The Art of Christian Persuasion

I am in the process of reading a book titled Fool’s Talk by Os Guiness. It is great read about the art of Christian persuasion, that is: Persuading others concerning the virtue of the Christian faith. But it has taken me nearly three-quarters of the book to realize that, honestly, I am not a big fan of Christian persuasion. I am not even sure Christians should be in the business of persuading.

I admit the reason for this may very well be that I have been so poor at it myself. As a young adult living for a time in Ireland, I spent several mornings engaging in that vital if not dubious task of sharing one’s faith with complete strangers known in the evangelical church as “witnessing.” In my case, it took the form of standing in a public area handing out leaflets explaining the Christian message to people as they passed by.

On one occasion, a college student stopped to talk to me. At some point in our brief conversation, the question arose where he believed he was going when he died, and he said quite emphatically, “Six feet underground.” I said, “No you’re not,” and he said, “Yes I am.” And that was the end of our conversation.

That was my most successful experience “witnessing.”

To evangelical ears, calling into question the task of sharing one’s faith with the rest of the world must sound heretical. After all, the word evangelical does not mean “right wing conservative with religious leanings” (thought I would clear that up); it means one who believes in evangelism: Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. So it is probably important that I clarify what I mean here.

To evangelical ears, calling into question the task of sharing one’s faith with the rest of the world must sound heretical. After all, evangelical means one who believes in evangelism.

When I say I am not a big fan of Christian persuasion, I do not mean sharing one’s faith. One cannot in fact be a true Christian believer without their faith being shared in some manner: It just leaks out. And provided the love of God is flowing from the throne of Heaven to the heart of the believer, and is not inhibited in any way, it is honestly hard to contain.

But what I mean is, whether we find ourselves sharing our faith with words or by example, I am not sure it is our job to ensure we are persuasive. There is a difference between being a witness and being an attorney.

I recently served on jury duty. I was selected as an alternate juror, which means I was responsible to sit in on the entire trial but did not participate in arriving at a verdict. The thing I noticed about every witness who was called to the stand is that as a general rule, they were not trying to convince anybody of anything. Their job was to retell details of the event as it happened as truthfully as possible. In fact, when they tried to go beyond this and make a point or convince the jury — essentially assume the role of the prosecutor — without fail the defense attorney would object and that portion of their testimony would be stricken from the record.

I wonder if we are like those witnesses. We have been called by God to the stand of life to testify as authentically and truthfully as possible to the events that have transpired within us, not by simply answering questions when prompted (for the idea of witness is a metaphor) but by how we live our lives. We however have mistakenly taken on the task of prosecutor (or public defender) in the case before us.

Not that the Christian witness does not involve some level of persuasion. Both the Apostle Paul and Jesus were persuasive. But there is a difference between being persuasive and thinking it is our job to persuade.

Not that the Christian witness does not involve some level of persuasion. The Apostle Paul was persuasive. So was Jesus, who is our example. But there is a difference I think between being persuasive and thinking it is our job to persuade. In its purest sense, being persuasive is merely an extension of authenticity: We are simply striving to convey the truth in a manner that can be best understood. We are doing our best to shine light upon a situation in a way that will give our listeners a different perspective, the one in fact we share. This type of persuasion asks, “How can I make most clear what I see within me to those around me?” And doing so from a place of love, compassion and passion is what Christian service is all about.

But thinking it is your job to persuade asks an entirely different question. It asks, “What will it take to get this person to become a Christian?” Or, “What must I do to get this person to come to church?” Or, “What can we do as a congregation to advance the Kingdom? Or grow our church body?” These aren’t bad questions. I am just not sure they are ours as much as God’s to answer.

One thing I touched upon in a previous conversation was the seeker-friendly movement, which has been an effort over the past several decades by churches to attempt to make themselves more relevant to modern-day society. They want church to be appealing. This is understandable if one assumes the objective of church life is to find ways to get those on the outside to come inside. Why wouldn’t we focus on ways of making the church experience more relevant and attractive, even fun?

If the objective of church life is to find ways to get those on the outside to come inside, why wouldn’t we focus on ways of making the church experience more relevant and attractive, even fun?

But one danger, if not unavoidable byproduct, of such an approach to Christian service is manipulation. We become no more than marketers and salespeople.

At a recent church I attended, I was greeted by an army of church members at the door, all welcoming me with enthusiasm. It was nice to be welcomed, but it was also clear they had been planted there on purpose. Perhaps the church could have been less obvious in its strategy. But then, is that really what we are trying to achieve? Implementing subtle ways of attracting visitors to church, and to the Christian message? Something about that feels disingenuous.

If the world is looking for anything from the church at this time, I would say it is authenticity. I am not even convinced the present demand by the liberal to condemn any belief in an absolute moral standard governing human sexuality, however loud, is greater than his or her need to see individuals who are genuine yet uncompromising in their beliefs. Sure the liberal will argue with us and may even insult us and mock us. But I would like to suggest their need is greater than their present position. Humanity is looking for individuals whose lives reflect a a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.

If the world is looking for anything from the church at this time, it is authenticity. I am not even convinced the present demand by the liberal to condemn any belief in an absolute moral standard governing human sexuality is greater than the need to see individuals who are genuine yet uncompromising in their beliefs.

But the thing is, we cannot achieve authenticity by focusing on making ourselves more attractive. We cannot try to make ourselves appear more authentic: I hope the inherent contradiction here is obvious. The only way to be more authentic is to change our objective.

More than any man or woman, Jesus desired that the world embrace His message. But his example serves as an excellent model for us. With all His art of persuasion, He did not seem particularly interested in making his message more attractive —nor even in making Himself perfectly understood. He was too busy focusing on something else: Doing only what He saw the Father doing. If we are true to this objective, perhaps we will find the Christian phenomena the most persuasive of all.

One thought on “The Art of Christian Persuasion

  1. Thanks for the depth of your search and insights of your opinion regarding such a sensitive topic. I enjoy reading your thoughts. Marilyn Nugent

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