remember when my parents took my brother and sister and me to an outdoor play. Before the program began the emcee invited all the kids up to the dirt stage area. He held up a large, heavy gunnysack and said that he had a surprise for us. Every kid in the audience scrambled from their seats and down the aisles.
The emcee dropped the sack onto the dirt and scratched a large circle around it with a stick. Then he ordered us to take off our shoes and line the perimeter of the circle. “Guess what’s in the sack!” he called.
“Candy!” yelled one kid.
“Nope. Try again.”
“Nope.” He let us feel the bag.
“Eeeew, it’s mushy!” screamed the girls.
“Gross!” yelled the boys.
“Mud!” yelled someone.
The emcee reached down and grasped the bottom of the sack and slowly began to tip it up as expectation mounted. Whatever was inside slid toward the opening of the sack. Suddenly with a flourish he snatched the sack away, exposing a heap of the largest bullfrogs I had ever seen.
The kids whooped in delight as the emcee yelled, “Everyone, grab a frog!”
Mine easily covered the surface of both hands. Its spindly legs hung down at least six inches. As I stood admiring my frog and comparing it to others for size, the emcee stepped out of the first circle and with his stick drew a larger circle around the first circle.
“Listen up, everyone,” he called. “We’re going to have a frog race. Your frog must start at the inside circle and hop to the outside circle. The first frog to arrive at the outside circle wins! You must encourage your frog to hop as fast as possible. You may do anything except touch your frog until the race is finished.”
We set up with our toes on the line of the inner circle facing out, positioned our frogs between our feet, and held them in place. “On your mark. Get set. Go!” yelled the emcee.
I released my frog. Everyone else’s frog leapt forward as if the winning prize was freedom. My frog obviously knew no such prize had been promised. He didn’t move. I tried coaxing him. I tried blowing on his head. I tried yelling at him. I threatened him. I began to dance around him screaming, “Get going!”
Finally, in desperation, I jumped high into the air, supposing that a minor earthquake might awaken my frog from his apathy. I intended to land one foot on each side of the frog. Instead, I landed one foot directly on top of him. For understandable reasons my frog never did move.
All About Persuasion
Life is built around relationships, which, in the modern world, have come to be based largely on trying to persuade someone else to do something for us. Just as I tried to get my frog to win the race, bosses try to convince subordinates to work harder, husbands try to get wives to do all the domestic chores, wives try to induce husbands into wearing particular clothes, politicians try to convince people to vote for them, salespersons entice clients to buy their product.
In this game of persuasion we approach people in ways designed to increase our chances of getting what we want. We persuade people by finding and presenting what’s “in it” for them. We appeal to their need, even though it is our own need we really want to satisfy. The most effective persuaders are those who can identify someone’s deepest need and link what they offer to that need. Good bosses offer more money for increased effort. Good husbands and wives give something in return for something important to them. Politicians say what people want to hear, sometimes at the expense of the whole truth. Shady salespersons resort to tricks, gimmicks, and even lies to sell, and they are often effective persuaders.
Persuasion sounds manipulative and wrong when we use dishonest politicians and shady salespeople as examples. But persuasion, as such, is a respectable concept that has been corrupted toward evil purposes. Jesus used persuasion to identify a person’s deepest need and linking what He offered to that need. The woman at the well, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Matthew, Peter, Mary, the rich young ruler, and many others all felt their hearts tugged by Jesus, because He understood their deepest needs.
Method and Message
Christians, on the other hand, while agreeing that Jesus was right, often do not operate according to His way. We approach someone with a not-so-subtle hint—such as handing them a controversial book—expecting one of two reactions: a door slammed in our face (persecution for the sake of Christ) or immediate acceptance of all biblical truth (slap one more star on my crown). We speak highly of Christ’s method of reaching people, yet we still endeavor to move the spiritually immobile, as I did my frog, by stomping squarely on their hearts and minds. Had I been wiser, following Jesus’ example, I would have enticed my frog with a tasty bug instead of demands and scare tactics.
What is so difficult about Christ’s method that we push it aside in favor of our own? The difficulty is this: Christ’s method of reaching people requires a fundamental shift on the question of whose needs we are trying to meet. Too often we pretend to be meeting another person’s needs in a misguided effort to meet our own. We want our church to grow. We want to notch our baptismal belt. We want to tell our “witnessing” experience at church. We want a star in our crown. We want to guarantee our own salvation, and so on.
Christ’s method, on the other hand, cares for the other person’s freedom to choose and the other person’s salvation, in that order. When Christ met people, He understood that His first efforts must be directed at gaining their confidence—which took a great deal of time in some cases. Then and only then did He bid them, “Follow Me.”
Christ’s method is difficult because being unselfish is difficult. Gaining someone’s confidence can require an enormous amount of time, and many of us aren’t willing to make that investment. As Russell Burrill says, “I’ll pay, I’ll pray, but you go.”
“Buy someone’s salvation? Count me in! Pray for someone’s salvation? No problem. Pass out literature? I can do that!” But one thing we hold in reserve for ourselves: our time. After all, we are already swamped maintaining relationships for work, hobbies, and friends; we simply don’t have the time or the energy to invest in building relationships for the sake of spirituality.
The lesson I learned from my frog is this: if, as a messenger for Christ, I consider it unnecessary or too difficult to build someone’s confidence in me as a messenger (by meeting real needs with pure motives), then at best no one will listen, and at worst I may crush any chance of someone ever moving toward Christ.
Beware, however, of the opposite extreme—where we gratefully excuse ourselves from delivering our message to Joe at the hardware store just in case his confidence in us as a messenger isn’t strong enough yet. There comes a time when the message must be delivered.
But the message and confidence in the messenger are inseparably linked.
Jeff Scoggins is currently pasturing in East Central Minnesota, U.S.A.