Everyone loves getting things for free, but this also comes with a sense of obligation to return the favor. This is reciprocity. It’s a give and take. Some social scientists go so far as to say that civilization is built upon this nearly universal human principle. Whether this is or isn’t the case, there’s no denying that it is an extremely powerful force for most people. Why do you think car dealerships give away drinks an snacks and so many organizations send free return address labels?
The question we should be asking is how can we use this for evangelism and apologetics? Just like in my previous article in this series, which was on liking, we don’t want to use this principle selfishly and manipulatively. Instead, it should flow from our love of Christ and desire to be generous, godly people.
One particular verse that comes to mind on the topic of reciprocity is Romans 13:8, which says “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” This verse recognizes how powerful of an obligation we feel when we owe somebody something. The science shows that most of us will go far beyond what is actually owed in order to repay a debt.
Simply knowing this affords as a tremendous opportunity when witnessing to people. However, I want to encourage you to give freely, without expectation of anything in return. When we expect something in return, and don’t get it, we are prone to get angry. Instead, give generously without expecting anything in return. Save it for when you really need something, but in those instances, don’t get angry when people still say no. There are always legitimate excuses and sometimes selfish people.
But keep in mind that there is a shelf-life on these requests. Doing a single favor for a coworker probably won’t increase the chances they say yes to a request five years later, but if it’s a big enough favor, it might still have an effect five months later. The other thing to remember is not to be legalistic about this. You don’t always have to give all the time. There will be times when you legitimately don’t have the money or the time, so don’t give what you can’t. On the other hand, if you do have the time and money, but just don’t want to, then you should do it and create a habit of being generous.
With that said, there here are several ways to use the principle of reciprocity for evangelism and apologetics.
Gifts & Service
The most straight forward application of this principle is to give someone a gift, but an act of service can be equally effective. It doesn’t necessarily have to be big, desired, or even asked for, although the bigger and more desired it is, the more someone will feel indebted to you. It just has to be something with some perceived value. In other words, as long as it’s not a piece of trash, it will probably do the trick.
Some simple gifts might be to send flowers (although be aware of boundaries if married), buy someone lunch or coffee, give a book (but don’t expect them to read some huge apologetics books), a gift card, some candy, or anything else you can think of that might be appropriate. Gifts could be a great way to engage people when doing evangelism on the street or some kind of event. Give bottles of water, candy, or something that fits the setting so people will come to you and use that as an opportunity to tell them about Jesus.
If you don’t have the money, or just prefer to serve people, that is just as effective. Consider babysitting for couples you know who have young kids, offering rides to the airport (without asking for gas money in return, unless you really need it), shoveling driveways or mowing lawns for your neighbors, cleaning the microwave or lunch area at work, fixing cars if you have that skill, or whatever else you have the ability to do.
Between family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, you should have plenty of opportunities to give gifts or serve people. The hard part is wanting to do it and following through. If you’re being honest, how often do you see people ask for favors online, through e-mail, or in person and we sit back and wait for someone else to volunteer first. Be on the lookout for these opportunities, even if people don’t ask, and be quick to volunteer when they do ask.
Listen & Accept
We live in a society where people just want to be heard. Everyone thinks they have something important to say. Whether they do or not is irrelevant. Listen to people intently, even if they are just complaining about Christians and the Bible. Let them vent if they want to vent, and do so without constantly interrupting them to share your views and correct theirs. Let it go and just listen. If people want an answer, they will ask a question (and sometimes they’ll ask questions even if they don’t really want an answer!). Instead of trying to defend your own beliefs, simply show them that you accept them regardless of what they believe. You can do this through your facial expressions and body language, by affirming them as often as possible (e.g. I can understand why you would feel that way), and by asking non-judgmental follow-up questions.
This may be the most radical idea for apologists to accept, but you don’t always have to engage conversations with the goal of trapping someone between the two or more contradictory views they hold. Listening can be beneficial in several ways that will increase the chances that they genuinely listen to you about Jesus and try to understand what you say instead of just blowing you off and getting defensive.
Genuinely listening to people will increase how much they like you, it will cause the release neurotransmitters in their brain that make them feel good and trust you, and it will give you an opportunity to ask for a favor in return. If you have a conversation with someone about religion and they go on and on the whole time, you can politely ask them to return the favor and give you the chance to share some thoughts. You don’t have to do this, and in fact, I would suggest you do this sparingly with people you know. But for one-time conversations with strangers, then I would suggest you almost always ask for this return favor before you go your separate ways.
Conceding a point relates to what is otherwise referred to as the door-in-the-face technique, where someone makes a huge request, and when the other person says no, they come back with a much smaller and more reasonable request which is usually agreed to. It may not seem like a big deal or a good idea, but conceding a point is a powerful tool of persuasion. When we concede a point, the other person will feel a sense of obligation to make a concession as well. Since we have the evidence on our side, a small concession in the form of being more open to listen or reconsider a point is all we need from them in order for us to be effective.
Unfortunately, conceding a point is the one persuasion tool that apologists are least likely to do for two reasons. The first is because they are often much more knowledgeable about apologetic topics than the people they talk to so they are usually going to be right and have better reasons for their position. The other reason, however, is because they are so much more knowledgeable, they are also less likely to recognize and/or admit when they might be wrong.
Let’s be honest, of the hundreds of potential sub-topics within philosophy, science, theology, and politics, that apologists like to talk about, you are likely wrong on more than just a couple. Even if you are more knowledgeable than someone else on 99 out of 100 topics, you still may be wrong on several topics and they may have legitimate points for consideration even if they are wrong.
Be on the lookout for opportunities to make concessions, even small ones. What I see most common from apologists is that they sometimes overstate their case. They are still correct in their view, but they present their argument as a little more impenetrable than it actually is. Related to this is a tendency to discount other views. Sometimes they will argue against strawman views, but usually this comes through assuming what another person believes. If and when this happy, say “I’m sorry. You are right on this point. I overstated my case/didn’t pay close enough attention to what you originally said.”
For Christians, we should be known for our generosity. Give, and do so cheerfully without expectation of repayment. Build a reputation among the people in your life so they think of you as a giving person. Whether you’ve built a reputation, or have done a single favor for someone, don’t be afraid to cash in that favor in service of Jesus. Some people have a tendency to talk about Jesus with non-Christians so much that it puts them off, while others do it so infrequently that people don’t even know they are Christians. Be careful to avoid both errors. Love, serve, and give to other people out of genuine concern for their well-being, and when opportunities present themselves, ask them as a favor if they would be willing come to church with you, attend a local apologetics event, go to an apologetics class you teach at your church, study a religious topic with you, or simply have a conversation about religion. They may say yes to such requests more than you might suspect, but if they feel like they owe you, they will almost certainly say yes.
We don’t always need to shoot for conversation in every conversation. Instead, all we need to do is get our foot in the door to get the ball rolling for continued conversations. That’s a little teaser for two article from now on commitment and consistency. The next article will be on how we can use the social proof principle to improve our apologetic arguments.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice 5th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson education.