One of our goals at Reasons to Believe is to equip Christians to defend their faith with “gentleness and respect” per 1 Peter 3:15. In our emotionally charged culture, making a persuasive case for something as controversial as Christianity is easier said than done—but it can be done. Such a case rests on sound arguments rather than emotional manipulation, especially in the realm of science apologetics. But how do you gently persuade someone to accept your argument? In my experience as an apologist, I have found at least four essential elements that play a critical role in effective persuasion.
Are you believable? In my opinion, credibility is an apologist’s most valuable resource. Without it, why would anyone listen to you? Misunderstanding of the basic facts relevant to your topic, overstating your case, and making errors in areas not related directly to your main point are all mistakes that can lead to a loss of credibility.
To build credibility, start with a sound argument. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your argument. Being able to anticipate opposing responses will demonstrate your ability to cope with the nuance and sophistication of the issue at hand. Make sure that what you say is true! It is better to admit when you don’t have an adequate response than to fabricate a faulty defense in an effort to save face. You can always commit to deeper study of the issue that stumped you and offer to continue the discussion later.
Can your opponent or audience easily perceive, understand, or interpret your argument? There’s a huge difference between knowing a strong argument and communicating it clearly to others. Once you understand your argument you must work diligently to find the right words, analogies, images and/or stories to help your audience understand it, too. Articulate your point in different ways and contrast it with opposing views. Avoid using jargon or any other language that requires “insider” knowledge.
Do you keep your sights on the main topic? Staying focused on the central issue helps make a strong, clear argument a compelling and persuasive case. It’s all too easy for a conversation to veer away from the central issues—especially if the first two Cs haven’t been met. Without being dismissive or curt toward your opponent, consistently bring the discussion back to the central issues. Resist the temptation to answer every point, engage technical side points, or wax eloquently about rabbit-trail issues.
Are you assured and positive? Often, insecurity will exhibit itself as aggressiveness or defensiveness. Be on guard against these attitudes—but when you do experience them, find the cause of your confidence’s erosion. It is possible to acknowledge when you lack definitive answers or understanding while still trusting that God’s special (the Bible) and general (the creation) revelations will agree and hold true when we interpret them properly. Always evaluate new evidence but choose to believe that the Bible’s message will prove true every time.
One final point: remember that these four guidelines will do more than help you defend the faith—ultimately, they will reflect how much you value the people you engage in discussion. Building the relationship should always take precedence over winning an argument. Finally, keep in mind that there is no magic argument that will persuade every person 100 percent of the time.
If you would like to learn more, check out the DVD RTB Live! vol. 16: 4 C’s of Science Apologetics, where I outline these points and give examples of how they work out in evangelistic discussions.