“That is interesting but can you stop and listen for a moment?”
Adam’s plea came on the heels of my twenty-minute spiel. I’d caught myself an atheist. And he was willing to talk. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity, so I immediately launched into my best arguments for God and the Christian faith as we sat across from each other in his freshman dorm.
I pulled out a napkin and walked through an airtight argument for God’s existence, accompanied by a chart showing mutually exclusive options: the universe either began or it didn’t begin (it began); the beginning of the universe was either caused or uncaused (it was caused); the cause of the beginning of the universe was either personal or nonpersonal (it was personal).
See? The napkin proves it. God exists!
I looked up after presenting my airtight case, fully expecting Adam to admit defeat. Instead, I saw exasperation in his eyes. I was not listening to him.
My arguments had failed to scratch where he itched. Seeing my mistake, I set down my pen and napkin, sat back in my chair and apologized. “Tell me why you don’t believe in God?”
Adam poured out his heart. His unbelief had little to do with the evidence. It had everything to do with his poor relationship with his father. I learned a lesson that night. Making the case for Christianity is about far more than delivering true content. We must not neglect the relational aspect. We are called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). When we present a case for Jesus and the gospel, Peter implores us to do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Communication theorists distinguish between the content and the relational aspects of communication. According to Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, “The content level is the literal meanings of the words we are using that convey our message. The relational level expresses the amount of affection, respect, and compassion between people.”
That night I had shown Adam little respect or compassion, so my initial attempts at persuasion were unsuccessful. Thankfully, he was gracious and allowed me another chance.
But we don’t always get a second chance. Many today are convinced that Christianity is irrelevant. Ineffectual attempts to communicate the Christian message that assume, as I did, that people are open to the gospel if evidence and reason are employed will only reinforce this irrelevancy. Some are openly hostile toward Christianity, fueled by a cultural script that encourages confrontation.
In this milieu, it is difficult for the message of the gospel to get a fair hearing. What is needed, according to Os Guinness, is a recovery of the “lost art” of Christian persuasion: “Many of us today lack a vital part of a way of communicating that is prominent in the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures, but largely absent in the church today — persuasion, the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say.”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to persuasion, but there are principles, rooted in Scripture, that can help us show others the reasonableness of Jesus and the gospel. Let’s consider a few basic tools that can help us utilize persuasion effectively as cultural apologists.
The adversarial, argumentative script followed by so many today has led to incivility and gridlock. We scream at each other, even as we talk past each other. Whatever the topic — politics, religion, or the best taco joint in town—our arguments rarely convince others. How we argue matters too, and in this lies the opportunity for a counter-script, one where others are treated with love, compassion, and care.
This is Jesus’s way, and it must be the way of his followers too if we are to persuade others. As Aristotle noted long ago, the credibility of our message (logos) is influenced by who we are (ethos). Any argument, no matter how tightly made, can be (and often is) undermined by a vicious posture toward those we seek to persuade. God brings us truth through his love and compassion, and we must do the same with others.
Paul began his speech with the Greek philosophers at Athens’ Mars Hill by identifying a shared starting point — their worship of the unknown God —and building a bridge to Jesus and the gospel. We should identify similar starting points within “our Athens” — the cultural context in which we find ourselves. As we identify starting points, it is necessary to consider the plausibility structure and sacred core of others.
Originally coined by sociologist Peter Berger, a plausibility structure is a set of ideas or beliefs that an individual or group is or is not willing to consider as plausibly true. For example, most people think the idea of a flat earth is just not plausible today. If someone says the earth is flat, they are not taken seriously. For many people, the belief in the divinity of Jesus is implausible too.
So how can we help others see the reasonableness of belief in the divinity of Jesus? One approach is to begin with an idea that is generally considered plausible. For example, I could begin by noting widely accepted criteria for establishing the trustworthiness of historical documents. From this plausible starting point, an effective case can be made for the trustworthiness of the biographies of Christ, then the historicity of the resurrection, and finally the validity of Jesus’s claims to stand in the very place of God.
In addition to plausibility structures, I also mentioned having an awareness of the sacred core of an individual (or community). When crafting an argument, it is important to be aware of and respectful toward the sacred core — those cherished and beloved beliefs — or you risk your presentation being derailed.
I was once sharing the gospel with a student named Chris, who held as part of his sacred core the belief that people are born gay or straight. When he found out that the Christian organization I was associated with held a campus outreach event the prior year with speakers advertised as “ex-gays,” he was livid. He threw every expletive in the book at me and stormed out of the room. This new information derailed my case for Jesus and the gospel.
Thankfully it was only temporary. Chris came back, apologized, and reengaged in our conversation. Not only did we have an honest and constructive talk about homosexuality, we eventually returned to the original discussion (an argument for God). If I hadn’t demonstrated a long-term awareness of and respect for his sacred core beliefs, our conversation would likely have ended, and with it, my opportunity to build a case for Jesus and the gospel.
Making the Case
Sharing the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christianity with others is a process. Sometimes you’ll need to engage false beliefs that stand as a hindrance to the gospel. At other times, you’ll simply need to present a positive case for Christianity. The process can be messy, full of give and take, starts and stops.
We depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance, but learning how to craft an argument is still necessary for effective persuasion. There are two basic argument forms: deductive and inductive. In a deductive argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion inescapably follows. For example, from “All men are mortals” and “Socrates is a man,” it inescapably follows that “Socrates is a mortal.”
In an inductive argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion probably follows, but not inescapably. For example, from “It has rained all week” and “The forecast calls for more rain today,” it probably but not inevitably follows that “It will rain today.”
I recommend that you practice formulating arguments or analyzing the arguments of others to learn how to defend your premises and undercut the premises of others. And then make your case, creatively using reason in dialogue with others, through blog posts, tweets, videos, songs, artwork, essays, and stories.
Becoming an effective case-maker takes time, study, and practice, but it is part of what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples, all of whom gave arguments, reasons, and evidence for their positions.
Remember that the goal in effective persuasion is to be a faithful witness, not win the argument or shame a community or individual for holding false beliefs. God stands accused by sin and the devil, but as Os Guinness says well, “God is his own lead counsel, his own best apologist.”
Our job as cultural apologists is to understand those we seek to reach and to present our case in truth and with love. The gift of reason, creatively engaged in partnership with the Holy Spirit, will help guide the lost to the truth of Christ.
Taken from Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World by Paul M. Gould. Copyright © 2019 by Paul M. Gould. Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.com.