What a Nobel Prize winning economist can teach us about evangelism

That people are going to act like people shouldn’t be an earth-shattering revelation for any of us. We don’t have to look far for bountiful evidence of the fact that, despite our best efforts and intentions, we are often going to act in ways that are both irrational and counter to our greater good. Richard Thaler, however, has spent the vast majority of his career attempting to get economists to understand that very basic principle and was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his efforts.

Why was building a career on such an obvious premise worthy of that lofty award? For most of the twentieth century, economists worked under the basic belief that people would generally act in rational ways when it came to the decisions they made regarding money. While it all sounded good in theory, Thaler gradually came to see that it wasn’t how people actually lived. This revelation put him at the forefront of the study of behavioral economics, a growing movement that looks at the irrational ways people spend their hard-earned resources and seeks to find patterns to develop a model that accounts for those faults.

For example, most people are “loss averse” to some extent. That means we experience “more pain from loss than pleasure from gains” and often miss out on opportunities to better our situation. As a result, people would often rather have a decreased chance of immediate loss than an increased chance of long-term gain. It’s why most basketball coaches, when down by two points with time running out, will go for a two-point shot to tie rather than a three to win. Statistics show that the latter option actually gives the team a greater chance at victory since overtime games are generally a fifty-fifty proposition, but most coaches would rather lose in overtime than in regulation, even though it doesn’t make any difference on the final ledger

Another good example is the way that most people have a strong propensity to maintain the status quo, even if doing so limits or hurts them. This understanding prompted the government to pass a law about ten years ago that encouraged companies to make enrolling in a retirement savings plan the default option in a worker’s contract. People can still opt out of the program, but having participation as the status quo increased annual savings by an estimated 7.6 billion dollars between 2006 and 2011.

While all of this is interesting, what’s most pertinent for us today is how Thaler has shown that understanding the ways people are prone to act irrationally and adjusting our approach accordingly can yield impressive results.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul describes how he purposefully tailored his approach to sharing the gospel to better fit the needs of the lost around him, concluding with the statement that “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). To do that, however, we must first understand those we’re trying to help. More specifically, we need to know how they see God.

Are they apathetic about the idea of Christianity? Have they had some personal experience that has fundamentally shifted how they view the Lord? Does belief in Christ or of God in any form simply seem unreasonable because of a different set of beliefs they hold dear?

While some explanations are more reasonable than others, at the heart of the matter we serve a God who welcomes our questions and doubts while standing ready to help us understand why it is perfectly reasonable to believe in him. Understanding the impediments that prevent others from coming to that same conclusion is the first step in allowing God to use us to help them move beyond those barriers to genuine faith.

Fallen people are going to act like fallen people, often in ways that are relatively easy to predict. That’s good news because it means that what has worked in economics can work just as well in evangelism.

Jesus knew the hearts and minds of those around him, and the Holy Spirit stands ready to help us to do the same. Will you let him?