The distinction between academic and practical is not a formal one recognized by most people, but there is a definite difference between apologetics that is designed for an academic environment and that which is focused on engaging people in a one-on-one conversation about the gospel.
Academic apologetics refers to arguments for the Christian faith using high-level disciplines such as philosophy, science, history, linguistics, and more. Debates between scholars using reasoning that is beyond the average person’s grasp are helpful for demonstrating that Christianity can stand up to any legitimate challenges raised against it. Some of the best academic apologists in the world today include philosophers, Bible scholars, and theologians, such as William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Alvin Plantinga, Dan Wallace, Scott Oliphint, Vern Poythress, Vince Vitale, Richard Bauckham, Simon Gathercole, Peter Williams, and Darrell Bock, to name a few. These and others are wonderful gifts to the church by pursuing expertise in fields of study that few Christians have the opportunity to pursue. They are able to contend with the top critical scholars in the world and demonstrate the rationality of the Christian faith.
What we might call practical apologetics is rooted in all the knowledge and wisdom of academic apologetics, but is focused on the practical application of these truths to real life encounters with unbelievers. References to philosophy and science beyond the basics are avoided to keep the average Christian from despairing that defending and sharing the faith is beyond their ability. Practical apologetics provides simple strategies that can be easily learned and implemented in conversations about the gospel. It does not discourage growth in learning or challenging topics, but it is designed for the average Christian to witness about Christ effectively to the average unbeliever. Sometimes a Christian might encounter a particularly well-read skeptic or faithful adherent of a religion. In this case, the resources of academic apologetics are available to deal with the more difficult challenges. But the truth is, encountering someone like this is the exception rather than the rule in most places.
The reason we need more focus on the practical is that one of the major problems with apologetics in our day is a lack of actual engagement with unbelievers face-to-face. That is, many Christians study apologetics while not actually ever attempting to share the gospel with anyone. They go to conferences and read books and watch videos, and even debate with others online. Yet, when it comes to approaching real live people with the gospel, they are all talk and no action. They accumulate ever more knowledge without using it, and as a result, they often grow arrogant and puffed up. They tend to talk only with other like-minded people and consider unbelievers to be stupid for not believing. They lose their love for the lost and instead regard them with disdain. They are like the Dead Sea, constantly taking in, but never giving out. As a result, they are lifeless and cold to the sake of the gospel.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that academic apologetics is mistaken as the way everyone should defend the Christian faith. Debates and conferences at universities, however are staged events, pitting two people against one another. They are not a good model for evangelism at all. There is no attempt to show the love of Christ (usually), because that is not the purpose of them. They are necessarily combative. The participants have to plead their case to the audience, not one another. So, while these events are immensely valuable, they are not the way we should engage unbelievers with the gospel.
Practical apologetics, by contrast, teaches that we are to love the other person (Rom. 9:1-3), show genuine interest in them, treat them with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15), and take verbal abuse from them if need be (1 Pet. 2:15; 3:16). We should not see unbelievers as enemies, but as lost souls needing a Savior, just as we did before we were saved by Christ. Therefore, even in our contending for the truth with them, refuting lies, correcting misunderstandings, exposing suppression of the truth, and reasoning with them, we do it in a Christlike, loving fashion, urging them to repent and believe.
Practical apologetics ought to be emphasized more in the church for two reasons. First, if we will begin to engage unbelievers in actual conversations about the gospel, it will compel us to grow in our knowledge of the Christian faith and how to defend and share it. And this desire will arise with an eye to engaging the lost, and not merely accumulating knowledge. Second, while interest in apologetics has grown in recent years, attention on the strategy of using this accumulated knowledge has been lacking. We know more about the reasons why we believe truth of the Christian faith than perhaps we used to, but we don’t know how to communicate it effectively. This has resulted in many confrontational strategies that often feel to the unbeliever like being accosted on the street by a stranger. When such a thing happens to the average person, their only thought is to get away as quickly as possible.
An emphasis on practical apologetics, however, equips the average Christian with a methodology that encourages conversation and that feels natural to the average person. It is rooted in the advanced truths of academic apologetics, and sometimes utilizes those resources, but it is more so rooted in Scripture itself. As we see time and time again, our primary source of effective gospel witness is Scripture, not philosophy, science, or other academic disciplines, as helpful as they may be.