Persuasion in Gospel Presentations

Categories: Theology

When all of the steps in the process of tilling and planting evangelism have been taken, the faithful gospel witness knows that it is time to reap. Knowing full well that it is God who provides the increase, the witness carefully clarifies and personalizes the message, and then persuades his or her friend to come to Christ.

It is that knotty issue of persuasion that we will examine here. Though students of the Word know that Paul used persuasion in his ministry, they wonder whether that was “Paul’s thing,” and perhaps not something that should be used by other witnesses. Once having concluded that persuasion was not a personal or cultural feature of the presentation of the gospel, but that it is appropriate for use today, witnesses are still unsure about their readiness, and of their powers of persuasion. They wonder how much persuasion to use, and whether they will cross the line from persuasion to domination.

Accompanying this article on the act and art of persuasion is a detailed study of the New Testament texts in which the usage of the Greek word peitho is properly interpreted as “persuasion.” This study asks and answers questions concerning the persons involved in the event in which persuasion is used; the terms in context that illustrate the means of persuasion; and the responses expected and evinced.

The conclusions of the study are simply stated: the witness should feel comfortable in using meaningful phrases, clear arguments, careful reasoning, and persuasive speech, but should never depend on the power of personal persuasiveness to argue a person to Christ. The message of the gospel (Romans 1:16), and the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4), are always the power of God to salvation.

Before encouraging the reader to work through the accompanying study, the writer would like to summarize the thrust of Timothy Keller’s message on the subject of “Persuasion” that was given at the Dwell Conference in New York City in 2008. Including the substance of Keller’s message will increase the practicality of this article by adding strategic thoughts on context, communication, credibility, and apologetics.

Keller first describes Paul’s teachings on persuasion, and he emphasizes that Paul does have a strategy, and that he does use arguments in his communication of the gospel. What Paul rejected was “verbal bullying,” “applause generating rhetoric,” and “manipulative stories.” Having established this, Keller proposes a model of persuasion. This model recognizes that people interpret communication from the perspective of their own context, and that there are two basic orientations from which the communicator can approach his listeners: sender-oriented, and listener (or audience)-oriented. The former requires that the listener adjust to the context of the speaker; the latter requires that the speaker adjust to the context of the listener. God’s approach to communication is oriented toward the listener: unfolding His revelation through speakers, writers, forms, and symbols that are meaningful to its intended recipients.

We, too, must be listener-oriented in our communication of the gospel, but that doesn’t mean that we are context-centered. Keller states that we must be message-centered so that we do not lose the truthful message in trying to contextualize it. To avoid the danger of losing the message by being listener-oriented, many feel that the best approach is to be sender-oriented and message-centered. That is certainly easier on the speaker, but it leaves the listener lost in worldview noise. Yet more than two possibilities for communication exist. There are actually four: (1) sender-oriented and message centered; (2) sender-oriented and context-centered; (3) listener-oriented and message-centered; and, (4) listener-oriented and context-centered. Keller refers to these, in the above order, as Traditionalist; Manipulator; Preacher; and Accomodator. The Traditionalist maintains his own comfort level by sharing the gospel message in his own terms, not making an effort to deal with the context of the listener. The Manipulator uses anything that will work, adapting the message in such a way as to manipulate the listener into making a profession. The ‘Accomodator’ surrenders the truth for the sake of giving the people what they want to hear. The ‘Preacher’ is the model we should follow (though not all preachers are ‘Preachers’ in this sense). While concerned about the context of the listener, or the audience, the Preacher does not sacrifice the truth of the message. The Preacher works hard at presenting the unchanging Word to a changeable culture in meaningful terms.

In conclusion, Keller recommends 5 strategic points for the practice of communicating the message with persuasion:

  1. Listen to the feedback you receive from the listener (audience).
  2. Remember that there are three kinds of vehicles for communication: the spoken language; non-verbal communication; and “the person as communication” – the credibility, transparency, and sincerity of the speaker.
  3. Identify, and quantify if you can, the degree of commitment of the listener to their beliefs. This is a tool that can be used with the E&D Scale: On a scale of 1-10, 1-3 are beliefs your audience holds very, very strongly, 4-7 are beliefs they hold, but not very strongly, and 8-10 are beliefs they reject very strongly.
  4. Gain credibility by entering their frame of reference. For example, using language that makes sense; affirming things that both the speaker and the listener can agree on, but present them better than they could; through transparency show them your concerns, show them your heart, and do it with integrity. Present Biblical ethics and morals in ways that remove them from stereotypes and prudishness, demonstrating their relevance.
  5. Challenge their frame of reference. Don’t try to show them the inconsistencies of the things they love and cling to the most. Start with the things that are held with less conviction. However, while breaking down their old equilibrium by showing them what must be abandoned, but establish a new equilibrium by showing them the fruit: what is gained by turning to Christ.

May God grant that through a prayerful, careful, persuasive, listener-oriented presentation of the truthful message of the gospel, the witnesses of Jesus Christ in this generation will see a great harvest of people turning to God from idols before His return.

Related Resource - Available for Download

Persuasion-A Biblical Study
Associating the word "persuasion" with evangelism causes concern on the part of many believers. Perhaps the abusive type of persuasion that many of us have experienced or observed is the reason for that concern. But what does the New Testament have to say on this topic? That's the purpose of this article--to investigate the concept of "persuasion" in the New Testament.

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