Art of Persuasion Neglected, Not Dead

by Erich Bridges

Is persuasion dead?" Columnist Matt Miller asked that question in a recent New York Times piece. Like many political pundits, Miller is fighting despair over the sad state of public discourse. People seem to have made up their minds about the major issues of the day, he laments—if they bother to think about issues at all. They divide right and left, red state and blue state, traditional and "progressive"—and hurl sound bites at each other while huddling "with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons."

Politicians can win elections by pandering to their base (preaching to the choir, in other words) and peeling off a few swing votes from the middle. Actually winning over people who disagree with you seems fruitless, pointless, a waste of breath. And those who do try to do so end up getting shouted down or ridiculed by the media, which "showcase a clash of caricatures, believing this is the only way to make debate' entertaining," he says.

"Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe?" Miller inquires. "Marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art."

It's not a lost art—just a neglected one.

Neglect infects religious discourse, too. In a hostile, polarized culture, it's much easier for Christians to hunker down and lob rhetorical missiles, or fall into sullen silence, than to do the hard work of convincing scoffers and unbelievers of the truth of the gospel.

Yet there's never been a greater opportunity to persuade truth seekers—not just in America, but anywhere. The marketplace of ideas stretches across the globe. It's loud, chaotic and fragmented, but essentially available to all voices. You can reach almost any spot on earth in three flights or less. You can get there electronically in seconds.

In China, 100 million people surf the Web. The government monitors e-mail and chatrooms, but traffic is far too heavy to control it all. "Death by a thousand blogs" might be the ultimate fate of Chinese communism, writes journalist Nicholas Kristof. New ideas may come from abroad, he says, "but it's the Chinese leadership itself that isgiving the Chinese people broadband."

There's no turning back, because China's continued growth as a global player depends on technological advance and rapid communications. The same applies to other formerly closed societies.

Access to people's eyes and ears, however, doesn't guarantee they will hear and understand the gospel, or any other message. The Apostle Paul learned that in Athens, a city filled with idols, where he was ridiculed as a "babbler" by the city's philosophers. But he wouldn't have preached to them if he didn't believe someone would listen. He reasoned not only in the synagogue with the city's Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, but in the marketplace "every day with those who happened to be present" (Acts 17:17).

Like any good preacher or missionary, Paul shaped the unchanging truth for his changing audience. That's more important than ever in today's world of countless cultures and subcultures. People hunger for the truth, but they need it delivered in a form they can understand and embrace. They may use a trade language for business or interaction with outsiders, but they want to hear the Word of God in the languages, and the stories and songs, closest to their hearts.

On a recent visit to India I met a Bengali Christian leader with a bold vision to reach millions of Hindus, Muslims, simple villagers, and sophisticated urbanites with the gospel. But he intends to do it in their forms of understanding, not the West's.

"You open a Bengali hymnal and what do you find? Translations," he explains. "We want rice and dal, brother. If you give us pizza, we can't eat it."

The good news: God knows all about rice and dal. He knows Bengali cultures and languages better than the Bengalis. He is inspiring Bengali believers to write songs and stories and messages that touch the depths of Bengali hearts. With our help, He wants to do the same in every culture.

He is the Great Persuader.

<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
Disciple Banner Ad