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought at the denomination's Alliance Seminary at Nyack, New York.

Defining the call

In 1983, at the Billy Graham-sponsored International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, Zacharias said he sensed God was further defining his call. 'It was a climactic moment. I saw that the classical evangelist in the arena of the intellectually resistant was a rarity. Books covered the subject of apologetics, but where was the man or woman who was dealing with the tough questions while contending for the hearts and minds of the world's thinkers?' Josh McDowell was in that arena, as were a few others, but there were millions to reach. Zacharias said: 'At that moment, I found the call to what I'm doing now.'
Although he retained his CMA ordination, he began building an independent organisation to implement his plan. In 1984 he formed Ravi Zacharias Inter-national Ministries.
Zacharias has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he wrote his first book, A shattered visage: the real face of atheism, now published by Hodder in the UK.
Zacharias defines his call as one to secular society, especially to its opinion leaders in business, education, politics and entertainment. Over the years, he has spoken in more than 50 countries - from Russian military officers to members of the African National Congress, from Colombian parliamentarians to Muslim leaders in the Middle East. But most often, Zacharias speaks at universities or other scholarly locales.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing needs of the world's best-educated people?

A: Individually, there's a growing sense of isolationism; the loss of a moral and spiritual centre, and an inability to find it because of our high-paced lifestyles. One focal point of Eastern culture for centuries has been the nuclear family, the larger family, the patriarchal leadership in the home. But now, all of a sudden, families are splintered across the globe. The West has had such an abundance of pluralism that it no longer has a moral or spiritual reference point. East is meeting West, and the intermix is generating serious questions about the direction of life.
The most pressing question of our time is whether man can live without God. As the term God becomes more and more ill-defined in our time, it is imperative that politics, education and society understand the ramifications of answering life's basic questions as if God did not exist. How do you explain origin, morality, meaning, and destiny apart from God? That is the issue I deal with in my book.

Q: What are some of the other questions that repeatedly arise?

A: The most often raised is: 'How can one really believe in one way in an intensely relativistic world? There are so many faiths, so many good people and teachers, how can Christ be the only way?' Some are obvious questions, asked in difficult ways: 'Why would God condemn people who have never had a chance to hear, people who were trying their best to be sincere and do good?' Other tough questions deal with the presence of evil in the world, and the suffering of innocent people and children. The documents of the Bible are still under attack. The integrity of the minister is under close scrutiny these days. New cockeyed theories always seem to be coming out of academia somewhere, and we are asked about them. But all these questions have persuasive and meaningful answers.

Q: What do you say to someone who may be afraid to deal with this kind of intellectual material?

A: There are two levels of apprehension. Very often, intellectual material be-comes so abstract that it seems utterly pointless and irrelevant to life in the real world. And on the other hand, once you start dealing with how ideas are generated and the struggle for truth, there is so much that one needs to know. Often, we never chart the intellectual waters because we fear they will only get deeper and deeper, or we will never feel comfortable in them. So the fear is sometimes legitimate. It seems too abstract, it seems too deep.
But one of the reasons that C.S. Lewis was successful - and will possibly go down as the all-time greatest apologist - was because he was able to take intellectual material and deal with the ideas so that even children could be at home with them. If people learn to read writers like Lewis, they will find the biggest surprise of their lives: discovering how much fun thinking can be, working through how to apply the concepts.

Q: What should the church's priorities be as it heads towards the 21st century?

A: First, we need more than anything else today to return to the authority, the nobility, and the depth of the Scriptures. The Word of God is powerful, like a lion let out of the cage, as Calvin said. We have forgotten that. We have sort of watered it down, or dressed it up to look more like a pop theory for our times. But it will not work. As someone has said, if you are married to the spirit of the age, you will be left in divorce in the next generation.
Second, we need to know how not only to harness the mind, but also to influence the imagination, because the world has captured the imagination of our time. Writers like Lewis were brilliant at doing this, even with young people. How are WE going to touch secondary school young people? That's one of the biggest challenges we face.
Third, we need to know how to bridge heart AND mind in our own proclamation of the gospel so that we do not go to one extreme and forget the other.

Q: Do you see any encouraging signs amid today's cynicism and moral decline?

A: I do, but the encouraging signs don't always get the attention. For one thing, I see great response to the gospel in business circles. All across North America, men and women are attending breakfast, luncheon and dinner meetings, and evangelistic Bible studies. Few feel the breakdown of society more than the business person in the workplace, or the young family trying to raise children and give them some parameters by which to live.
Although it's often overlooked, there is also encouraging response on university and high school campuses. I think the reason we are seeing some very promising signs among teenagers - gathering at the flagpole for prayer, and so on - is because everything around them is collapsing. It takes much greater courage for a student to be a Christian today than it did 20 or 30 years ago. One of the fascinating things at Harvard was to see the courage of the Christian students who joined me on the platform on the second day to answer the questions of some of their college peers. There's a move among students that will bring great response.
And of course, the international scene is rife with response. I have been in evangelistic ministry for the past 22 years and never have I sensed a greater openness in many parts of the globe as I do now.

Q: What advice would you give fellow workers in the ministry?

A: First, maintain your devotional life. Nothing else can take its place. Nothing in your life will become meaningfully significant before God if you neglect it. It's the hardest discipline, but if that dies, the ministry is dying.
Second, pray. If you are a praying Christian, your faith will carry you. If you are not praying, you will have to carry your faith - and it will exhaust you. It is in the season of prayer that God makes you into his dream.
Third, stay humble. One of Billy Graham's great strengths is his obvious sense of humility. Success in ministry can be quickly stifled if that is not kept in perspective.
Fourth, become a disciplined reader. The problem in our communication today is that we can become shallow, limited and sterile if we are not willing to read sufficiently. Find authors who have something to say, and master what they are saying. A good author will generally introduce you to a variety of other good authors. The worth of a book is determined not only by what it says, but infinitely more by what it points to beyond itself. In a number of volumes I have, the footnotes are underlined more than the texts themselves. Immediately they tell you who has shaped the writer's thinking, and which works have inspired or coalesced in the writer's mind.
Fifth, be very close and affectionate to your family. My wife and my children know they are the four most important people in my life. Especially in the itinerant life, it's easy to forget the greater importance of your relationship with members of your own family. Keep that close, and it will keep you real.

This interview is reprinted, with permission, from an issue of National and International Religion Report.

Mr Edward Plowman