The adage in the title above is unattributable. It resonates with people enormously, and, despite its unknown source, it has hung on in our literature in some form or another for about 400 years.
"A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still."
It gets at the truth that there is more to persuasion than an appeal to reason. The human mind doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is inextricably intertwined with our passionate, hormonal, and spiritual selves.
This is why apologetics, and especially the polemic sort sometimes utilized in countercult ministry, can never be divorced from a compassionate appeal to character and emotion. I have often heard repeated some iteration of the idea, "Our responsibility is to speak the truth, not to convince anyone of the truth." I think I can see the merit of this idea (it is certainly the Holy Spirit that ultimately proves and convicts), but perhaps it places too little emphasis on the biblical value of persuasion. It is not just what we say that matters, but how we say it. Paul puts this point beautifully in Colossians:
While Paul acknowledges the urgency of the gospel message ("making the best use of the time"), he emphasizes the need to suit the argument to each person. Proverbs 16:21 also calls for this sort of discernment in our speech: “The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.”
A really wonderful example of this principle at work is the transformative story of Megan Phelps-Roper. Once an heir to the hateful legacy of Westboro Baptist Church, Megan was convinced to leave her community by the patient, persistent persuasion of respectful opponents online.
For those of you who would rather read than watch (although I absolutely encourage you to watch her 15-minute discussion), Phelps-Roper draws commonalities between the most compelling people she engaged with online. Her four common points of persuasion are great practical action points for people that want to avoid fruitless argument and pursue persuasive speech:
While this might not be a difficult concept for some of you to grasp, I know I speak for all my ISFJs (about 10% of the general population) when I say, this one is hard! My particular personality type easily falls into the trap of wrongly suspecting others of hidden motives or agendas.
This can be especially true of theological discussions with members of the LDS church, whose missionaries are often encouraged to deflect questions, and whose leadership have a questionable appreciation for truth. However, as Paul encourages in Colossians, we are called to answer each person in a manner suited to their situation. Assuming our friend is coming from a position of good or neutral intent removes the barrier of anger and indignation that can prevent respectful dialogue.
Most of our popular tools and methods for evangelism are useful for setting up a position, but they leave little room for the voice of the person we are witnessing to. My friend Britney has often reminded us, "Their voice is just as important as your voice." Asking questions is a crucial step toward mapping the real distance between our positions, and helps us avoid the arrogant-sounding and useless arguments against a perceived, rather than actual, point of view.
One way to practice this point is to avoid the phrase, "You believe that..." and replace it with "What do you believe about...?" Though you may be extremely well versed in what a person's church teaches, people can be dynamic and surprising. Asking questions shows respect and interest for their individual story.
Phelps-Roper is magnificently quotable here when she says, "I thought my rightness justified my rudeness." It can be especially difficult to diffuse this tension when self-righteousness abounds on both sides. Practicing non-complementary behavior can be taxing, but is a powerful tool for diffusing hate and influencing the conversation toward a positive outcome. Proverbs 15:1 encourages us, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."
This point is one of the most pertinent to those involved in potentially aggressive apologetic rhetoric. The focus on the inadequacies of another position takes the attention away from your own ideas, and it is easy to believe that our position is superior by default. As Phelps-Roper says in her talk, "Don't assume that the value of your position is self-evident."
In essence, share the gospel! Many of us are careless iconoclasts, shattering ideas about God without offering anything to stand in their place. In a book about writing, Anne Lamott says, "The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing. These concepts probably feel like givens, like things no one ever had to make up, that have been true through all cultures and for all time. Telling these truths is your job. You have nothing else to tell us" (Bird by Bird, p. 103). Sometimes the things that are most basic and obvious are what most need to be shared.
For an example of how this might all work together, here's a recent interaction with an LDS friend. (This particular conversation followed all the points recommended by Megan Phelps-Roper. Unfortunately, I haven't always been so conscientious or kind.)
After some small talk about silly religious idiosyncrasies in both the LDS tradition and evangelicalism, we affirmed our care and respect for one another (1. Don't assume bad intent) before I asked, "Would you consider yourself LDS? Some of your ideas aren't what I've come to expect from Mormon friends." (2. Ask questions.) This gave him the space to explain his faith story to me, and for trust to build in our relationship as I listened to his perspective without interjecting. As he explained the details of his position over a couple of conversations lasting more than 3 hours, he challenged some deeply-held beliefs of mine. I took his questions seriously, because they were honestly and thoughtfully posed, even though not knowing the answer sometimes made me uncomfortable (3. Stay calm and patient.) Finally, we both sat down with a pen and paper to visually represent to one another what we perceived to be the differences between a Mormon and a Christian cosmology. (4. Make the argument.) There were no "gotcha" moments or rhetorical traps, but the openness of the conversation gave room for a Spirit-led rather than agenda-driven encounter. At the end of the conversation, I heard myself saying (without quite knowing where it would lead), "Could you explain to me how, in your worldview, a finite God is absolved from responsibility for evil if at the end of time he still conquers all evil? Doesn't that imply that he has the power to control evil now, if he so chooses?" By this point, our relationship had built enough trust for my friend to be comfortable with a certain degree of vulnerability. In this case, that meant admitting that he didn't know - that his worldview was somewhat incomplete.
And this is, perhaps, where the line, "Our responsibility is not to convince anyone of the truth" can take over. We are not asking God to work out conviction or conversion in spite of our approach, but trusting that God will work through the gracious speech He instructs us to use. As Paul says, "whether short time or long," our prayer is that our LDS friend would believe as we continue to share the gospel.
When discussing our attitude toward sharing the gospel, one of the most-often shared quotes between Ned and I is a Mumford and Sons lyric: "Love with urgency, not with haste." We think it expresses the same tension described by Paul is his letter to the Colossians. Fortunately, we don't have to fall prey to the seductive, false dichotomy between grace and truth in our witnessing conversations. These two values always walk hand-in-hand, and the glory of God is both met together.
For more reading on an evangelistic strategy that is Spirit-led rather than agenda-driven, check out two of our favorite books on the subject: Reimagining Evangelism and Coffee Shop Conversations.
To find out how to partner with Ned and Sarah in reaching the unreached people of rural Utah, visit our take action page.