I’ve heard the above statement quoted by several apologists and it was even the inspiration for a book, The Fifth Gospel, by The One Minute Apologist, Bobby Conway. On the one hand, apologists are right to recognize that the behavior of Christians is not a logically valid objection to Christianity, but on the other hand, the quote accurately reflects reality. Whether we like it or not, people will associate us with Christianity and evaluate Christ’s claims based on us. While the Holy Spirit plays a role, God has also given us the task of telling people the gospel. How successful we are will often depend on how much people like us, so be conscious of how your words and actions affect the way people perceive you.
Rather than just trying to get people to like us so they might convert, Christians should strive to be genuinely likable people that lovingly represent Christ to the rest of creation. Some of the ways to do this are just good common sense, others are less obvious, and some might be quite challenging, but nonetheless, they are practices that are scientifically supported to increase influence. Even if you’re already doing these things, I want to challenge you to be aware of all these factors when you are engaging in apologetics. Additionally, I have tailored factors to contemporary evangelism and apologetics, but they will also work in other areas of life such as leadership, parenting, sales, and more.
Contact & Cooperation
People are more comfortable with things (or people) that they are more familiar with. Generally speaking, the more time you spend with a person or interact with them, the more comfortable they will be with you and the more they will like you. However, there is an important caveat to this. If you are constantly having negative interactions with someone, then spending more time with someone probably won’t help a whole lot.
To practically apply this, start spending more time with the people you want to influence and make sure your positive interactions far outweigh your negative interactions. Don’t constantly disagree with them correct what they say, even if they make self-defeating statements like “truth is relative.” Learn to let it go and pick and choose your battles. Spend time going out to lunch with co-workers, invite your neighbors over for dinner, grab drinks with your friends, or whatever you can do to spend more time with people. You apply this principle online. Again, instead of arguing with everything someone says, like their posts, comment positively, defend them against others, post on their walls, etc.
This all takes time and effort, but if you’re not willing to do it, I would go so far as to say, don’t waste your time disagreeing with people or trying to engage them with apologetic arguments.
Compliments & Affirmation
Take the time to listen to Ravi Zacharias do a Q&A after one of his talks and pay attention to how he answers rather that what he says. He does a fantastic job of affirming and complimenting the questioner. He says things like “that’s a great question” or lightens the mood with an affirming joke about how the question is too difficult. When he does this, he makes the questioner feel good by letting them know that he respects them.
Compliments don’t have to come merely as a result of someone questions though. When a friend updates their profile picture, a co-workers gets a new haircut, or whatever else you notice, offer genuine compliments. Obviously, don’t lie just to say nice things, but instead, look for real opportunities to say nice things to people and about people.
People tend to like people who are like them. This is the main area where individualization plays a role in persuasion. So try to be like Paul and be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22). You don’t need to change who you are when you are with different people, but at the same time, you don’t always need to present your whole self.
Let me give you an example, and since the Superbowl was last night, I’ll use football so I can come up with a clever clickbait tweet to reel people in! Anyway, let’s say you meet a new person at work and he starts telling you how much he loves football, but you hate football, you don’t necessarily have to tell him (at least right now). Instead, find out what other things he likes and see if you have any meaningful similarities. Maybe he’s also an avid hockey fan and so are you.
For this principle to work, any similarities are helpful, but important and meaningful similarities will have a greater impact. Ideally, you want them to think of you as part of their in-group, which means being similar in whatever is most important to them (which is tough if they strongly identify as an atheist!), but take what you can get. Ask questions to get to know people and let them know when you’ve had shared experiences or beliefs.
This is almost a taboo subject in our PC society, but just because people don’t want to talk about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact their decisions. In a nutshell, people have more favorable views about physically attractive people. This relates to what psychologists call the halo effect, which is when a person is good at one thing so we assume they are good at other things as well. In simple terms, the more attractive you are, the more influence you will have with people.
Psychologists actually study what makes people attractive. While there will always be some individualized preferences and people who vary drastically from the mean, there are some basic constants for what people consider attractive. Some things such as height, facial features, symmetry are beyond our control and not something to worry about. However, we can control our hairstyle, eating habits, workout regiment, how much we smile, and the clothes we wear. If you don’t know how to adjust any of these appropriately, ask for help.
This category is likely the hardest to take advantage of for most Americans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Not only will getting in better shape help you be more persuasive, but you will reap all the health benefits as well.
Many of these things apologists already do, but they don’t always think about how it might effective their evangelism. Every apologist I’ve ever met, from those who do it for a living to those who do it as a hobby, are kind and likable people. However, as soon as a conversation turns towards an apologetics related topic, and I’ve seen it over and over again, many of them get so hyper-focused on the content and serious that they forget they are talking to a person, not a machine. When this happens, the conversations usually turn ugly. We should be equally, if not more concerned about persuasion than we are about content.
If you’ve ever heard the term social capital, that’s essentially what this principle is. Start thinking of your apologetics engagements in terms of how much social capital you have with a person. If you have a lot, you can push the conversation more or bring up Jesus more often, but if you haven’t earned much social capital with a person, hold your tongue and wait for good opportunities (like when the person specifically asks you questions or the conversation comes up naturally).
This is the first article of a series on persuasive apologetics, using the book Influence: Science and Practice as an outline. The next article will be on how to use the principle of reciprocity when doing apologetics. For an overview of the series, click here.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice 5th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson education.