The opening session of a first year mission course that I teach here in Manchester always stirs up a vigorous debate. I ask the students to fill in a questionnaire entitled, “Is It Mission?” They are given a list of activities ranging from the overtly evangelistic (planting a church) through the clearly political (joining a march to campaign against a war) to the distinctly ecclesial (playing piano in church). I then ask them to decide if the activity counts as mission or not. Without fail a major part of the ensuing discussion focuses on one activity in particular, the one that speaks about persuading a friend to become a Christian.
It seems that many people, or at least many of my students, are not persuaded about the validity of persuasion. Some seem to have a gut-level reaction against the very notion. In their minds the word “persuasion” hangs out with words like “pressurise”, “manipulate”, “brow-beat”. This worries me. Especially when they try to persuade me that I should join them in their rejection of persuasion! It worries me not just because of the inherent contradiction. No, it worries me far more because it is yet another sign of the way in which the church’s confidence in evangelism is evaporating.
When I was a teenager my best friend worked hard to persuade me that my objections to Christianity weren’t as well founded as I thought they were. If he hadn’t I would never have come to faith. I am really glad that he persuaded me. If antipathy towards persuasion takes root then many of today’s Christians will never even attempt to persuade their friends to join them in following Christ.
What makes it difficult for me though is that as well as worrying about the reactions of my students I also sympathise with them. They do have a point you know. Too many of our attempts to persuade have indeed bordered on the hectoring, the underhand, the dishonest. I still wince at the memory of the closing night of one fortnight-long town-wide mission in which I was involved. It had not gone well. At least when measured by the number of “decisions”. The evangelist who was heading up the mission and preaching at the nightly rallies in the town’s theatre was also disappointed. He didn’t say so, but you could tell. You could tell because on the last night of the mission when it came to the appeal he tried a novel tactic: “OK I’d like everyone here to raise their hand in the air. Now, if you don’t want to become a Christian please put your hand down.” I ask you!
As those committed to the way of Christ, committed to truth, committed to the dignity of all people we ought to run a million miles from any attempt to persuade by bullying, by trickery, by dishonesty. An underhand presentation of the gospel is a contradiction in terms. More than that, it’s a monstrosity. But that does not mean that we should give up seeking to persuade.
Yes, persuasion alone is inadequate. Yes, conversion nearly always comes about through far more than logical argument alone. Yes, being good news and acting good-newsily is just as important as debating the issues. But we have to recognise that in this world of many stories, this time of multiple worldviews, seeking gently, confidently and respectfully to persuade our friends to repent and believe the good news is not only legitimate, it’s crucial. If we don’t, we fail in our calling. We fail our Lord. We fail the world for which he died.
My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.