Christian Living

The Third Column

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2024

Something has been happening.

The pieces began to fall into place for me a few years ago in the small town of Turlock, California, while having dinner with colleagues before an event.

Seated around the table were Craig Hazen, Frank Beckwith, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and myself—each deeply involved in publicly defending the faith on a national level for years. One by one we reflected on the people who had made a difference for us when we were all wet-behind-the-ears pups during the Jesus movement and soon after.

The list was short: Norm Geisler, John Warwick Montgomery, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, and Walter Martin.

Moreland set the tone for our conversation, expressing his gratitude for those pioneers in our field who had laid the foundation for our own work. His point was simple. We are in their debt. Let’s stay faithful. Let’s stay united. Let’s leave a legacy behind in the lives of others, just as those men had done in ours.

The First Column

These five men were our mentors—the first column of soldiers in the fight, in a sense—paving the way, setting the example, establishing a beachhead.

They taught us. They set a standard for us to shoot for, maybe even to exceed. They inspired us to imagine a day when thoughtful Christians would once again be active players in the marketplace of ideas. And it was about time.

Back in 1925, when state legislatures began to pass laws against teaching evolution, the ACLU stepped in to test the law in Tennessee using high school teacher John Scopes. William Jennings Bryan was the spokesman for the fundamentalists. The ACLU had Clarence Darrow for the defense.

The infamous "Monkey Trial" was a watershed event for Christians. Scopes and the ACLU actually lost the court battle,[1] but it was an empty victory for believers. For the most part, followers of Christ abandoned the field and took refuge inside the walls of the church.

Choosing cultural monasticism rather than hard-thinking advocacy, they left the public square to the secularists. The disciples of Dewey, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Skinner, and a host of others replaced the disciples of Jesus in the cultural conversation.

Puritan Christians had been the founding fathers of the intellectual community in the United States, but in the years that followed the Scopes trial, Christianity lost its claim as a player in the marketplace of ideas. As Os Guinness pointed out, Christians had not been out-thought; they just had not been around when the thinking was being done.

Then things began to change. Sharp and fair-minded men like those I mentioned above began to slowly chip away at the stranglehold non-Christians had on the world of ideas. It was just a start—a small start in light of the challenge—but a column was beginning to form, nonetheless.

And just in time. Nearly one hundred years after Scopes, we are balanced on the cusp of another historical watershed. On one side is a public square crying out for answers to the critical issues of life but also heating up against virtually everything historic Christianity stands for. On the other side is the cultural and intellectual monastery that provided sanctuary—and ensured cultural impotence—for Christians in the past.

Which way will the church go this time? Will Christians engage in careful, compelling ways, or will they retreat? An answer to that question—at least a partial answer—has been coming into focus.

The Second Column

Those of us seated around the table all had our own individual stories to tell of what God had done in us and through us since the early days. One thing was clear to me, though. What God had been doing amounted to more than the sum of our individual contributions. Something else was happening.

For over thirty years now, a second column has been forming, one much bigger than the first. In the first column were the pioneers—the first in the fray in the battle of ideas. In the second column are leaders who were influenced—either directly or indirectly—by that first small band. They are now heading up enterprises of their own that collectively have a much larger impact than their mentors could have ever accomplished on their own—the result of the simple calculus of discipleship and multiplication.

We in the second column saw the need to equip rank-and-file Christians to defend classical Christianity and classical Christian values with people who didn’t understand our language and who no longer accepted our source of authority. We were convinced that Christianity could compete in the marketplace of ideas if it was properly understood and properly articulated. And we were committed to a diplomatic model of fair-minded advocacy to make the point that Christianity was still worth thinking about, even in this new era.

Our little band of brothers at the table that summer evening was just a small portion of the second column. There are many more whose names you’d recognize, people like Nancy Pearcey, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, David Noebel, Gary Habermas, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross, to name just a few.

But the second column is small compared to the one that has been emerging.

The Third Column

A third column has begun to form. Everywhere I travel, I meet sharp, committed ambassadors for Christ who are students of those in the first two columns and are grouping up with others of kindred spirit in their local communities.

Their names will probably never grace the cover of a book or be in lights on an apologetics conference marquee. Instead, they are foot soldiers with boots on the ground, individually being faithful to defend the gospel in smaller arenas their Commander in Chief has entrusted to them.

They are small bands—“little platoons,” Edmund Burke called them—of ordinary people making a difference right where they live. They are not large organizations or huge institutions. Collectively, though, these platoons that are scattered around the country—and, more and more, the world—are growing into an army of clear-thinking Christians.

You’ll find them in places like Dayton, Ohio, and Nashville, Tennessee. You’ll also find them in places you’ve probably never heard of like Moorhead, Minnesota; Gilroy, California; Logan, Utah; and Owosso, Michigan. You’ll even find them in Turlock, California. They’re the third column, laying it down where their feet hit the ground.

Let me give you a few examples of the groundswell of activity the Holy Spirit has been building for years.

  • When speaking in Dayton, Ohio, two years ago, I stumbled upon a nonprofit enterprise called LifeWise Academy.[2] Founder Joel Penton describes its simple concept for students in public schools: “We transport students from their school to a nearby location, provide a weekly Bible education class, and return them to their schools…during school hours.”[3] And it’s completely legal. A Supreme Court ruling decades ago[4] allows for “release time” religious education of public school students as long as it’s off campus, privately funded, and voluntary. LifeWise launched its first classes in fall of 2019 with two schools in Ohio. Five short years later, 30,000 students in 300 public schools across 12 states are enrolled in LifeWise Academy. Some schools have over 70% student participation.
  • Rebekah Humes is a stay-at-home mom who moved with her husband and three kids to Logan, a tiny town deep in Mormon country in northern Utah. She’d taught Bible in middle school and received her apologetics certificate from Biola University, and her heart ached for her LDS neighbors living in darkness. She began praying that God would bring some of them to her doorstep. Though a bit timid, Rebekah was still willing to take a risk. She was stunned, though, at the way God answered her prayer. One day, her Mormon neighbor stopped by her home and asked if she would teach apologetics at an LDS young women’s camp. Soon after, more of her neighbors began showing up at her doorstep, spiritually hungry. Rebekah now leads a weekly Bible study of 10 to 12 ladies—a mixture of Mormons, former Mormons, and believers. She always feels she’s in a bit over her head with the challenge, yet God continues to prosper and expand her impact as she trusts him and steps out in faith.
  • For over 25 years now, South Valley Community Church in Gilroy, California, has been hosting a summer apologetics conference to equip their people to be confident and courageous Christians in an increasingly challenging culture. During four consecutive Sundays every summer, guest speakers take the pulpit, instructing on various aspects of Christian defense. SVCC’s practice is one I’ve noticed with a number of churches now who dedicate a handful of Sundays or Wednesday nights each year to host apologetics speakers, building their local community of Christians in confident faith.
  • Though barely a teenager, 13-year-old Daniel Dietrich from Moorhead, Minnesota, wanted to make a difference for Christ with an apologetics website. How does a young believer populate a site with content, though, when he isn’t a writer or a speaker and has no formal education in the field? The answer: Gather solid apologetics material from around the internet and link to it from a website he created, making it easy for someone to have access to solid sources from one location. Thus, Follow the Proof was born.[5] “When I was investigating questions I had about my faith and looking for proof,” Daniel writes, “I found lots of information. However, it was scattered across many different websites. So, I decided to share the best sources in one place.” Follow the Proof received 1,600 views in the last 12 months and even inspired a third-grade class in South Korea to start their own site. Daniel has also heard from Christians in Canada, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
  • In October 2022, I taught a Tactics seminar at Community Evangelical Presbyterian Church in tiny Owosso, Michigan. The next day after the church service, I had lunch with their missions team to discuss the next steps they could take to get their members out into the marketplace of ideas to engage others with the good news of the gospel. I suggested they send their Christians out in pairs—like Jesus did—and initiate casual conversations at places like the mall using a simple questionnaire to assist them. Then I sketched out a set of questions and basic guidelines for interaction to help them in the process. A few months later, I published those directions in an article posted at so that many more could benefit from the initiative taken by those faithful Christians in Owosso, Michigan.[6]
  • When Ava Calhoun was 12 years old, she wanted to showcase how her interest in art, crafts, fashion, and other “girly” stuff integrated smoothly with her Christian worldview and her love for Jesus. So, Ava created a multifaceted YouTube channel characterized as “Where Faith & Lifestyle Aren’t Separate.”[7] Her thoughtful comments about Christianity soon attracted Muslim challengers, though, forcing her to add more apologetic substance to her material. Defending her Christian convictions quickly became her first love as she devoured books by top Christian thinkers—many of whom she interviewed on her channel. Ava’s bubbly, cheerful personality quickly attracted a host of followers. Now 16 years old, Ava has 4,000 subscribers to her unique site, where every week she posts clever videos on art, lifestyle, and—especially—Christian defenses. Ava wants young Christians to see that being a believer is not just for Sundays but encompasses all areas of life every single day.
  • In September 2022, STR launched a quintessential third column enterprise by gathering believers seeking answers to the hard questions about Christianity and forming them into local communities called Outposts. Each is led by a qualified director vetted and equipped by STR to guide the local group in discussions on defending classical Christianity and classical Christian values. STR provides leadership training, coaching, and the initial content through podcasts, articles, and STR U videos. Within 18 months of the launch, committed Christians in local churches had established 115 Outposts in 33 states and in five other countries (Australia, Canada, Portugal, the UK, and Zambia), and new groups are being added monthly.[8]

Each of the examples above (and I’ve just scratched the surface) describes the efforts of more formal enterprises, but most of those in the third column are not officially organized.

I wrote in the last chapter of Tactics[9] about a small group of housewives with kids who met together weekly in my own community. They gathered not principally for fellowship and prayer, but for study and stimulating discussion so they could love God with their minds, not just their hearts.

On virtually every trip I take, I encounter dear people who tell stories of how God is using them and their friends in ways they never thought possible. They have grouped together with others of kindred spirit to plant a flag, establish an enterprise, and to make a change that matters. And their numbers are legion.

People like these—people like you—are the future of thoughtful Christianity. The next years do not belong to best-selling authors or popular speakers at big events, though we still need both. Rather, the future will be determined in relatively quiet corners of our Christian communities—small groups of committed disciples in the local church with warm hearts and sharp minds demonstrating that Christianity is worth thinking about.[10]

How can you join the column? It’s easier than you might think.

Gather, then Scatter

First, gather. Gather together in “little platoons,” then gather information. Find others around you of similar vision—at school, in church, in your social circles. Think of yourselves like sparks in dry tinder igniting a larger fire in your spiritual community. This may be a church-sponsored class, an STR Outpost, or an informal fellowship of like-minded Christians like C.S. Lewis had with Tolkien, Williams, and Sayers.

When you meet, ask questions, raise issues, entertain the hard challenges—the ones skeptics have raised or the ones that have vexed you personally. If you’re a pastor, make sure those in your church—especially young people—feel safe voicing honest objections, even if you don’t know the answers just yet. This one thing can have a liberating—and energizing—effect on youth.

Then gather answers. They’re everywhere. Read books, listen to podcasts, search the web. I promise, you will not come up with a problem that others have not pondered and that a clear-thinking Christian has not answered well.

Second, scatter. Scatter into your larger community and scatter the seeds of information you have gathered as a group. Start conversations simply by asking questions (what I call the “Columbo” tactic), finding out what people believe and why. Then be on the alert for opportunities to weave truth into the dialogue in a friendly, diplomatic way.[11]

Stay calm. Don’t overstate your case. Don’t overreact to opposing ideas. And don’t get into a fuss or a fight. Don’t swing for the fences, either—don’t try to win all the arguments with an unbeliever. Just put a stone in his shoe. Give him something to think about.

And here’s one final bit of advice that may be the most important.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

I want to pass a thought on to you that has served me well for five decades as a follower of Christ. I hope it will be your servant as well. Here it is: Bloom where you’re planted. Make the most of the opportunities within your immediate grasp, even if they seem small or inconsequential.

If you can’t speak to 100, speak to 10. If not to 10, then one—maybe a solitary soul at Starbucks. When you can’t speak, write—in your own blog, on someone else’s blog or Facebook page, in a diary of personal reflections. Don’t let your seeds of insight slip away. Find some soil for them to take root in. When possible, do both—talk and write if you’re able.

Keep your eyes open. Take what opportunities come your way.[12] Do whatever you can, wherever you are, even if modest or unexceptional. Then watch to see how the Lord decides to use your offering. Sometimes it’s the smallest seeds that grow into the largest trees. That’s how the third column works.

This notion of blooming where you’re planted meshes seamlessly with a basic biblical principle: We must first be faithful in smaller things before we will be entrusted with larger ones. And if bigger things never come our way, then the small acts of faithfulness will be enough.

God is honored in every act of fidelity, grand or simple. Some enterprises start small and end massive. Others start small and remain small. No matter. The key is sustained individual effort on a local level, being faithful with whatever opportunities God provides.

The first column was tiny. The second column is larger. The third column is massive, and you are part of it.

J.P. Moreland’s advice to each of us around the table that night in Turlock is the same advice I pass on to you. We are in debt to those who came before us. Let’s stay faithful. Let’s pay it forward. Let’s end well.

Gather. Scatter. Bloom. Make a difference, even if it’s small. Leave a legacy behind in the lives of others, just as those who came before us have done in ours.


[1] The ruling was eventually overturned on a technicality.


[3] Joel Penton, During School Hours—Why and How LifeWise Academy Is Reinstalling Religious Education into the Public School Today (LifeWise Press, 2023), 13.

[4] Zorach v. Clauson (1952).


[6] Find “A Simple Survey to Help Initiate Spiritual Conversations” at

[7] See also her Instagram:

[8] For information on STR Outposts, go to

[9] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 259.

[10] As J. Warner Wallace says frequently, “We don’t need more million-dollar apologists. We need a million one-dollar apologists.”

[11] Again, Tactics is invaluable here, providing an easy-to-follow, step-by-step game plan. It’s available at—

[12] Colossians 4:5–6.


[Article originally published on 1/01/12, updated on 7/01/24.]