QUICKFIRE: Jonathan Sherwin from CVM on Vimeo.
The CVM Quickfire Conference is day of TED-style 15 minute talks by ministry specialists covering a wide range of topics for men’s ministries. In this talk, ‘Conversion Through Persuasion?: Looking at how we can deploy arguments, questions, and illustrations effectively as we do the work of an evangelist’ I attempted to get through 8 points before the klaxon sounded (see the video above if you want to know if I made it!).
Conversion Through Persuasion?
Evangelism is a spiritual struggle. It’s a bloody, vicious war. There is no Geneva Convention or International Court of Justice imposing civility. Our enemy is not a gentlemen and he is out to totally, utterly ruin all that you love, cherish and seek to protect.
In this war we have been given tools, and I believe the role of persuasion – arguing, illustrating, and questioning – is a weapon that we are to deploy in this war.
Timothy was told by the Apostle Paul to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). We’re shown that evangelism is both a task, as well as an office or role (Ephesians 4), and a task that in the Great Commission (Matthew 28) all Christians are called to.
As we think through how to use persuasion in evangelism here are 8 points to remember.
1. Being & Thinking | Feeling | Doing
Michael Ramsden is fond of talking of the Ontological Root of the Gospel. That is, the core of our Christian message is that it’s not what you think or what you feel or what you do that makes you a Christian, but that the very centre of who you are are is changed – redeemed – by God himself. That central change is the root of the Gospel.
Michael’s point is I think incredibly helpful. A Christian is someone who’s heart has been redeemed by God.
So then, focussing on that, we are freed to use our thinking, our feeling, and our doing to show Christ. We are to reflect our salvation in what we think, what we feel, and how we act. So too we can illustrate across all these areas.
Each one of us has a different personality. Some are more cerebral, others more in touch with their emotions, and still others who are intensely pragmatic. By illustrating the Gospel in a way that connects with the hearer we can demonstrate something of the message, but without forcing the listener to conform to that pattern of behaviour.
A change of our thinking, of our feeling, of our doing, comes out of a change of our being. We don’t change who we are to become a Christian – our core is changed by God and that then goes on to change everything else.
2. Persuasion is a skill
The art of persuasion is, according to Sam Leith, rhetoric. And rhetoric is something to be learnt. It is a skill.
I know what some of you may be thinking: rhetoric, just verbal tricks and cunning collections of words to sell your point. A go-to in the politician’s hand-bag of tools.
Rhetoric does appeal to emotions, to reasons … yes! But deployed correctly they serve truth.
Of course, rhetoric is a skill that may be used for the wrong reasons but for goodness sake, don’t stop using it because some guy in a bad suit and appropriately coloured tie is misusing it in a fancy palace like Westminster!
Blaise Pascal said that we ought when sharing the Gospel to,
“Make them wish it were true and then show them that it is.”
Our individual testimonies – our stories – share something of how we have met Jesus and have been changed. We appeal to our story to share something of the Ultimate Story, or as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis referred to it, the True Myth.
3. Stand on Scripture
The basis for our confidence in the Gospel does not ultimately rest on our experience but on the revelation provided to us through the Bible. We don’t stand alone on reason, nor on emotion, nor on action, but on the Word of God.
Because the Bible is a reliable revelation that may be trusted we can stand firm on the foundation that it provides. This sure footing offers a position of strength and a starting point for all our creative efforts in sharing God’s truth.
Having a foundation is a powerful thing. Having a strong foundation that doesn’t rest on who we are, what we know, how we feel etc. provides a deeper assurance that when relied upon in our evangelistic efforts helps to make our efforts all about Christ (as revealed to us) and gets us out of the way. It’s not about us; it’s all about Jesus.
4. Know what is provoking your spirit
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16)
The Apostle Paul launches into his apologetic in Athens at Mars Hill after having “his spirit provoked within him”.
Our individual worlds are increasingly larger and the Gospel opportunities are seemingly endless. We are more connected than ever with easier travel and greater communications abilities than ever before.
In our modern world it can be hard to know where to act or to what we are called. Paul had his spirit provoked and took it as his cue.
So what is provoking your spirit? What can’t you let go of that can be used a starting point to share something of Jesus? We are each to be going after what is that we each are meant to be going after. We’re all different (thankfully) and who we are is to be used to reach those we’re called to.
5. Pick the hardest battle
Evangelism is a series of battles. In the Bible the church is often related to as an army. To do well we need to perform just like any army: we need to show discipline and courage.
After the British army in World War 2 had been beaten out of Burma back into India by the advancing Japanese it had to heal. The army was in a bad shape. They were plagued by malaria and bad morale. Their enemy was brutal – unlike anyone they had faced before They were far away from home and far away from comfort.
Sickness in the camp, lack of motivation, and attacks from the enemy: these things bring armies to their knees.
In ’42 they went kicked out of Burma and it took them nearly two years to fight their way back in.
And as they advanced, they picked their battles. They knew the enemy was fierce and that if they were to succeed they would need to engage in some brutal assaults. The war wouldn’t be won by sneaking a little victory here and there. They would need to crack the enemy at his strong points.
Where is the battle fiercest in your friend, in your office, in your family? What is the main stronghold?
It won’t do any good dealing with the brazen academics and their philosophical questions if the main issue in front of us is one of loneliness and fear, and a search for God that hasn’t yielded any answers so far.
Martin Luther said this:
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
Don’t Construct Straw Men
We need to take the person we are sharing Christ with seriously. We need to treat them and their objections to Jesus with all seriousness.
When someone offers a problem don’t reduce it down to a bite-size chunk. If anything, build it up in to a really big problem and then hack it to pieces.
6. Use words
You will have of course heard the phrase, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.’ This maxim we are told is to be attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – but in truth there’s no record of him ever having said it.
And if even if he had said it, it’s just not true.
God preached the world into existence in Genesis 1:3. Jesus, in Matthew 5, “went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying …”
Stephen preached his own funeral. Paul reasoned with the Athenians, and before that he preached at Salamis, and Antioch, and Iconium, and Lystra, and Derbe, and Perga. He preached all those sermons with words, and that was on just one journey!
Words have incredible power. A friend of mine who is a leadership coach to large international companies often says, ‘Words create culture’.
The right word at the right time can bring life. The wrong word at the wrong time …
7. Illustrate: Use authorities people recognise
Paul, in the Athenian court, quoted from Greek poets and philosophers. He’d done his research. Or perhaps this was just part of his education.
He was establishing common ground. But I’m not sure if I were Paul I would have gone to those authors first. By this time we remember Paul had seen the resurrected Christ, had his life incredibly altered from chief Christian persecutor to chief evangelist. Post-conversion Paul looked nothing at all like pre-conversion Paul.
If were Paul I think I would have been strongly tempted to say, ‘Look at me! Look at my life!’ But he didn’t. He pointed to Jesus, preached on the evidence of the Resurrection, and borrowed the authorities of his day to make a point.
It’s often said that “all truth is God’s truth”, so when we find nuggets of gold in our culture – the arts, the media etc. – we can borrow these to point to Ultimate Truth.
8. Conversion is through the Holy Spirit
Look, Richard Dawkins never sent anyone to Hell and you’re not sending anyone to Heaven.
The heart of a person can only be redeemed by the power of God. He will use you to illustrate, to demonstrate, and to advocate but the final solution to man’s deepest problem cannot be dealt with by humanity. We all need supernatural transformation and it is the Christian’s great honour to witness God taking people from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:13).
We cannot save ourselves and we cannot save others. But once we have been saved we bear witness to the truth of God as we have had it revealed to us.
This liberation from sin is also a liberation from self. Our friends and family members don’t – thank God – rely upon us for their salvation.
We’re freed to spend our lives pointing to the One who spent His life for us.