Ask TM: Practical advice for persuading others in conversation?

We often get questions about theology and apologetics sent to us by readers and we thought it would be helpful if we shared some of our answers to those questions on the blog. If you’ve got a question that you’d like us to address here, send it to thinknz@gmail.com along with your full name, city, and country.

This week, one of our readers from Tauranga, New Zealand, asks what practical advice we can offer for sharing the truth of Christianity with others.

Bnonn Tennant:

It’s difficult to give you a one-size-fits-all solution, because your personal conviction will look different to mine. For example, I came to faith very largely through interacting with the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG). By all accounts, that’s a pretty rare way for an unbeliever to be persuaded, but it still holds a lot of sway over the intellectual element of my faith. Whereas a lot of other people have been persuaded by the historical evidence for Christianity, or by more evidential arguments, or by fulfilled prophecies—and they’d find it hard to get behind “philosophical” arguments like mine.

So I’d suggest you develop a general strategy around apologetics, rather than trying to find a set of “perfect tactics” you can apply in any particular situation. There are some methods that work fairly well in typical cases, and I’d look to William Lane Craig for an example of that. But if you take a more strategic approach, you can pick your tactics on the fly and be a lot more flexible. Here are the four most important suggestions I’d make for developing an apologetic strategy that will work well for you:

1. Pray. No one comes to Christ except that the Father draws him. Not much good going about steps #2 to #4 if you aren’t asking God to help you, since he’s the only one who can make them effective.

2. Figure out for yourself which arguments you find most convincing. What are the reasons that you are personally convicted of the truth of the gospel? When you’re talking to a skeptic, he wants to know why you believe. Whether he’s trying to tear down your position, or just understand it, your answers will be firmer and bolder and more convincing if you’re 100% behind them. So for example, I don’t often talk to atheists about the historical evidence for Christianity. I’m ready to talk about it, if it comes up, but it’s not something that holds much sway in my personal convictions. So I steer the conversation toward the issue of “What must be true in order for us to even ask the question of whether God exists?” And similar questions, like, “Which are we more warranted in believing: that objective moral values exist, or that there is nothing except the physical universe?”

3. Think about (or ask about) the worldview of the person you’re talking to. What sorts of issues are most important to him (or her)? What does he think “evidence” is, or at least, what kind of evidence does he find most convincing? What are the major reasons he has for disbelieving in God, or if not in God, in Jesus? What kinds of assumptions does he make in his worldview? Has he examined them to see if they’re reasonable? Does he even know he’s making them? Then look at your reasons for believing, and pick out the ones that best match these biases, so you can find a direction for the conversation. It’s very easy to get confrontational in apologetics—-and there is a place for that. But most people “just don’t get it”, and only come across as confrontational because they’re defensive and don’t want to be preached at. You can get a heck of a lot of mileage out of the Pareto principle: spend 80% of your time listening to their position, and only 20% of the time talking yourself. Remember that you don’t have the sole burden of proof. If anything, the real burden lies on the non-believer, who questions God.

4. When you push, people will push back. But if you pull, they’ll come much more easily. In line with #3, the objective of apologetics in one-on-one situations is very rarely to win the argument. What is important is to win the soul. If you keep that focus front and center, it shows through in your approach, and can have a very disarming effect. Remember that non-Christians are God’s enemies—they naturally feel uncomfortable and antagonistic towards the things of God. The gospel is an offense to them. That puts them on the defensive and makes them believe and say stupid things they don’t really have good reasons for saying. And they’re afraid of having this foolishness exposed, because deep down they know they’re wrong. That’s what the Bible tells us. You have to gauge how firmly you can push against these beliefs. Some people, the rare ones, are comfortable probing and testing them, and replacing the bad ones with good ones. But even they seldom do it on the spot. People hate to lose face. And most people are very resistant to change at all. So you have to really love the person, rather than the argument. Never make it a question of “you’re wrong and I’m right and come hell or high water I will show you that right now.” Rather make it a question of “I have something of incredible value that I want you to have as well, and this is why I think you should believe it. Why don’t you think about it?” If you can take it slow, as you can with family usually, so much the better. A conversation here, another one there. Let God do the hard work.

Btw, #4 is really hard :) So refer back to #1.

Stuart McEwing:

My practical advice would be three-fold based on my own similar experiences; failures and successes, with sharing my faith.

I find that when I do have opportunity to share with someone what and why I believe, that I obsessively analyze our conversation afterwards in my head. Often I find myself wishing I responded to a question or observation of theirs in a different way; I could have made what I said a whole lot more understandable, I could have said something else entirely, I shouldn’t have got side-tracked like that, I didn’t mention this that I wanted to get to, and so on and on it goes.

The solution I’ve found tremendously helpful is to write letters. In this way I can be assured I say everything I want to say, and I say it in a way that is simple and to the point, without the off-the-cuff, impromptu ramblings, or the frustrating stumbling around the answer that you know you know but don’t know how to articulate, or the embarrassing, “Hmm… I don’t know how to respond to that. I’ll have to get back to you.”

The benefits of writing letters are multiple. It means you’re not interrupted at the most inopportune time. I means your words can be read again and again, over and over. The process of writing something down often informs you that you don’t really know the subject as well as you thought you did. It helps you clarify your own thinking. It helps illumine certain objections before they arise and cause troubles. It lets you develop the best way of expressing your reasons. And best of all, once you’ve written your letter, your all the better equipped to express with words when need be the same ideas.

My second recommendation is to develop a 30 sec, 2 min, and 5 min version of your own personal story as to how you came to faith in Jesus, then memorize it really good. This is so you’ll be prepared to share with anyone, at any moment, the reasons why you believe as you do. Then, after making the most out of such opportunities, you will find that this personal story of yours creates a platform for you to then commend your faith as rational, and more plausible than any other belief.

My third recommendation is to memorize the arguments and reasons. In syllogistic form the arguments can usually be expressed with two or three premises and a conclusion, so memorization is not that difficult. If the reason comes in the form of an illustration make it as vivid and memorable as possible and practice it. For both forms think of the reasons and the common objections and rehearse the possible responses so you’re confident when called upon to share them.

Thanks for asking, that’s a great question. I’d be interested in any other suggestions that you’ve found helpful, as these suggestions might be of help for me. It’d be an encouragement to hear of your successes.

Jason Kumar:

1. Recognize that persuasion is person-variable. While it’s essential to get a good understanding of the standard apologetic arguments to be effective, keep in the mind the limitations of a memorized technique or a series of prepared steps. The goal of apologetics is not merely to produce a sound argument or a set of answers but to persuade the person – and not every sound argument or answer will be equally persuasive to the same person. Consider arguments as tools. Some tools work better at some jobs than others. If one doesn’t work, be willing to try something different. Learn to treat the inquirer as an individual with their own particular needs and develop an apologetic that is geared toward those needs. Without relating our answers to the individual’s experience and concerns, our apologetic won’t be unintelligible, much less convincing.

2. Seek a conversation, not a presentation. Aim for a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way sales pitch. Information will have a greater impact face-to-face, where the receiver is an active participant. Our message will always be filtered through our audience’s culture, life situation, perceived needs, vocabulary, etc, and unless we’re willing to be patient and clarify ideas or answer questions when necessary, we’re likely to be tuned out or misunderstood. As Christians, we’re also communicating what can be strange and uncomfortable concepts, and sometimes non-Christians need to hear parts of our message, take time to digest them, and then hear more later.

3. Ask questions and learn to listen. This is your most important tool. Listening is how we encourage dialogue, demonstrate respect, and build relationships. It requires humility, an openness to learning and the possibility of revising our ideas – even while maintaining a commitment to the truth we do know. Listening and asking questions is also the only way we can understand their worldview and get to know their objections, past hurts with religion, or misunderstandings of the gospel. Find out who their authorities are: the authors, films, tv shows, pundits, and thinkers who represent and inform their worldview. Knowing these things will help you illustrate your arguments and relate the gospel to their priorities and concerns. Some questions that make good starting points: How should life be lived? What do you believe is wrong with life/the world? What do you hope for? What makes life worth living? These will help you get to the bottom of what they believe.

4. Recognize that everyone has worldview commitments, not just Christians. No thinking is done without assumptions. No one is entirely neutral. A person’s view of evidence is affected by her point of view. Even someone who doubts, doubts based on a set of beliefs. And if the inquirer is open to the truth, they must be willing to subject the same level of doubt to their own beliefs (that their doubt is based on) as they are to your views. Always ask of them, what they ask of you, as Craig Hazen has pointed out.

5. Challenge by showing the incompatibility of their existing commitments with their own worldview. Look for deeply held values or convictions that they have in common with Christianity (e.g. confidence in rationality, an outrage at evil and injustice, the desire for freedom, the desire for self-transcendence, objective meaning in life, moral duties, dignity, and beauty, etc).  Affirm those beliefs, but show how a denial of the Christian God does not square with these truths or convictions. How do they account for rationality or the origin of consciousness? How do they explain objective moral duties or human rights? Show how the existence of a good, intelligent, powerful, personal Creator who made humans in His image offers a better explanation of these facts.

6. Recognize the personal cost of embracing Christianity. Many weigh up Christianity on pragmatic grounds. They do not examine it in a detached intellectual way. Emotional, volitional, and other psychological factors all have a role in how we form beliefs (sometimes you can ask questions to gently challenge this resistance:  e.g. “Are you open to truth if it does exist?” “Would you like there to be a God?”). Don’t expect a decision from every encounter. People are much more likely to make their commitment through a long process of mini-decisions. Some will want to try Christianity on, see how it fits their problems or how it works out in real life. Your goal isn’t countable results but faithfulness to Christ. Success, then, is in merely presenting the case for Christ, in the power of the Spirit, as clearly, sensitively, and rationally forceful as possible. God will handle the rest.

Some Resources For Further Study

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl (Zondervan)

When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics by Paul Copan (Baker Books)

Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ by James W. Sire (Intervarsity Press)

The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever (Crossway Books)

Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman (Kregel Publications)

Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well by Randy Newman (Crossway Books)

One-Minute Answers to Skeptics: Concise Responses to the Top 40 Questions by Charlie H. Campbell (Harvest House Publishers)

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision by William Lane Craig (David C. Cook)

 

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