If Brexit has taught us anything, I suspect it is two things. First, we are all prone to listening to ‘facts’ that happen to support our position and interpreting all through the prism of whatever we’ve decided to believe. Second, we are not very good at listening to each other without throwing pejoratives or insinuations about the intelligence of those with whom we disagree. We all seem to think that all right-thinking people would just agree with me.
Just yesterday, I got into a discussion on facebook with somebody. I made a comment and posted to a link on my blog. I have no problem with people disagreeing, it happens all the time. But the first comment back – the very first comment – within a paragraph or two descended into insinuations that those who want to leave the EU are being manipulated and are too stupid to know it. Brexiteers, they averred, are simply too thick to realise what remainers see clearly. It is the kind of patronising and condescending comment that does nothing to advance a case, nor win people to your view, it simply raises hackles and irritates. I have seen precisely the same type of comment (albeit using slightly different insinuations) from leavers towards remainers too, so it’s not all one way traffic by any means.
But this post isn’t about Brexit. This post is about evangelism. I sometimes fear our evangelism mirrors something close to the discussions we’ve been having on Brexit.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve been patronised and condescended to by remainers telling me I’m unintelligent (possibly true), uninformed (apparently my History & Politics degree doesn’t count) or too credulous to recognise that I’m being played by those using me as a pawn in their nefarious political games (something remainers can see clearly but I, a simple dupe, apparently can’t). The comment thereafter becomes entirely condescending and patronising. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t credible reasons to vote remain by any means, I am just suggesting that – if you believe them – then you should make the case rather than implying things about the intelligence, knowledge and wherewithal of others.
But I fear our evangelism often goes down this same road. We sometimes treat people like credulous fools. We claim, ‘nobody has even heard the name Jesus’ when, in reality, that’s just not true. If I say the name Jesus to people in Oldham, nobody looks at me like I’ve got two heads and says, ‘who’s that then?’ They know (broadly) who he is. They might not know accurately, but there’s usually something there, albeit a bit ropey. For all our talk of ‘virgin territory’ in the UK, more often than not, we’re not really speaking to people who don’t know anything. We’re usually talking to people who are functioning on rumour and hearsay. We are simply patronising and condescending if we start explaining Jesus to people as though they’ve never even heard his name.
But we can do it with all sorts of things. Whilst I think there is a rightness to not assuming knowledge, that is not the same as speaking to people as though they are knowledgeable. We may believe people have entirely misunderstood the gospel message – if they have even heard it at all – but that is not the same as treating people like dupes who simply don’t have the agency to form credible views about the world. If we sneer and snort when people tell us their views about the way things are, do we really think we’ll win anyone to Christ by making it clear we think they’re stupid?
None of that is to say we shouldn’t push back on things we thing are wrong. If people say things that are entirely inaccurate, it’s obviously not wrong to offer the facts and an alternative interpretation. I’ve never bought the false dichotomy between winning the person or winning the argument. Nobody was ever won on the facts of the matter by somebody who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cogently argue that facts. We have to ‘win the argument’ in order to win the person because if we lose the argument – that is, what we’re saying is shown to be wrong – who is then going to turn round and say, ‘despite you being evidently wrong, I think I believe what you’re saying!’
Nevertheless, there is a difference between continuing to make your case regarding facts and evidence and making ad hominem remarks and unkind insinuations. Nobody will listen to us if we can’t cogently present an argument that makes sense, but neither will they listen if we insinuate that they are stupid and haven’t really thought things through. We don’t win people to our point of view on Brexit by calling them too thick to see what is plainly in front of them; and we don’t win people to Christ by calling them too stupid to see what we see either.
It doesn’t pay to patronise people. It is better to listen. And as we listen, it isn’t much good offering condescension or insinuation about their intelligence. Instead, we need to present a better, more cogent explanation of the facts than the one they’ve got. Not along with our commentary on the stupidity of their views (which may or may not be stupid), but with a simple comparison of whose presentation makes better sense of the facts before us. We have to assume that people are rational, thinking beings who have drawn conclusions for reasons that – to them at least – make sense. Not patronising them as idiots who don’t know any better, but offering an alternative worldview as equals who are both grasping for the truth, looking at the facts together and assuming other people are as capable of interpreting facts as we are.
Whilst our Brexit conversation would probably be helped by this, our evangelism certainly will be. Let’s be honest, even if people are idiots (and let’s not forget we’re all idiots), few are won by being made to feel like one. Certainly nobody was ever won to Christ because somebody smugly insinuated they were much more perceptive, insightful and intelligent.