Argument,  Persuasive Modes

Persuasive Modes

Imagine you are gathered at a family reunion (or any other social event). Your family comprises of atheists, mystics, agnostics and whatever else you can think of. As the discussion gets going everyone seems very appreciative of one another’s views. “One just has to do one’s best in life,” grandma says. “I find divinity in everything,” a great aunt remarks. “Just because he’s gay doesn’t make him wrong,” your brother says to nods of approval. The conversation is pleasant. Pleasant, that is, while you, the exclusivist Christian, remain silent.

For, you know that, when challenged to comment, you will very likely be received as judgmental,  harsh, thoroughly anti-party-mood. But to stay silent pricks your conscience. After all, you also believe that your faith is not a private belief, but a public message. You share the Spirit’s impulse for proclamation – you desire to say the truth out loud.

Much of the difficulty in these situations is how to begin talking. Once you get going and people are listening you find your groove. It’s just the first hurdle that gets in the way.

I have thought about this. And, having spent most of my adult life attempting to persuade people of the veracity of the gospel, I have a few ideas for how to get started. I call them “persuasive modes.”

Let us go back to the dinner table. Imagine that the discussion is about homosexuality. And imagine that the consensus has been reached – there is nothing wrong with being homosexual. Then your dear sis, with whom you argue all the time, says how it is a shame that Christians are so critical and judgmental and believe in such a critical and judgmental God. Everyone looks at you.

At this point you must pick a mode.

Companion Mode – One option is to attempt to describe the objection. In order to do this you have to imagine you are sitting next to your conversation partner and looking at the same problem. You attempt to answer as a companion in the conversation, sitting next to the people you are with and working it out together.  This might mean instead of meeting the challenge head on, you say something like, “you know, I have wondered that as well. It does seem that God is pretty harsh doesn’t it? He even strikes people down for lying.” Continue, as you relate to your friend, to ask if you are describing it as she sees it. Continue to describe and answer the objections from “beside” the objector.

Diversion mode – sometimes the best way to answer a challenge is to start somewhere else. Stories do this well and Jesus himself was fond of this approach. In response to “and who is my neighbour?” Jesus says, “a man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho…” This is hard to do, but you may know people who have struggled with problems in their lives and found the answer in Christ. Tell their story. Quotes often serve this purpose well.

Definition mode – just what is meant by judgmental? Meanness, harshness or legalism? Do you think some actions are wrong? Does thinking some actions are wrong make you legalistic? Not necessarily. One can be committed to a moral view (one grounded in the law of God) and not be judgmental in that sense. Everyone thinks it is evil to kill children, but no one is calling anyone out for being judgmental. And it is perfectly reasonable, given what you believe about the Bible–that it is the word of God–to be committed to the same moral view the scripture espouses. Often an objector is not clear about what you mean by certain terms they are using. Explain what you mean by the terms in their objection and ground them in your Christian worldview. 

Conflict mode – sometimes it is just better to get in the fight – upfront, plain confrontation. However, one also needs to make a good first (metaphorical) punch. In our imaginary scenario one might think that the best way to argue is to say how loving God is and that Christians are not judgmental  but this is not entirely true is it? So here’s my two cents – say something like, “Lots of people think God is harsh and judgmental  but I’m not sure they realize just how harsh and judgmental he is.” This is tantamount to saying – it is much worse than you think. Jesus uses this method to great effect in the Sermon on the Mount. By pushing your objectors point further than he or she intended you will gain yourself an interested ear. Your gathering will be keen to see how you overcome this seemingly impossible hurdle. Of course, it is not impossible and it is clearly answered if you give the Christian interpretation. 
Option mode – when there are multiple views at the table it is often good to summarize them as ways to solve a problem. You might even want to add a few more to the list. Then, when you have listed other options give your own preferred  gospel option. By summarizing other’s views you simultaneously give the impression that you have thought about the topic and that you are listening to what others have to say (both not signs of a judgmental,  harsh person). 
Command mode – very rarely is it wise to begin by telling others to do as you say, but there are times when it is appropriate. I remember when I was in Croatia during the war. A university student had just heard the gospel and was talking to me outside, going though all the problems he had with it. I cut to the chase and said something to the effect of, “I think you just need to give your life to Christ right now and I am going to lead you in a prayer.” It caught him off guard, but to my amazement he looked at me humbly and bowed his head. I prayed with him, he prayed and I hoped what had happened was real. This might sound dramatic, but at the dinner table with friends or family the same kind of response can be less directional. For example, one might begin by saying something like, “Yes I do think homosexuality is a sin, but I also think you should think that as well and here’s why.” People (occasionally) are prepared to listen to someone who is honest in their answer, but they also sometimes are looking for direction not merely a good opinion. This mode is to be used sparingly. 
Superlative mode – I often think criticism of Christians is born of just that, criticism. It is as if Christianity is the popular scapegoat like the dog who always gets the blame for anything missing or broken or for a bad smell. Sometimes what is required is that the Christian meets the challenge with supreme optimism. Christianity is the best isn’t it? I mean that as unironically as possible. Whilst you might sound naive,  as if you don’t appreciate the harshness of the suggestion that you, being a Christian, are a judgmental bigot, you will diffuse the conversation with a good bit of jolliness. Just talk about the joy of Christ, the favor of God on an undeserving sinner, how amazing it its to you that God would love you the way he does. 
Revelation mode – there is often an unsaid question or tension in a conversation, like in our example. Sometimes it is good to face this first. In the above example it is, to the unbelieving onlooker, an internal Christian tension. The tension is between compassion and judgment. You believe that God harshly judges sin yet is compassionate towards people. In this mode you reveal your internal tension. “I am caught between sounding harsh and watering down what I believe in the name of compassion.” Then say, “the truth is that I both think God is full of wrath for sin and that he is compassionate towards sinners. Moreover, I seem to be able to do both myself. I can both hate sin and love people.” Next comes the challenge – what worldview at the table accounts for these seemingly contradictory attitudes? It seems to me that in Christ one finds a supreme, holy judge, hotly angry over human sin and one who loves us so much as to die on our behalf. Consequently, I think holding to a consistent Christian worldview produces Christians who are not in tension between judgement and compassion. Now challenge their worldviews to reconcile their own tensions. Just how can a materialist view do the same without either loosing absolute moral categories or becoming intolerant of other people who do not agree?

How about you? Do you have any other persuasive modes to offer?

    Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.