Converse and convert

I stumbled upon an interesting website this week. In the wake of the failed plebiscite and planned postal vote on same-sex marriage, there’s so much noise around the issue that it really wasn’t hard to run into The Equality Campaign.

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Photo credit: torbakhopper rainbow flag : banner, harvey milk plaza, castro, san francisco (2012) via photopin (license)

Titled Having a conversation about marriage equality, this particular page struck me because it was so, well, familiar.

“[R]eal life conversations are incredibly powerful. They’re what change (sic) hearts and minds.”

“[T]he people you know — whether friends or family, work mates, people at church, your local sporting club – will be far more influenced by their personal conversation with you than by any advert or message they see from an organisation.”

“[B]y listening, sharing our experiences, and approaching this as a conversation rather than a furious debate, we have a much better chance of bringing as many people as possible along with us.”

It’s a how-to guide, complete with FAQs and a ‘sticky questions’ section, and I’ve seen it before.

I’ve seen it before, at church.

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I have to admit, I cringe a little. Despite the strength of my faith and my commitment to the Church, evangelising has never sat comfortably with me.

If you find this video offputting, know that it makes me squirm also:

Even though it’s an accurate statement of what I believe.

While Two Ways To Live was a part of my youth group curriculum, I also had a foot in a culture that pushed back against talking about our faith, let alone proselytising. We can thank my atheist public education for that.

Over the last decade I have come to own and embrace my faith more, to love the Church while questioning the attitudes and beliefs some of us hold, to serve us while interrogating how we can “do church better”.

I’m keen to talk about different elements of my faith, why I follow Jesus and how that shapes my life – in the right context.

But there is something about conventional evangelism – whether it’s in favour of the gospel or same-sex marriage – that produces a stifled gag reaction in me.

“And this is how you talk to people about [insert important issue here].”

Gay people getting married, for dummies. Jesus, for dummies. Same diff, right?

Could it be that this offends my intellect more than any other sensibility? Because ultimately my aversion comes down not so much to the content, but the artifice.

street-preacher-bosquet
Photo credit: Bosquet Street Preacher via photopin (license)

There’s a lot on the Equality Campaign website that echoes modern approaches to sharing the gospel. Take this point in the ‘sticky questions’ section:

“Don’t take this personally. It can be hard when people you know don’t see things in the same way or share your values. But all it means is that for now they are someone who cannot take that last step with you on this issue.”

In a different context, Don’t take this personally. All it means is that for now they are not yet ready to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Maybe The Equality Campaign’s content writer is a Christian evangelist. More likely, personal experience and storytelling as an effective way to convert – oops, influence – people is not unique to Christianity.

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There is a point to be made here. I’ve been describing the similarities between these two expressions of evangelism, and the commonality turns on conversation as a device.

As much as I find The Equality Campaign’s approach and Two Ways To Live painfully clunky and just a bit yuck, I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with strategic conversations.

I’m not pretending we can always be intentional in our speech, or that we must always be serious and seeking to influence. But when dialogue can be so powerful, it’s sad that we’re not often mindful of the things we say. Our words are careless.

There is a vast middle ground between keeping our views to ourselves and being “too opinionated”. It’s worth stepping out of the echo chamber and engaging in conversations with those who hold different views. We learn through dialogue, and external input can help us interrogate and form our own opinions.

We don’t always have to talk politics. We don’t always have to talk religion. But we should, more often.

10 thoughts on “Converse and convert

  1. I agree that there’s a lot of similarity between religious and non-religious evangelism. I guess the tools of persuasion are fairly content agnostic.

    The difference I think may come in the motivation. For both kinds there’s personal belief in the message, and probably social approval from members of your group. My (perhaps uninformed) view is that some religious evangelists also view it as being mandated by their deity, and it being something they ‘just have to do’ regardless of personal motivation. I’m thinking about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons predominantly. At least for the former group, I’ve met one or two that don’t seem hugely enthusiastic about promoting their message.

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    1. I have to admit that in the past I too have viewed evangelism as mandated – and depending on how you define it, to an extent I still do. But when it feels like a chore (as with the JWs you met) then you’d have to question why that is, because if you’re sharing your faith it should be out of a sense of conviction rather than an uncomfortable obligation.

      Seeing the similarities between religious and areligious evangelism just made me stop and think about how the first sort is widely seen as bad when it’s all persuasion as you say. And really human society turns on having dialogue about different propositions of what is true and/or good.

      Thanks for engaging with this and taking the time to share your thoughts, Stefan 🙂

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    2. Interesting reply!

      Perhaps the JWs’ thinking went something like this: I agree with the message, but I don’t really feel like evangelising. However, evangelism is mandated by God, so I’d better do it or I will be judged for not doing so.

      I don’t know much about JW theology, but the above is what I think of when hearing that it is viewed as mandatory. Even if it’s not about judgement/punishment, and is instead about not wanting to disappoint God, that could still be a reason to do something you weren’t enthusiastic about. ‘I’ll do this to not disappoint my friend’ kind of thing.

      Straying slightly afield, is motivation in the Christian faith more of the former or latter kind in your experience? Is the threat of punishment something that’s only relevant for those outside the faith?

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    3. Yeah, it makes sense. Regarding motivation, I think this may be where the subject matter does make a difference.

      Take your work with IJM for example. My guess would be that you would be more happy to evangelise in person for that (e.g. by talking about the issues they work on) rather than for your faith. Similarly, I’m more willing to advocate for veganism than the moral and emotional framework which took me in particular to that conclusion.

      In both our cases the first can be done mostly through reference to facts and commonly held moral impulses. To do justice to the second in person requires the establishment of a deeper and more emotionally vulnerable connection. I suspect same-sex marriage falls somewhat into the second category; its partially a debate about legal rights, but mostly about deep beliefs/desires regarding the social fabric and religion.

      This may be why you would feel yuck about the idea of using talking points/standard rebuttals when talking about faith. By following a script you wouldn’t feel you were doing justice to the subject matter. On the other hand, I’m comfortable using that approach at least when it comes to the fact based parts of vegan advocacy.

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      1. You are spot on, amigo 🙂 I think our preference for rational arguments and reluctance to use emotional arguments is a product of cultural norms, and worth interrogating. Funnily enough I think advertising actual relies on emotional logic and tapping into deep yearnings.

        So it’s not that we are necessarily averse to sharing emotions per se. As you point out, to do justice to the subject matter *in person* requires a deeper and more emotionally vulnerable connection. I wonder why that doesn’t seem to be necessary for online interactions.

        I, too, am cool with using talking points and even key phrases in sharing about what IJM does and why. In fact it’s kinda ideal for accurate and consistent messaging haha.

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      2. Textual communication does seem to reduce people’s inhibitions somewhat doesn’t it. I reckon one subconsciously feels less vulnerable when there isn’t another ape right there in front of you. Based on that I would predict lowered inhibitions in a voice call as compared to video chat also.

        I’m not sure if we’re straying too far from the topic of your article here in the comment thread, but your point about emotional arguments vs rational ones interests me also. If you’d like to keep this thread on-topic, feel free to email me (I’m guessing you can extract my address from this comment).

        By emotional argument, do you mean displaying emotion during a discussion, or do you mean presenting feelings as evidence for a position, or something else?

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        1. (Super late response – I have been AWOL from my blog!) Re: text/voice when you can’t see/feel the other person in front of you, your filters and inhibitions relax. And that can be a good and a bad thing. I know people who have felt braver on the internet as a result, and I can relate – while I was never super into internet chat, live journals etc, as a shy teenager I did often feel on MSN Messenger (back in those days!) like I was a better, or at least more complete, version of myself.

          I don’t think your next point is straying at all – even if it were, I kinda enjoy how different reflections overlap 🙂 My observation is that we are hesitant to use emotional arguments in a discussion in both of the senses you refer to, yet for advertising and campaigning (one-way communication) we do it all the time. I think there is still a perception that if you (a) get emotional and/or (b) start appealing to emotional arguments rather than logic, it means that you have run out of rational evidence and are therefore “losing” the argument – even if it’s not an argument, but a conversation. In other words, once you start using emotion, it descends into an argument rather than a discussion. That’s what separates an argument from a discussion, and that’s exactly what seems to have happened in the SSM debate. When you discuss, you’re trying to find a solution that works, hopefully for everyone. When you argue, you’re trying to win, and the consequences are secondary or irrelevant.

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        2. Sorry about the above, mis-copy-pasted :P.

          I’ll define the word ‘argument’ to mean the case where you’re trying to discern the truth of a proposition. I’ll also define ‘discussion’ to be when you’re trying to understand or connect with another person, and ‘persuasion’ where you’re interested in changing their mind. That is, ‘arguments’ are a kind of ‘persuasion’. On the other hand ‘discussions’ can be ‘persuasive’, but that’s not their objective. These definitions are different to those you used in your last reply.

          Let’s start with your first point (a) that there’s a perception that if you become (visibly) emotional in an argument, you can be discounted.

          If you’re in a discussion, I think displaying emotion is just another way of communicating, and so is no different to talking (as long as it doesn’t trigger conflict or withdrawal). Displaying emotion in an argument on the other hand can make it harder to think clearly, but aside from that it doesn’t actually affect what you say. If you’re able to think and articulate clearly while experiencing strong emotions, then there’s no problem (I can’t really do this, but I know people who can).

          On to your second point (b) around appealing to emotion in arguments. I propose that it’s worthwhile dividing emotions in arguments into two parts: a goal unto themselves, and an epistemic method. To illustrate, consider the following examples about deciding whether you should marry someone:

          * “I met this person yesterday, and I had the best day of my life with them. I’ve never felt this good, so I should marry them.”
          * “I have been with this person for 5 years, and on the whole they make me feel good. Therefore I should marry them.”

          Both of these arguments treat emotional fulfillment as a goal, which is totally legitimate in my view. Given that goal, I would say the second argument is more rational than the first, as it is built on a more evidence based position. I would also say it is more likely to correctly anticipate your satisfaction with the relationship into the future.

          Aside from short-term situational questions like ‘should I go down this dark alley right now’, or ‘is this person interested in me’, I’m not sure emotions are valuable as a way of arriving at the truth. Crucially though, they are goals unto themselves (in my view, the ultimate goals). ‘I’m breaking up with you because I consistently feel unsatisfied despite our efforts’ is a legitimate argument.

          When talking about something like SSM, we need to uncover these underlying emotional goals for each of the parties. Once we have them though, I think evidence and logic is the way to work out how to satisfy them.

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  2. Hmm that’s an insightful thought about the idea of disappointing God, and I think that is something that many Christians (and probably JWs and other religious people also) struggle with. Potentially it’s more pronounced when you see God as Father so there’s that parental dimension to it.

    The funny thing is that the motivation among all evangelising Christians I’ve ever met or known is a genuine desire to share Jesus with people who don’t know him. They are so convicted about the truth of the gospel and they are so grateful and joyful about what he has done in their lives that they want to tell others. There being a commandment is just a way to explain why and how we should do it. It is actually this authenticity that made me feel weird about not feeling the same motivation while believing all the same things.

    Punishment is sort of a separate issue. The short answer – which doesn’t really do justice to your question – is that each of us is held accountable for the way we live our lives. And each of us is guilty for having rejected God. The point of Jesus coming was to restore that relationship, and him copping the punishment we deserve on our behalf (hence the crucifixion) is a key part of that. Being inside/outside the faith is only material to the extent that you can’t logically have your relationship with God restored if you don’t believe he exists or you don’t accept that Jesus fixed that.

    Hope that makes sense!

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