To Persuade or Coerce: That is the Question

In Christian Mission and the Modern World, John Stott, in defining evangelism, does not think that “persuasion” is a necessary component of a definition of evangelism. He follows J.I. Packer who critiques any definition of evangelism that includes persuasion as an element as confusing the act with the goal. Peter Wagner defines evangelism, though, as “Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion.” On Wagner’s definition, Stott comments, “Although I am not myself happy to include all three in a strict definition of evangelism itself, yet presence must certainly precede evangelism, as persuasion must follow it.” Stott loves his idea of presence and proclamation, but balks at persuasion.

He states, “Some speak of ‘persuasion’ as if the outcome could be secured by human effort, almost as if it were another word for ‘coercion.’ But no. Our responsibility is to be faithful; the results are in the hand of Almighty God.”

David Bosch, in Transforming Mission, says, “The focus in evangelism should, however, not be on the church, but on the irrupting reign of God.” In other words, by focusing on numbers and growth, as would including persuasion or conversion in the definition of evangelism, evangelism becomes man-centered rather than God-centered. At the same time, Bosch adds that “Numerical growth is , therefore, in a sense nothing more than a byproduct when the church is true to its deepest calling. Of greater importance is organic and incarnational growth.” As such, it seems that the church should expect to be persuasive if it is true to its mission.

So, here are the questions:

Does faithfulness to proclaim include persuasiveness?

What does scripture say about the attractiveness of the gospel message? What are the admonitions, the warnings, and the instructions?

If you are not seeing conversion growth in your church, is your church being true to its mission? If the faithful proclaimer and doer of the gospel is not seeing numerical growth, is she being faithful?

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  1. Some Christians, especially those of a post-modern disposition believe there isn’t a place for persuasion in witnessing or evangelism. They believe that rather our example will draw them to Christ. But as in Fly Fishing it sometimes takes a particular fly to catch a certain fish or else we would only need one fly.It is however true that persuasion alone or aggressive evangelism that encourages antagonism from those the evangelist tries to reach is counterproductive. Some Christians may have also been put off by aggressive or pushy evangelists who force themselves onto unsuspecting unbelievers. This is understandable: we don’t want to be pushy when people don’t want to know. But if those we seek to reach are prepared to debate or discuss there is certainly a biblical basis for it.

    I would not recommend it for young Christians to have regular Biblical discussions with members of the sects such as the Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses, but if our Biblical knowledge is strong and we have a good working knowledge of their teaching AND have a strong sense we are being led by the Holy Spirit a Christian should have no fear in examining the scriptures with them in order to persuade them of the Truth.

    As we will see from the following biblical accounts :in the right situation persuasion, reasoning and even using good arguments can be used in evangelism.

    Acts 9:22
    Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ
    29 He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him

    Acts 17:2-4 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

    17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.

    Acts 18:4
    Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

    Acts 19:9
    But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

    Acts 26:28
    Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

    Acts 28:23-24
    They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.

    You could make a list of the words and phrases that refer to forms of persuasion.
    Persuasion evangelism tries to get the person to respond to the message by way of proving , debating, reasoning, explaining, discussing or convincing the hearer that the message is true and must be acted on.

    This type of evangelism as practised today has been criticised because of the dangers of manipulation and pressure tactics to achieve results. One has only to think how we dislike the ‘hard sell’ salesman who tries to sell us something we don’t want to buy or would want more time to consider the purchase, but are not allowed. Compare this with Jesus letting some disciples leave when they could not receive the word or the advice he gave his would be followers to consider the cost before they would follow him.

    Results of pressurised results are often seeds sown without much depth of roots and will often vanish with the morning dew. I have been to see certain Ultra-Charismatic preachers who have almost persuaded me of their message by the end of the meeting, but after a good nights sleep and a calm reflection on the subject I have dismissed their claims. Nevertheless Jesus and Paul often would bring the hearer to a point of decision.

    In 2.Cor.4.2-6 Paul writes:
    ‘Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’

    Paul has renounced underhanded methods .He does not deceive or distort the truth of God’s word but lets people make their own minds up.He also recognises the spiritual barriers and leaves the result to God.

    Persuasion evangelism might be presented through

    1)a Testimony which would describe the change in a person’s lifee.g a converted drug addict who has been given power by God to overcome his addiction. Remember the man who had a legion of demons ? He wanted to follow Christ but was told to tell everyone what God had done for him.

    2) Apologetics :reasoned presentation of the gospel attempting to remove some of the barriers to faith e.g. C.S.Lewis etc.

    3) Warning :Pointing out the dangers of not becoming a Christian and urging them to respond. As Charles Wesley warns:

    Sinners, turn: why will you die?
    God, your Saviour, asks you why.
    God, Who did your souls retrieve,
    Died Himself, that you might live.
    Will you let Him die in vain?
    Crucify your Lord again?
    Why, you ransomed sinners, why,
    Will you slight His grace and die?

    I apologise if this was too long.

  2. Andrew,

    I appreciate the long and thoughtful answer. I also appreciate your use of scripture. I think the Christian witness should try to be intentionally persuasive and I think the three categories your gave are great–testimony, apologetics and warning. Great stuff.

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