I am not at all sure exactly when or why the topic of persuasion began to preoccupy my thoughts. I am sure that there must be a number of influences in my past that, cumulatively though somewhat subconsciously, were catalysts in my own thinking.
The one event that I do remember was an illustration that Os Guinness gave in a lecture that I attended many years ago. He illustrated the difference between “just telling the truth” in our communication of the gospel, on the one hand, and persuasion, on the other. A concern for “just telling the truth,” Guinness said, produced what he called “The Burp Effect.” “The Burp Effect” is demonstrated when we are content simply to “burp” the gospel on someone. The result is that, like a burp, we might feel much better, but our audience is inevitably offended!
The point of the illustration highlights the “how” of gospel communication. There is a way to communicate the truth of the gospel that is automatically offensive, and there are ways of communicating the truth that lessen the risk of offense. Persuasion is concerned to try to lessen the offense by looking for a connection between what we want to say and those to whom we wish to speak. Persuasion considers, not only the one communicating, but the one(s) to whom communication is given. Or, we could say, persuasion takes seriously the notion that communication is meant to be communication. It is double-sided, not one-sided. It requires a connection between (at least) two sides.
Two implications of this notion of “connection” in persuasion are important to remember.
The first implication is this: Just because persuasion is interested in “how” we communicate, does not mean that it is only interested in technique. Persuasion is not pragmatism. It is not primarily concerned with “outcomes” or “consequences.” Persuasion is not a discipline that takes mere truth-telling, applies make-up and perfume, and sets it loose to attract the otherwise disinterested. On the contrary, persuasion is at the heart of the gospel itself. In that sense, it is, first and foremost, deeply theological.
Consider that God himself is the ultimate and primary Persuader. When God decided to create, he determined to condescend to his creation. The term “condescension,” which means “to come down,” we should recognize, is a metaphor. It does not mean that God began to occupy a space that he otherwise would not occupy. Given God’s infinity, there can be no place that God does not occupy; he is “in” every place, because he is God. Instead, his condescension is his determination to relate to us in a particular way, a way that is, at root, persuasive.