Marketplace Evangelism and “Non-Religious” Persuasion

by Mike Duran · 23 comments

How do you know there’s a God? Simple question. Everyone’s grappled with it in some form. But can you answer it without a religious argument, without using religious lingo? Apparently, a lot of believers can’t. How many times have you heard (or even used) these lines of reasoning:

SKEPTIC: How do you know there’s a God?
BELIEVER: Because the Bible says so.

OR

SKEPTIC: How do you know there’s a God?
BELIEVER: Because he’s changed my life.

Of course, believers aren’t always this simplistic. But it’s rather amazing how commonplace such knee-jerk responses are. Kind of like that bumper sticker:

God said it. I believe it. That settles it!

That may settle it for you, but many people can’t get past the “God said it” part. And, if I’m not mistaken, those are the people we should be trying to reach.

Maybe that’s why God also said…

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders… (Colossians 4:5 NIV)

Okay. Technically it was the apostle Paul who said that. Point is, spouting off cliches and religious rhetoric is not the “wisest” way to “act toward outsiders.”

Marketplace evangelism often requires “non-religious” persuasion, arguments devoid of Scriptural recitations and Christianese. However, I’m afraid many Christians stumble at such nuance.

Take for instance gay rights issues. Same-sex marriage remains in the cultural spotlight and many Christians, perhaps rightly, oppose it. (Note: This is not a post articulating my belief FOR or AGAINST gay marriage; I’m simply using this as a springboard for the larger issue of our approach.) But as I see it, using religious arguments to oppose gay marriage is the wrong thing to do. Far too many people, when asked why they oppose the homosexual lifestyle, will say something like,

“The Bible says homosexuality is a sin!”

OR

“God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!”

Pretty persuasive, huh?

Even if those things are true, we must remember that many citizens do not share our religious convictions. Quoting the Bible, especially with the militancy that some well-meaning Christians do, often has the reverse effect of alienating those who share our values.

I’m sure some will interpret this as appeasement or a being sell-out. I mean, if the Bible condemns the gay lifestyle, then why not come out and say so? But just like the above “God” question, the best answers are the ones that engage and transcend slogans, that build on peoples’ existing beliefs, confirm their own convictions, employ logic and evidence, and establish common ground.

There are arguments outside of Scripture — cultural, medical, sociological and philosophical — that are just as valid and forceful. In the case of gay marriage (and really many other social issues), the “non-religious” arguments are the most pervasive and powerful.

Believe it or not, this tact has a Scriptural basis. The Bible teaches that it is not the sole source of revelation. Romans chapters 1and 2 tells us that God gives a witness to everyone, that he’s written his law in our hearts and minds, and that the very order of creation speaks of his power. The apostle Paul summarizes:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom. 1:20 NIV)

Nature and the human conscience both gives witness of God’s Truth. This is what theologians call general revelation. How do I know there is a God? Well, two of the best evidences for God’s existence don’t even require the Bible

  1. NATURE: Creation implies a Creator; Design implies a Designer, and
  2. CONSCIENCE: Moral Law implies a Moral Lawgiver; intuitive guilt assumes both obligation and dissonance.

Likewise, when arguing for traditional marriage and/or opposing homosexual marriage in the public square, our primary arguments should be “non-religious.” The moment we start basing our arguments on Scripture, the more we potentially alienate those who agree with us, blur that ethereal Church / State line, and conjure the baggage of so many negative religious stereotypes.

Of course there’s a time when Christians need to invoke the name of Christ and quote Scripture. But when it comes to politics, lifestyle, and culture, a shrewd, nuanced approach is often the most biblical.

That debate, and how Christians approach it, is a microcosm of how we approach marketplace evangelism. In fact, I think this ties into writing and how Christian fiction writers approach their stories (you knew I’d get there, didn’t you?). Non-religious rhetoric and/or imagery bypasses many intellectual censors and touches us at an emotive level.

I’ll talk about this more in my next post.

Rocky Lewis May 9, 2012 at 7:02 AM

Yes! And thank you for this post. No one comes together around dogma except those who share it. If evangelists want to reach the secular heart it must be through Christ-like actions and the secular mind won’t open without thoughful existential questioning.

D k LeVick May 10, 2012 at 5:39 AM

ANd – usually those who share dogma, end up arguing about it. Not real convincing to the non-believer! Nothing drives people away more than watching ‘believers’ argue amonst themselves over dogma issues and then try to convince others to follow them.

Scathe meic Beorh May 9, 2012 at 7:43 AM

Thank you for this.

James L. Rubart May 9, 2012 at 7:55 AM

Mike, can anyone know if there’s a God? I don’t think so.

I agree with you: Based on nature and our conscience there is significant evidence of a God. I add my own spiritual experiences to that foundation and I find more evidence for God.

Consequently my belief in God is absolute. But do I KNOW 100%? No. Same thing with the atheist. They have chosen to believe there is no God. But can they know with 100% certainty there’s no God? Not without intellectual dishonesty. (Which is why Pascal’s Wager should be pondered when rejecting the idea of God outright.)

I think that has to be the starting point: “Hi, nice to meet you. This is what I believe. What do you believe?” Unfortunately many followers of Jesus gear up for a fight (as do non-believers) instead of approaching the subject with respect for the other party and a willingness to listen.

And I’m not thinking the fight thing has a lot of love surrounding it.

Jim

Mike Duran May 9, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Jim, recognizing uncertainty of belief would be a fine starting point if not for two things: 1.) That both parties agree about shared uncertainty (as in the atheist agreeing that his position is also faith-based, which he seldom concedes), and 2.) A concession to relativism (as in All beliefs are equal, which in that case, belief in God or some Absolute is not compelling).

James L. Rubart May 10, 2012 at 12:59 PM

Mike,

True. The atheist rarely concedes this, but with those who do, the conversations can be rich.

I don’t think you have to concede to relativism. I think you can say, “this is what I believe, and yes, it does directly contradict what you believe,” and then be willing to hear why the other person disagrees. I had a discussion a few months ago with an atheist who was clearly surprised that I communicated what I believed but didn’t hammer her or try to argue her into my camp.

The other element that should be factored in however, is this is not simply an intellectual discussion between two people who disagree. The Bible is clear there is an unseen spiritual battle that has tremendous influence far beyond human arguments. But that’s another topic.

Jim

Bobby May 9, 2012 at 8:02 AM

Really solid stuff here, Mike. I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts. Non-believers just don’t care about the Bible. It doesn’t hold the place of esteem in American culture anymore that it once did, even if people back then didn’t follow it. We’ve got to use different tactics. Love has to permeate much of what happens, and doses of humility certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I’ve been upset when non-Christian groups either bash Christianity senselessly or press an agenda, but the method to reach them isn’t to entrench in our churches and fight back. We have to love back. We need un-believers to make fun of us but then think, well, I’ve never met a Christian that was mean to me…and here I am bashing them… So much more effective. Plus, you can win an intellectual argument and still lose that person.

Katherine Coble May 9, 2012 at 10:17 AM

And this is, once again, why I am a libertarian. I think it’s best if we don’t condition our political presence upon our faith.

Faith obviously informs decision-making, but in a faith-neutral sphere like politics it cannot be the core of your argument.

My primary goal is to make Christianity the obvious, attractive, hopeful solution that God means for it to be. That is never accomplished when it is used to demean, deride or control.

The St. Francis of Assisi quote is overused to the point of triteness, but it does work very well….the one about preaching the gospel all the time, but only using actual words rarely.

People know that they are despairing. Believe me. Even those that seem to be so very sure of their rightness know, in the stillness of 3am, that they are despairing and lost. I don’t think reminding them of their nightmares is productive. I’d rather be the person they wake up to and feel comforted by.

John Robinson May 9, 2012 at 11:50 AM

“People know that they are despairing. Believe me. Even those that seem to be so very sure of their rightness know, in the stillness of 3am, that they are despairing and lost. I don’t think reminding them of their nightmares is productive. I’d rather be the person they wake up to and feel comforted by.”

Katherine, I like this. A lot.

Jill May 9, 2012 at 10:54 AM

I haven’t been able to hold a cohesive thought in my head for days, and for that I’ve been avoiding doing too much blog commenting. I still don’t know exactly how to respond to this; however, I’d have to agree that it’s often foolish to make faith-based claims in the political arena. On the other hand, I think government should stay the hell out of legislating marriage and stick to upholding marital contracts and granting divorces. Why should the government legislate religious or free-will associations between people?

As far as evangelizing, God seems to use all methods, even the ones we tend to shrink from, such as the Bible-thumping method. A long time ago, a Bible-thumper told my dad to repent or go to hell and then gave him the Bible he’d thumped him with. I thank God for that day, that lack of nuance, that lack of subtle argument because I grew up in a Christian home thanks to it.

Has your book released yet? I suspect you’ll give us a heads up, but I’ve been patiently waiting for a bunch of May releases. 🙂

Gina Burgess May 9, 2012 at 12:19 PM

Mike, I agree that chapter and verse type of quoting scripture drives those struggling with God away rather than drawing them closer. However, some of the best witnessing that Jesus has ever done through me was using the “It is written…” technique. Jesus never quoted chapter and verse to Satan while He was in the desert, but He did stop Satan “cold” when He quoted scripture to him.

I used that while witnessing to someone vacillating between believing Jesus and succumbing to Islamic pressures. I never mentioned book, chapter or verse number. I just quoted scripture which God led me to, and the Holy Spirit revealed the truth of the words to him.

In my opinion, human reasoning will never prove God, nor will it sway the carnal man. Only the Holy Spirit can change the heart of man and the mind of man.

Engraved in His palm,
Gina

Mike Duran May 10, 2012 at 5:23 AM

Gina, I definitely am not suggesting that we shouldn’t employ Scripture in witnessing. You wrote, “some of the best witnessing that Jesus has ever done through me was using the “It is written…” technique.” I think this is most powerful, however, when what “is written” is known, valued, and/or believed by both parties. As in the case of Jesus addressing Satan. Also, His culture was steeped in a monotheistic religious worldview, unlike ours. Point is, our culture has a different common ground. Thanks for commenting!

Gina Burgess May 10, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Agreed, but I was witnessing to a polytheistic person. He had no notion of what the Bible said except that Jesus was a good person and that he believed that Jesus was taught all His wisdom between the ages of 12 and 30 when He walked to India to gain wisdom.

As you said, nature is one of God’s proofs He exists. Another proof He exists is the God-sized hole a person has when he or she becomes aware of right and wrong. However, the 3rd best revelation there is God is DNA. 🙂

G

Cherry Odelberg May 9, 2012 at 12:32 PM

Thank you.

Wayne Woodall May 9, 2012 at 12:32 PM

This was a great article. Especially since I just received a tweet about the president’s “newly formed opinion” about whom should be allowed to marry.

Jason Brown May 9, 2012 at 12:57 PM

This brings to mind Nancy Rue’s Reluctant Prophet Trilogy since said Prophet(ess) is escaping the religious church she came from and finding out things about God that she hadn’t considered, most especially that God isn’t religious and that all the religious cliches the Church uses does no good.

Bruce Hennigan May 9, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Mike

I used these same “arguments” this past Monday night as I taught a “life group” the new term for Sunday School. I taught a diverse group of adults ranging in age from 23 to 57 on just this issue. They had never heard of “dual revelation”. But, I was surprised and pleasantly shocked at how quickly they agreed with this line of thinking. It was as if they had been WAITING for someone to tell them is was okay to look at evidence for God and not just quote scripture. To see the MIND open up is amazing. God wants us, of course, to use our minds for more than a doorstop to keep the sanctuary doors open. Don’t check your brains at the door!
I had a great conversation with a young man who loves Christian speculative fiction and he was reading my book. It was with great pleasure and a certain level of giddiness that we talked about Christian fiction in the same vein as your last post. I ended up giving him my copy of “The Resurrection” and he was excited to read it. Don’t worry! I’ll buy a new copy to replace mine!
Thanks again for a great post. Keep up the conversation.

R. L. Copple May 9, 2012 at 2:52 PM

Evangelism is such a personal, one on one thing. Obviously some of these “marketplace evangelism” techniques work some of the time on some people. I remember when Tom Skinner spoke at our college back in the 1980s. He was converted to Christianity while listening to a radio preacher during his planning for the next gang raid, as he was head of a popular New York gang at the time. For him, that’s what it took. For Paul, it took getting knocked off his horse and made blind. For the woman at the well, it took Jesus being blunt with her about her sins she’d hid.

Our real problem is in using a “one-size-fits-all” approach instead of allowing God to guide us to meet the person where they are at. When in Athens, address them on their level. When dealing with a person who grew up Christian but left the faith, a Scripture reference may be just the thing they need to hear. I remember one person’s testimony of walking into a church after being gone for years, and the flood of memories from childhood came racing in, and they felt like they were home.

Everyone is different and we should be taught how to get to know people and allow the gospel to be on display in our lives and let God give you the words to say to someone when the time is ripe. Just because a particular method works on some people, doesn’t mean we should use it exclusively, or throw out older methods. This isn’t an either/or situation because we are not dealing with black and white situations, but with living, breathing people. We want to use what works for the person we’re talking to.

So whether we’re talking evangelism, writing fiction, or politics, it all goes back to knowing your audience and speaking their language if you want to communicate anything of importance.

Katherine Coble May 10, 2012 at 8:55 AM

I would completely agree with this.

I’ve been struck more and more that my approach isn’t the only right way. But it is the right way for the people I encounter.

Gina Burgess May 10, 2012 at 10:14 AM

Completely agree!

Marcia May 9, 2012 at 4:56 PM

Amen to this entire post.

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