Article Dec 8, 2017

Think before you speak: 4 tips for dialoguing with non-Christians

When you hear the term “rhetoric,” you probably think shifty word-play, used car salesmen, and untrustworthy politicians. You may recall reading about the early sophists—teachers in Ancient Greece who specialized in philosophy and rhetoric—in school; these men were teachers of persuasion, lovers of argument, and pervaders of truth. Today, the main concern of contemporary rhetoricians is connecting to and understanding their audiences.

Writers, artists, musicians, and marketing managers can all utilize rhetorical strategies to get across their ideas or to stir audiences to action. If everyone else can use rhetoric to connect with people, why can’t we? I want to make the case for bringing rhetoric back to the church; not to sell a bill of goods, convince people of the importance of weekly giving, or to guilt non-believers into repentance, but rather to reach a greater number of people with the gospel, even as social, political, and cultural barriers seem insurmountable.

The following tips function more as things to consider and lessons to learn than a “how-to-guide for winning your friend’s heart and soul.” Anyone, from a pastor, to a parent, to a kid in the youth ministry, can benefit from thinking deeply about how they share Jesus’s love, the Bible’s commands, and God’s heart for humankind. Thinking critically about the way you share your thoughts, convictions, and opinions is not manipulative—quite the opposite. I would argue that careful consideration of your “audience” is not only most effective, but also most life-giving and edifying for everyone involved.

Thoughtful rhetoric may include word-play and nifty tropes, but more importantly, rhetoric is appreciation for, and knowledge of, an audience. If you’re a pastor, your main audience is your congregation; if you’re a writer, consider your readers; and if you just want to have more grace-filled conversations with your family and friends, especially during this season, good news—they are your audience!

Here are some helpful things to consider whenever you want to convince your audience of something new:

First, ask, “Who am I trying to persuade? What are their barriers to receiving what I have to say?”

The difficult thing about analyzing your primary audience and understanding their barriers to commitment is that you can’t always “guess” how they feel or what they think. Getting to know your audience takes time. It means long conversations where you simply listen, ask questions, reserve judgment, take interest, and choose to be a friend rather than a teacher. Pay attention to how your audience feels about the topic. What is their position? Do they have strong convictions or firmly held opinions? What assumptions might they make about you or your position?

Drop your assumptions about a person’s theological or political leaning at the door.

All of these questions are things that you can make guesses about without putting in the time to listen. All conservatives are bigoted and stuffy, right? And all liberals are relativists floating on clouds, right? Of course, these statements aren’t universally true. Drop your assumptions about a person’s theological or political leaning at the door. Careless blanket statements have no place in true audience analysis.

Second, be careful not to alienate your audience before making a truth claim.

One fatal trap that writers often fall into is that their emotional energy causes them to emphasize the “obvious” shortcomings of the other side before even making their own claim. You may have something really great to say, and it may even be true, but building a case for your side should never start with tearing down the opposition. While this sounds like it would be effective, the only people you will appeal to are those who already share your belief, as you inevitably alienate everyone else.

Throwing jabs at your argumentative “other” before stating your point is the quickest way to build a hostile audience who discredits your ideas before you even get a chance to make a case. No one likes to be drug through the mud. Whether you’re trying to convince an atheist friend that God exists or persuade your 18-year-old nephew that sleeping around is out of line with God’s will, name calling and virtue-shaming are poor materials for constructing a loving and persuasive argumentative foundation.

Third, find the “gray area,” and build your case there.

If you want to get to the root of your audience’s barriers to commitment or persuasion, consider the “gray area.” The gray area is the space between your personal claims, assumptions, and experiences, and your audience’s claims, assumptions, and experiences.

Theology, philosophy, and politics—none of our views in these areas form in a vacuum. We each bring our own unique assumptions and experiences into these difficult conversations. We all feel very emotional or deeply attached to what we believe because of special circumstances or experiences attached to our beliefs. Learning to recognize where your audience is staking their ground in relation to their own experiences will help you to find an area that you have not yet engaged. Enter the conversation there, where you feel most out of place.

Instead of spouting the latest data and making all of the smartest claims about how your idea is the breadwinner, press into the in-between; the space where your experiences and assumptions meet your audiences. Build an argument that tests that tension, seeks to understand the other side, and slowly introduces your own thoughts along the way.   

Finally, affirm what is good in their belief or way of living, and then present something better.

Now that you’ve explored your audience, found points of tension, and sought to understand your shared and differing experiences, it’s time to present your case. For pastors, this is the big sermon, the moment when you stand before your audience and win them to your cause. The singular most important thing to remember when trying to convince someone that their idea of “good” is not as good as your idea of “good,” is this: What your audience knows and has is the best to them until you convince them otherwise. An old saying goes, “What if what I think is good really is good, but not as good as something better?”

Argumentation and persuasion is not about winning the fight—making the most logically sound claims. It’s about describing what is better. I have no reason to change my mind about a topic until you can convince me that dropping what I have and following you is a better way forward.

Christian, no one has ever exchanged their view of mankind or their view of God because you made a logical proof. I love logic; it’s challenging and powerful and rational, but not always beautiful. Help your audience—no matter who they are—see God as infinitely more holy, powerful, and worthy to be praised than they ever imagined. Help them to see humankind, God’s creation, as more valuable and more beautiful in God’s sight than ever before.

At the place where skepticism meets beauty is where the argument is won. If God cannot be made to look more beautiful, and man cannot be made to look more valuable as a result of your argument, reconsider your position, and keep listening.