When I first met Melissa Cain Travis, she was tucked away at a corner table in a Houston café, a rust-colored scarf around her neck. I recognized her from pictures, but she didn’t look like the academic I’d seen lecturing in videos. She was more like a mom-friend I’d meet for an afternoon play date, where the two of us sit on a park bench and try to have a serious conversation in between wiping one kid’s snotty nose and grabbing another before he digs in the dog poop under the slide. She seemed accessible and human.

I interviewed Travis as well as her colleagues, for CT’s recent cover story on women in apologetics. She’s part of a department at Houston Baptist University that has the highest number of women of any apologetics program in the nation. Like most Her.meneutics readers (and writers), she defies stereotypes and easy categories. She’s a stay-at-home mom and a scholar. She homeschools her two boys and is working on a PhD. She leans toward complementarianism but spends most of her time as a teacher-speaker who’s passionate about drawing women into apologetics leadership in the church.

With a master’s in science and religion from Biola University, Travis stays busy speaking at apologetics conferences; writing her blog, Hard-Core Christianity; teaching at HBU; working on a humanities doctorate; raising two pre-teen boys; teaching at her home church, Faith Bible; and writing children’s books for Apologia Press, including How Do We Know God Is Really There?, How Do We Know Jesus is Alive?, and How Do We Know God Created Life?

When did you come to faith in Christ?

In the house where I grew up, we had a small library. Every time I would walk into that room, I was surrounded by shelves of books about Christianity that my dad was using in seminary. An indescribable sense of peace, security, and confidence would wash over me. It was in that tiny library, kneeling down on the ugly, gold, velvet recliner, that I asked Jesus to be Lord of my life.

What is it like to be a woman in a field that has been primarily inhabited by men?

In some ways, my work has gotten more exposure because being a female in this field is such a novel thing right now. However, apologetics is not an area where women are always taken as seriously as men. Some people wonder if women have the constitution for apologetics. It’s a field that often involves tackling hot-button issues and challenging strongly-held views that have become prevalent in our society. Interlocutors are often verbally hostile or even downright offensive. Emotions must stay under control at all times—grace under fire! So I feel that part of my calling is to challenge preconceived notions about what areas a woman can be gifted in and how her talents can be maximized in the context of the local church and as a public defender of the faith.

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[As a mother], I’m modeling what it looks like to be a woman in ministry, which I hope will prevent my sons to from developing the stereotype that apologetics and ministry are a “man’s field.”

What would you say to other mothers who might be interested in studying apologetics but feel too mired in diapers and dishes?

I know firsthand that the childrearing years are some of the busiest and most exhausting—I’m still in the thick of it! But it’s crucial to carve out quality time in which to equip ourselves to answer the difficult questions our children will have someday. What could be more important than being able to articulate the truth to our children and correctly answer objections to the faith? When Jesus commissioned us to go out and make disciples, he meant just that! The home is prime training ground and our first responsibility. It’s not enough for our children to simply adopt what we believe. Their faith must be their own, and it needs to be well grounded from an early age.

When we read about great men of Christian history who did big things for the Kingdom, we often learn that their mothers were a chief influence in their lives. Take Susanna Wesley and St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, for example. My wholehearted conviction is that if the only enduring fruits of my earthly ministry turn out to be well-equipped, God-honoring sons who go on to impact the world for Christ, I could not ask for more. This is why I consider my children’s apologetics storybooks a necessary contribution to the discipline.

What would you say to parents whose kids are struggling with faith or preparing to go off to college?

As a parent, we have a stronger responsibility in this area than any preceding generation because of the world our kids will live in once they become independent adults. More than ever, it’s important to raise kids with the belief that Christianity is not a blind belief system. The number one thing I say to parents is: Have conversations all the time about the tough issues of the faith.

For example, a mom [at a recent speaking event] approached me and said, “My oldest daughter in fifth grade was approached by a good friend. She said to her, ‘You shouldn’t believe Christianity, because the only things we can believe are things that can be proven scientifically.’” The mom had no answer for her daughter. She ended up bringing her daughter to an adult apologetics course, and the daughter had great questions. So parents have to wake up to the fact that, no matter where you live, these topics are going to come up. They come up for kids in private school settings and homeschool settings, too.

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Do you talk about apologetics with your kids?

Out of the blue one day, my [then 8-year-old] son said to me, “Mom, how do we know that all this stuff about God is true? How do we know that someone didn’t make this all up?” We spent the afternoon in conversation about that topic. We went into cosmology, the beginning of the universe, why if something has a beginning in space and time it has a cause, and what kind of cause could that be? It was so satisfying to him and so enlightening to me to see his light bulb go on about such a complex subject. It obliterated my preconceived notions of how old a child has to be to engage the tough question about faith.

From your perspective, what is the core purpose of apologetics, and what excites you about it?

Some people narrowly define apologetics. But everyone who ever talks about Christianity to anyone at all is doing apologetics. The question is, are they doing it well or not? Its core purpose is the unification of faith and the intellect. It shows people, look, we worship God with our whole minds. All truth is God’s truth. The most exciting thing to me is to see fellow believers overcome doubts, grow in their confidence, and improve their ability to articulate what they believe about Christianity and also why it’s a rational position.

Why should the average evangelical Christian care about apologetics?

Whenever [you] encounter a nonbeliever, you talk to them long enough and you’ll encounter some strong intellectual objection. When you get to that point, it’s crucial that you be prepared to talk to them in a way that isn’t condescending and will at least lead them to research more about what Christianity really says about that subject—whether it’s the problem of evil and suffering, the issue of biological evolution, the existence of the soul, etcetera. In evangelism, it’s a handicap if you’re not equipped to engage on intellectual issues. In that sense, I don’t think apologetics and evangelism are separable at all.

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What are the limits of apologetics?

People coming into apologetics often expect, “I’m going to dialogue with all these people and they’re going to hit their knees and repent.” People participating in apologetics at the lay level, in particular, will often fall prey to the mistaken idea that we can absolutely prove Christianity to be true, but we can’t. We can give excellent reasons to support our beliefs in the truth claims of Christianity, but there is nothing we can do to offer deductive proof that the core doctrines of Christianity are true. I gently encourage people away from these kinds of tactics.

In the creation-evolution debate, for example, there are entire ministries devoted to trying to convince the church that there is only one view on creation that doesn’t involve compromising Scripture or the gospel. That’s incredibly destructive. Whatever views you take on the age of the earth or evolutionary change, those aren’t salvific issues. That’s not to say these aren’t important issues that should be discussed. But they should never be used divisively or characterized as a necessary part of being a Bible-believing Christian.

What strategies or tactics do you recommend?

First, I encourage Christians to be continual learners. People are quick to open their mouths just to have a response, but they’re not always well equipped. It’s also important to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” There is no shame in being in a situation where you don’t have a good answer and admitting that you don’t have the answer. But you are responsible to do research and follow up.

Second, talk with them in a non-condescending way about their objections to Christianity. Ephesians 6:12 says, “We’re not fighting flesh and blood.” We’re fighting against the unseen world, the principalities of darkness. We’re not fighting people. We’re fighting false ideas. It’s hard when someone is being condescending. It’s hard not to defend your personal honor. But keep that verse in your mind. We have to see people with compassionate, Christ-like eyes.

I have to be willing to learn from skeptics, as well. If I better understand where they’re coming from, I better understand the root of their objections. It’s iron sharpening iron. They’re also made in the image of God, and we have things to learn from them. God can use them to refine and challenge us, make us stronger defenders of the faith, and make us more compassionate and graceful.

Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of the memoir Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, which tells the story of her crisis of faith. She lives with her husband and their three kids in Austin, Texas. To connect with Andrea, visit her on Facebook.