Persuasive Evangelism in a Pluralistic Culture

Oct 23, 2003 |J.P. Moreland

Christianity works, no doubt, but don’t forget that it’s also true.

"I'm glad Jesus has made you happy. Each of us should find our own private beliefs, and as long as they work and we don't force them on others, that's great." Statements of this sort are repeated so frequently today that they are as familiar, and uttered as mindlessly, as "Got milk?"

I have been doing campus evangelism since 1968. People used to respond to the gospel by saying that I was out of my mind or just plain wrong. Truth mattered to them, and they believed I didn't have it. But today they respond by saying that my claims are offensive. Truth has been replaced by tolerance and pluralistic relativism is the only absolute.

It's hard enough to witness to friends under normal circumstances, but it may seem an overwhelming task in today's politically correct pluralistic environment. I want to give you some illustrations, some parables that are helpful in moving people from pluralistic relativism to an awareness that truth matters in religion as much as in medicine. I will briefly define pluralism followed by three illustrations. But first, I want to offer two words of advice about witnessing in general.

First, remember this rule of thumb: The closer the relationship, the less effective a direct approach is. If you are engaged in contact evangelism in which you simply walk up to a stranger, a direct approach — for example, using the Four Spiritual Laws — is the best approach. In such a case, it is helpful to start a conversation with two questions:

  1. Have you made the discovery of knowing God personally or are you still seeking to find out what you think about this topic?
  2. If you have a few minutes, may I share with you how I came to know God in a personal way?

If you are trying to share with a personal friend or a family member whom you see frequently, the best approach is to live the Christian life in front of him/her and seek opportunities in regular conversations for the gospel or some aspect of Christian teaching to be inserted naturally if it is relevant. In this way, over time, your friend will gain insight about your Christian worldview.

Second, make sure you emphasize the truth of Christianity and not that it works or changes lives. By all means, tell your testimony and insist that Christ has changed your life by bringing forgiveness, inner healing, and so forth. But be sure at some point that you shift the topic to the fact that you are claiming that Christianity is actually true. In a pluralistic culture, this is especially important.

Pluralism is the idea that there are several perspectives about God or reality, each is true for the person who believes it, and no one should judge that a different perspective is wrong. Pluralism underwrites the statement at the beginning of this article. Three illustrations are useful in keeping truth in mind in a witnessing situation.

The Wonmug Illustration is good for those who disregard truth and only care if a religion will help them be happy. In medicine, we all know what a placebo is. It is an innocuous substance that doesn't really do anything to help an illness. But the patient's false belief that it works brings some mental relief. Unfortunately, a placebo works due to the naive, misinformed, false beliefs on the part of the patient. Sadly, the placebo effect is not limited to medicine. Many people have worldview placebos — false, naive, misinformed beliefs that help someone because they are living in a safe fantasy world of their own mental creation and not because of the truth of the beliefs themselves. To see why this is sad, consider the fictitious story of Wonmug.

Wonmug was a hopelessly dumb physics student attending a large Western university. He failed all of his first semester classes, his math skills were around a fifth grade level, and he had no aptitude for science. However, one day all the physics students and professors at his college decided to spoof Wonmug by making him erroneously think he was the best physics student at the university. When he asked a question in class, students and professors alike would marvel out loud at the profundity of the question. Graders gave him perfect scores on all his assignments when in reality he deserved an F.

Eventually, Wonmug graduated and went on for his Ph.D. The professors at his university sent a letter to all the physicists in the world and included them in the spoof. Wonmug received his degree, took a prestigious chair of physics, regularly went to Europe to deliver papers at major science conferences, and was often featured in Time and Newsweek. Wonmug's life was pregnant with feelings of respect, accomplishment, expertise, and happiness. Unfortunately, he still knew absolutely no physics. People hated Wonmug and mocked him behind his back, yet being oblivious to the truth, Wonmug was as happy as could be.

Do you envy Wonmug? Would you wish such a life for your friends? Of course not. But why? Because his sense of well-being was built on a false, misinformed worldview placebo. People who disregard truth and simply care if a religious idea works, are worldview Wonmugs. If they are willing to be Wonmugs, they should be pitied because they don't take their lives seriously.

If truth matters, then the Mother Illustration helps focus the discussion on the fact that all religions can't be true. While sharing Christ in a fraternity at the University of Massachusetts, a student expressed a pluralistic view of religious claims. I asked him and two others in the audience to tell me what my mother was like. Since no one there knew my mother, I got three different answers: She was five feet, five feet four inches, five feet seven inches tall; she had blond, brown, gray hair; and she weighed 100, 110, 120 pounds. I pointed out that all three could not be correct since each claim contradicted the other. For example, my mother could not weigh 100 and 120 pounds at the same time. I also noted that no matter how many people believed that my mother had blond hair or how hard they believed it, it would not matter. My mother's hair color is what it is irrespective of people's beliefs. In this sense, reality is disgustingly indifferent to what we believe!

I concluded by noting that in the same way all claims about God could not be true. Theravada Buddhists deny God's existence, Hindus say there are millions of Gods, Judaism and Islam teaches there is one God but it is a great evil to say He is a Trinity. Christianity insists that there is one God existing in three persons. They can't all be correct any more than competing claims about my mother.

If truth matters (the Wonmug Illustration) and believing something doesn't make it true (the Mother Illustration), then we need to be guided in our search not by what we want but by where the evidence points. In this regard I use the Smorgasbord Illustration. When people eat at a buffet line, they pick and choose food according to their likes and dislikes. Similarly, when people form a view of God by picking from the various religions according to what they like and don't like, they always end up with a view of God that looks exactly like the person who went looking for him! If the person is a liberal secularist, God turns out to be a tolerant Ted Kennedy in the sky. If one is a conservative, He turns out to be a big Rush Limbaugh.

Choosing a picture of God according to what one likes is a sure-fire guarantee that one will create a false projection of God that simply expressed one's own biases. No, one should search for God by weighing the evidence for the truth of alternative religious claims.

It is at this point that one should be prepared to present an apologetic argument based on evidence from creation for a personal God, and from history and fulfilled prophesy that the New Testament is historically reliable and that Jesus actually rose from the dead. My purpose here is not to detail that case, but by using the three illustrations above, the topic of conversation can be turned from a pluralistic point of view to one in which truth matters. In this way, evidence for Christianity will not fall on deaf ears and may, in fact, actually gain a hearing.

I would like to thank CCWSF for support in writing this article.

Copyright 2003 J. P. Moreland. All rights reserved.  

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