My wife’s favourite Jane Austen novel is Persuasion. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. As you can tell from the title, the art of convincing someone to follow a certain path, or hold a certain viewpoint is central. In it, persuasion itself is used for right or for wrong, for selflessness or for selfishness, for good or for ill. And, in our era of fake news, social media saturation and algorithmically-calculated targeted ads, we are necessarily wary.
When it comes to the relationship between evangelism and persuasion, we in the evangelical world (and even beyond) are often overly wary. Have you ever heard someone say, “When I speak to other people about God, I need to rely on Him not my own words or arguments”? Or what about this, “I don’t try to persuade people to become Christians, that would be deceptive”? Or perhaps even, “persuasion is coercion, just a nicer word”? When speaking to unbelievers about Jesus, what role, if any, should persuasion play?
Let’s look at three of aspects of persuasion and see how it is a wise and Biblical facet of evangelism.
1. Character: Winning Trust.
The first thing to say is that persuasion isn’t just a technique, but a lifestyle. It’s not just a logical argument, a pure presentation of consistent, linking facts that lead to a sound conclusion. In the Bible, Christians are encouraged to persuade people by the way they live:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 1 Peter 2:12
1 Peter 2:12
Yet, when we do argue, when we do speak, when we must proclaim and communicate the gospel message, the way we do it matters. In order to honour Christ and love our neighbour, we must be gentle and respectful, not cocky and dogmatic. This is important on an individual level, but includes the witnessing, loving community of believers; the church. We mustn’t be those who hear (or argue) the word, but don’t do it (James 1:22-25). Our lives and characters enable us to have a platform from which to speak of the gospel. And the character of the gospel needs to be reflected in the way we persuade, in the gentleness and love we show, and the attentiveness with which we reason and listen (c.f. 2 Cor 4:2; Acts 5:33).
2. Captivation: Language, Words and Style.
One of the mistakes we make is mixing up persuasion with manipulation. Manipulation holds back truth, giving a blinkered view, and masks it’s nefarious intent in order to force someone into a corner. Manipulation is what the serpent used in Eden. That is not persuasion. Neither are we are to bludgeon people or bamboozle them into fearfully accepting what we want. That doesn’t honour God and doesn’t honour our humanity, the way we are made. But neither does no holds barred, pure, arrogant logic. When we engage with people, they’re not computers on legs, whirring away, micro-processing our bald logic and coming out with dispassionate calculations. They’re whole people, with all the body and soul that makes us such complex and fascinating creatures. We need to engage the whole person.
Persuasion is not manipulation, but captivation. Why would people listen if we’re boring? Being bland and drab not only misrepresents what it means for us to be a joyful Christians – a disconnect between our speech and our lives – but isn’t a faithful communication of the beautiful gospel itself. The Word became flesh and used metaphors and parables, quoted poetry and prophecy, captivating whole regions not just through his content, but his oratorial form (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount of Matt 5-7). Jesus, the Word made flesh, communicated everything God wanted to say to humanity in glorious 3-D. The Word came to us as a whole person and communicated to us as whole people. In a blogpost on this topic, Peter May says:
“We need to sharpen our word skills, increase our vocabularies, consider our sentence constructions and feel the force of poetry to find the words that connect with and stir the imagination.”
3. Convincing(-ness!): Sound Logic.
But we do need to be logical. If our explanations of the gospel, or our arguments for the God of the Bible lack clarity, mesmerising the listener with empty rhetorical flourishes or fantastical turns of phrase, then we in fact move towards manipulation. Persuasion is logical, not just artistic. We need both creative, captivating expression, and sound, robust rationale. The gospel is logically sound. The gospel is convincing. We need to work at displaying and articulating the inherent trustworthiness and rationality that is the bedrock of our faith.
But persuasion alone is not enough. It’s no good to be motivated by a desire to sound interesting or argue coherently. We need love. Our hearts need to be transformed by the Spirit to love the news that we seek to tell, to love the Saviour whom we offer, to want to glorify God and do good to others by proclaiming this great news, and be willing to learn how to do it better. If we want to be as good at speaking to others as possible, why would we not want to develop our ability to persuade?
But let’s remember, we can all tell the gospel to others, we don’t need fine sounding arguments or beautiful eloquence. We can all tell others about Jesus and we should all try; the Lord uses our weak efforts and magnifies them by his strength. The gospel itself holds all logic, all beauty, all glory, because the gospel is about our magnificent God. We can attempt to be persuasive, but it’s the Lord who convicts, saves and transforms.