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

December 8, 2017

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.  

Brady A. Weller

Brady is a former policy intern at the ERLC and the current president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA at Loyola University Maryland. He studies writing and philosophy focusing on civil discourse and the conservative American church's engagement with social and political issues. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24