As you examine your life, can you think of any lessons you wish you had learned earlier than you did?
I’m really glad I learned this lesson very early in my career as a Christian communicator. It’s made a world of difference.
God has graciously sent me presenting Christ and biblical truth on six continents before university students and professors, on mainstream TV and radio talk shows, with executives, diplomats and professional athletes.
He’s put me speaking in university classrooms and auditoriums, in embassies, boardrooms, and locker rooms. He’s had me writing for mainstream newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet about controversial subjects like sex, abortion, the afterlife, and reasons for faith.
As you might imagine, I’ve encountered many skeptics and objections to faith. I’ve learned much from my critics, the unpaid guardians of my soul.
But if I hadn’t learned this crucial lesson at the outset, would all those outreach doors have opened?
I learned it on an island in a river in Seoul, Korea. Over a million believers were gathered for Explo 74. One speaker that day was a prominent church leader from India who discussed how to best communicate the message of Jesus to the types of Buddhists in India. Here’s my paraphrase of his advice.
We could use two methods, he said. One was to begin by stressing the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. But that often gets people mad and turns them off.
A second way involved agreeing with the Buddhist where we could. We could say something like this: “I know that you as a Buddhist believe in Four Noble Truths.” (This is foundational to many strains of Buddhism.) “First you believe suffering is universal. As a follower of Jesus, I also believe suffering is everywhere. It needs a solution.
Second, you believe that suffering is caused by evil desire or craving. I believe something very similar; I call this evil desire sin.”
Third, you believe that the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate craving. I feel selfishness needs to be eliminated, too. And fourth, you feel we eliminate craving by following the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right aspiration, right behavior, etc.
Here’s where I would suggest an alternative. For many years I, too, tried to eliminate my selfishness by seeking to think and do the right thing. But you know what happened? I became very frustrated because I lacked the power to do it. I realized that if I relied on God, He could give me the inner power I needed.”
Do you see the contrast between those two methods of approaching someone who differs with you? The first emphasizes differences and has the emotional effect of holding up your hands as if to say “Stop!” or “Go away!” The second begins by agreeing where you can. Your emotional hands are extended as if to welcome your listeners. If you were the listener, which approach would you prefer?
Start by Agreeing where You Can
In communicating with skeptics, start by agreeing where you can. You’ll get many more to listen.
I call this approach Advocacy Apologetics. You’re approaching the person as an advocate rather than an adversary. You believe in some of the same things they do. Expressing agreement can penetrate emotional barriers and communicate that you are for that person rather than against them. It can make them more willing to consider areas of disagreement.
Don’t compromise biblical truth; but agree at the start where you can.
Paul used this approach. He wrote (1 Corinthians. 9:19-23 NLT, emphasis mine):
I have become a servant of everyone so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can.
Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all this to spread the Good News.
Here’s an experiment: The next time you encounter someone who differs with you, take a deep breath. Pray. Ask God to help you identify three areas of agreement. Can’t find three? How about one? Discuss that first. Become an advocate for them. Maybe you’ll oil some stuck emotional and intellectual gears and nudge someone in His direction.