The original idea of this blog was that a lead post by one of us would spark some ideas and thoughts by the other two. Wheat’s article on evangelism was, for me, the most thought-provoking post that any of us has yet published. My bovine mind has been ruminating some questions prompted by Wheat’s post:

How do we persuade people?

What is persuasive?

Is what’s persuasive today different in some way than what has been persuasive in previous generations?

Is it somehow right or wrong to try to influence people?

Do we have a duty to try to convince others what we believe is right or is it somehow presumptuous and prideful to try and impose our beliefs on someone else?

And, returning to Wheat’s original topic, how does this apply to evangelism?

Is seeking to persuade in an evangelistic context somehow different than trying to persuade in other contexts?

Has anyone trademarked a material for making handbags called “pursuede?”

“Pursuede?” “Nah. Guhyde.”

I doubt I’ll get around to answering all these questions. Well, I probably won’t answer any of them, but, well, you get it.

These are not academic questions for me. Seeking to persuade people is my livelihood. Whether a judge, opposing attorney, client, or co-worker, I spend all of my working life trying to convince someone else that they should agree with my opinion:

“Yes, I see what you are saying, but have you considered this? Isn’t this more reasonable?”

“I really don’t think the judge will see it that way.”

“Maybe, but is it really worth fighting over? Does your client want to spend the time and money it will take to take this to court or do we want to work out a deal?”

“It’s just a business decision. It’s just dollars and cents.”

Persuasion is also central to evangelism. If we are to evangelize, we must also consider the best way to persuade and influence people for Christ. So how do people persuade one another?

Authority

One of the simplest ways to persuade people is through authority. A parent tells a child what to do and where to go, and the child (generally) listens.* We see blue and red lights behind us when we are driving and we obediently pull over. Our doctor tells us we have some condition or other, and we believe him without demanding to review the CAT scan or lab results for ourselves. An attorney tells us our case is a good one or bad one, and we accept his counsel.**

*Yes, parents, I know this is a hilariously naïve statement for me to make, and that children are all willful demons bent on disobedience, but, just work with me on this one. **Though I’m always surprised at how many clients are convinced they know they law better than I do. I mean, we do actually read some cases in law school in between playing online poker and fantasy baseball!

Classically, this is the model a lot of people have used for evangelism. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Of course, at a foundational level, we have to rely on authority in evangelizing. We believe what we do because we rely on the reliability of Scripture, the teachings of Christ, the historicity of the resurrection, the authority of the Church, or some combination of these elements. But, if your model for evangelism consists of nothing more than a bald assertion that someone should or must believe in something because it appears in the New Testament, I wonder how persuasive you have found that model to be? Particularly among those of our generation?

Force of Will

This is also a very effective way to persuade people, and one I see a lot. If one party is intractable enough, he can often wear down the other side regardless of how irrational or unjust his position.

My boss is a master of this. Not at being unjust or irrational, but at getting things done through sheer force of will. This comes in quite handy when you have a client who needs to pay a bill or you’re trying to convince an insurance company to cough up some more in settlement. His technique is simple, but effective:

First, he will listen politely to what you say, then say, “no, you need to do [the exact opposite of what you just said].”

If you persist, he’ll, again politely, just say, “okay, what we need to do is [again, the opposite of what you just said].” All the while, he is scrupulously avoiding either acknowledging or addressing what you have said.

If you try to respond, he’ll interrupt, and say, “Wait a minute! Let me finish!” (This is my favorite. He is interrupting you, but complaining that you are interrupting him. This usually confuses and disheartens the victim.) “This is the way it’s got to be. You’ve got to make it happen!” (And, through some strange alchemy, you are suddenly on his side, and thinking, “Yes, I must make this happen.”)

“Don’t interrupt me, droids!”

I, on the other hand, am terrible at this. I am, by nature, the least argumentative person you have ever met.* So, I get to play good cop to the Water Boss’s bad cop, and, we get stuff done. It’s a good system.

*Mrs. Water used to try to pick fights with me before she realized that I had no interest in arguing over whatever it is she wanted to fight about. Drove her crazy.

This works well in the short term, but, as a long-term strategy, it has problems. When you’re out of range of the Jedi mind trick and have time to reflect, you realize that you have been manipulated and don’t feel so good about things.

Therefore, this is not a good technique for evangelism. Yet, I remember youth rallies that featured impassioned speeches by the campfire (which so conveniently and eloquently illustrated the dangers of damnation) that were essentially the evangelistic equivalent the Water Boss’s negotiating tactics. This resulted in many a youth being dunked in the camp swimming pool, but I always had a gnawing suspicion about the lasting effect of these “conversions.”*

*I, for one, always thought the organizers of youth rallies could more efficiently achieve the same results by thoroughly drenching the assembled youth with a fire hose. Persistence

I like to think of this as the mall kiosk type of persuasion. You’ve probably also been form-tackled by one of those guys perched at a kiosk in the middle of the walkway selling soap because you absolutely must smell the bath salts or whatever that he’s peddling. It’s almost enough to stop one from going to Chick-Fil-A to get a delicious spicy chicken sandwich and waffle fries for lunch.* This technique may be effective in making a sale, but it does not inspire repeat business.

*Almost

Some people take a similar approach to evangelism. They stand with their microphone and portable sound system at busy intersections, either extolling God’s love and mercy or warning of the impending judgment. Or they come directly to your home, arriving to discuss the subtleties of the seventh chapter of Revelation just as you are about to sit down for dinner. Though such passion and commitment are admirable, it’s hard not to wonder if the good news should really be delivered and presented in the same way as a fake Rolex at a flea market.

Sleight of Hand

This is the oldest sales technique in the book.* Need quick weight loss? More energy? Stronger libido? The ability to cut through a tin can with a steak knife? All of this and more can be yours for the low, low price of being a credulous dupe.

*Literally. See Genesis 3.
“I’m telling you, this fruit has, like, zero carbs.”

You would think this wouldn’t be an issue in presenting the Gospel, but it is. If you flip through the channels on Sunday morning, you’re likely to hear a message implying that Christianity promises you wealth, happiness, and 5% body fat. I half expect a disclaimer at the end like something from a pharmaceutical commercial: “Side effects include dry mouth, blurry vision, and taking up your cross daily. If your faith remains unchallenged for four days, you need to consult your minister.” Sadly, the lesson never seems to make it to these less pleasant, but essential, parts of Jesus’ message.

This is at the heart of the concerns raised in Wheat’s original post. How much do we “water down” Jesus’ teachings when presenting them to potential new converts? And if we don’t, how do we compete with the fellowship down the road that does?

I think it comes down to what your goal is in presenting the Gospel. Do you want to fill seats and upgrade your facilities? Then, yes, you should probably emphasize the more appealing aspects of Jesus’ message and downplay the call to sacrificial love and self-denial. Sure, some of your converts may become disillusioned when their life isn’t as easy or fulfilling as you’ve promised, but there will always be someone new to take their place.

But, if your goal is to make men and women into disciples of Jesus, then you may want to try a different technique. Which brings me to:

Trust

Each of the other techniques I’ve discussed can be very effective for quick results. But they all create more problems than they solve when used in a long-term relationship. If you build your marriage or raise your children based on trickery and manipulation, you can expect the seeds you plant to flower into resentment.

On the other hand, a relationship built on trust opens the door to lasting influence. To build trust, you must have credibility. How do we build credibility? I read somewhere that credibility is a combination of candor and competence.* I like this because it points out that honesty is not enough by itself. Each of us has had the niggling sensation of not trusting someone though we believed him to be entirely honest. Honesty is fine, but it doesn’t go very far if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. To be trustworthy, you need to not only shoot you straight, but also have an informed take on the matter at hand. Candor and competence.

*I think this is from David Maister’s The Trusted Advisor, though it could be from Steven Covey or another source. And, yes, that’s some pretty awesome alliteration.
I believe you, Woody, I just don’t trust you.

Which brings us back to evangelism. If the goal is to convert our friends and neighbors into committed believers, then it will take more than a leafleting campaign or smooth talk from the pulpit. We need to develop long-term relationships that are founded on candor and competence.

Long –term relationships

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the sowing of seeds. I think this beautifully illustrates the principle that changing the hearts and minds of people is a process that takes time. You may encounter resistance or hostility the first time you try to share your faith with someone, but you can’t tell what effect your words may be having. Though the work of the seed is slow and mysterious, you do not sow it in vain. But, in order to give the seed a chance to grow and flourish, you need to have a relationship of trust with your friend or neighbor, which will provide the fertile ground for the seed’s flowering.

The need for relationship today is acute. Technology continues to increase our isolation from one another. There is concern that students entering college lack the ability for face-to-face communication because they spend all their time texting, emailing, or facebooking one another. In light of this, the call to love one’s neighbor is a bracing countermeasure. Christians, above all others, are called to be people of relationship.

Candor

If we are going to present the gospel to our neighbors, then we need to present it honestly, in its full weight and glory. While you shouldn’t begin the conversation with assurances that believers will suffer for their faith, presenting a rose-tinted view of the gospel is merely an invitation for someone to build upon sand. The heart and symbol of Christianity is, after all, the cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer counseled, “when Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Yes, share the joy that comes with faith, but do not be afraid to share the harder truths of the Gospel.

Though postmodernity is rightly maligned for many reasons, I think it presents a unique opportunity for honest evangelism. We should not be ashamed to say that we are not perfect and do not have all the answers. We serve a God who is mysterious and beyond comprehension or imagination. Who are we to believe that we have completely unraveled or understood that mystery? Sharing the gospel, then, is not an invitation to our neighbor to give assent to a set of doctrines. Instead, it is an invitation to engage fully in the mystery and wonder of God. To wrestle with God, as Jacob did, and, as Jacob was, to be blessed.

Competence

We must take our discipleship seriously if we would ask our neighbors to become serious disciples. No, we will not attain perfection, and, yes, there will be failures, but we must earnestly engage with God and consider what he demands from our lives. We must commit ourselves to the disciplines of study, prayer, and service to others if we can effectively model discipleship to those around us and make disciples of them as well.

I think this is the most intimidating part of trust-based evangelism. We can put on the happy face for a few hours on Sunday, but to truly invite someone into your life, to open to them the good, bad, and ugly, is to invite criticism and rebuke. But, again, I think this is the only real path if our goal is to convert people into committed, engaged disciples rather than mere pew-warmers.

Conclusion

Is our goal to introduce people to a superficial relationship with Jesus, or is it to develop fruitful disciples? Are we peddling a commodity, or are we inviting people to transform their lives? Are we offering them a security blanket for their conscience, or are we inviting them into a community of grace? Though it is not the quick or easy path, we should eschew the hard sell and embrace trust-based evangelism.