My paternal grandfather was a fine poker player (as well as a fine chess player), while his wife was a fine bridge player. Poker is a classic psychological game. That’s the chief appeal of poker. In poker you play to the man.
Bridge, by contrast, is a numbers game. You play by the book. The objective is to rake in enough “tricks” to win.
Sometimes my grandfather would play bridge with my grandmother. And my grandmother would complain that he was playing bridge like poker—playing to the man.
Now, this contrast comes up in countercult ministry as well. Should we play to the man, or play by the book?
In other words, should we play by our book (the Bible) and their book—whether their interpretation of the Bible, or some rival revelation (e.g., the Koran, Book of Mormon)?
Should we approach them by comparing our rule of faith (the Bible) with their rule of faith? Should we approach them by asking if they are consistent with their own rule of faith?
Of ought we, instead, play to the man? John Morehead, for one, thinks that countercult ministries waste way too much time playing bridge when they ought to play poker. He says, for example:
The cross-cultural missionary overseas attempts to put themselves “in the shoes” of the person of the other culture and to communicate in ways that are understood from their cultural perspective, rather than a perspective more familiar to the missionary.
Western missionaries ministering overseas recognize the importance of interpersonal communication in a cross-cultural context…Overseas missionaries are careful to focus on being effective, loving communicators of an “other-centered” presentation of the gospel as Christ’s ambassadors, and not to focus on being confrontational or personally offensive.
A comparison of a cross-cultural missions approach overseas with evangelism on the “home” mission field of America is instructive, particularly when we see how different the approaches can be. In an evangelistic encounter with “cults” evangelicals are eager to defend the truth of Scripture that they feel are being distorted, and as a result, these exchanges with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses (and others) often become heated debates over the proper interpretation of biblical texts. While sound doctrine is an important consideration, if the conversation becomes focused on debates over biblical interpretation and doctrine the result is that little effective communication of the gospel takes place. It seems that in missions contexts overseas missionaries focus on the effective cross-cultural communication of the gospel message, but in the American context, with our perceptions of a Christian America, we tend to engage in confrontational approaches that emphasize doctrinal orthodoxy.
View “cults” (or new religions) as religious or spiritual cultures (people groups). People groups can be classified in a variety of ways, but they tend to be identified by a core of common characteristics that bind them together and sets them apart from others.
Remember the importance of authentic relationships. The history of missions teaches us that the most effective evangelism takes place within the context of relationships.
"Can You Hear Me Now? Insights from Communications and Missions for New
Religions", by John W. Morehead
This calls for a number of comments:
1.Unless I’m mistaken, the last great phase of missionary expansion was the 19C. Now, how does the methodology of 19C mission compare with the methodology of Morehead? What were the methods of Taylor and Cary and Duff? Were they recontextualizing the gospel? And, if so, how? And what is the relative success rate between the two models of missiology? Given his fondness for the social sciences, he has presumably done a statistical analysis on this subject. Or has he?
To take another example—Presbyterian missionaries have made deep inroads into S. Korea. Yet the Presbyterian tradition is very bookish.
2.Again, is it a matter of historical fact that “the most effective evangelism takes place within the context of relationships”?
Is personal evangelism more effective than mass evangelism? On the face of it, it is hard to see how that can be true, for personal evangelism is a one-on-one affair, whereas mass evangelism is a one-to-many affair. How do you catch more fish—with a fishing-pole or a drag-net?
Has personal evangelism won more converts to the faith than Calvin or Knox or Whitefield or Wesley or Rowlands or Edwards or Spurgeon or Moody or Graham?
Again, with Morehead’s fondness for sociology, we would like to see the stats on that.
3.In the case of homegrown cults like Mormonism and the Watchtower, we are dealing with “spiritual cultures” which share the same indigenous culture as the rest of us. Take Mormonism. The early critics of Mormon theology did not approach this cult as social outsiders. They were exposed to all the same influences. They shared the same pair of shoes.
Indeed, traditional critics of Mormonism have always devoted a good deal of time to documenting Joseph Smith’s literary and intellectual debts to his social surroundings, e.g., the KJV, Alexander Campbell, Free Masonry, Victorian occultism, &c.
So this is not merely a case of judging Mormonism by an external standard (e.g., the Bible), but understanding it from within, beginning with contemporaries of Joseph Smith.
There is a sense in which most Mormons constitute an ethnic subculture, due to intense inbreeding. That social bond makes them very hard to penetrate. But this is just as much an impediment to Morehead’s approach as it is to the traditional approach.
The problem with comparing my feelings with your feelings, my experience with yours, is that this, of itself, offers to criterion to distinguish between the superiority of my feelings over against yours, or your experience over against mine.
In addition, one duty of an apologist is to redirect the conversation. For a major reason that an unbeliever is an unbeliever in the first place is because he is asking the wrong questions, and judging the right answers by the wrong standards.
The same could be said for those Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at our door. They didn’t touch down from outer space. Most of them are fellow Americans by birth and breeding. They live where we live, go where we go, see, hear, and do what we see, hear, and do.
They are also very Bible-centered in their Scripture-twisting way, and they exemplify the “heresy-rationalist” model of apologetics in their own work.
To take a very different example, the new age movement has imported some foreign elements into its witch’s brew. For example the Beatles did a lot to popularize an ersatz version of Hinduism in the West.
But, by that same token, this is something we’ve all been exposed to through the mass media. It’s part of the pop cultural landscape. Hence, the insider/outsider dichotomy is overdrawn. You don’t have to be an initiate to have some understanding of what makes it tick.
And a countercult ministry which does cultivate a more specialized understanding of the new age movement is coming at it from the same direction as a convert to new age thinking. An unsympathetic student is no more or less of an outsider than a sympathetic student.
4.Appropos (3), we need to distinguish between the surface structure and the deep structure of the cultic mindset. Dr. Johnson once said that nature and passion never change. To put a more Christian cast on his maxim, sin and fallen nature never change.
Beneath the infinite variation of error, everyone has the same emotional makeup, the same fears and needs and longings. A cultic creed is just an outer defense mechanism. And even the variations of error are just that—variations on a few basic themes.
Breach the defensive perimeter and you can reach the real person. What you find may be ugly. If you reach in your hand, you may get bitten as often as you draw the unbeliever out into the light. That’s what happens when the unbeliever is vulnerable. But as long as you leave the defensive perimeter intact, the unbeliever is out of reach.
Bridge paves the way for poker. By and large, you must play bridge before you’re in any position to play poker.
5.I’m all for personal evangelism, but it has several limitations:
i) It is labor-intensive. You can only reach a few people at a time, over many years.
ii) There is a tension built into personal evangelism, for if you befriend an unbeliever in order to win a lost soul, you must be prepared, at some point, to risk the friendship by confronting him with the gospel.
iii) You have to deal with a cult on more than one level, and even on its own level, it may present more than one facet. What is a countercult ministry to do when, say, a Nibley or Millet or Robinson writes a book promoting Mormonism?
A book is not a person. You cannot address yourself to a book the way you address a person across the table. Yet you do need to rebut the book.
6.A controlled confrontation can be very useful. A limitation, both with books and friendship evangelism is that an unbeliever can always wiggle out without loss of face.
But in a public debate, whether in front of a live audience, or on TV, or over the Internet, the unbeliever is under pressure to respond. So you can corner him in a way you cannot do by swapping books and speaking in private.
And onlookers also benefit from this exchange. They can tell which side is being evasive or emotional.
7. The “social sciences” are obsessed with uncovering the source or root-cause of a problem, under the assumption that once you know the cause, you know the solution. You can see this all the time in the way they deal with crime. Why did the serial killer murder all those women? Why did the teenager murder his mom and dad?
The system failed him! His parents failed him!
This has turned into a cottage industry, with expert witnesses and psychiatric counseling and the whole culture of victimology.
But the fact is that, in many cases, there is no connection between the cause and the cure—assuming there is a cure. Even if the source of the problem goes back in time to childhood trauma, the criminal cannot go back in time to his childhood. That is unrepeatable. That is irreversible.
Much of the time, we don’t need to understand why people do what they do. Understanding them doesn’t cure them.
8.Morehead’s sidekick, Philip Johnson, has recommended Jn 4 as a model of how to do evangelism.
Very well, then. Let’s briefly look at this example.
i) Does Jesus play poker or bridge with the woman at the well? He does both. For starters, he brings up he sex life. That’s poker.
Now, this opening gambit is certainly very relational and “other-centered.” He is beginning with where she lives, as the saying goes.
I wonder how often Johnson or Morehead has asked about the sex life of the cult-member he was witnessing to. Seems to me that this could be construed as rather confrontational or personally offensive.
Then they jump into a debate over the very divisive and controversial issue of which side was right in the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. Notice the emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. This would be a classic example of the “heresy-rationalist” model in Johnson’s classification scheme. Or bridge, as I put it.
To say that bad blood existed between the two groups on this particular issue would be an understatement. The Jews regarded the Samaritans as a treasonous bunch of racial and theological half-breeds. So the issue, while theological, was also intensely and bitterly personal.
Yet that doesn’t prevent Jesus from telling the woman that “You worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews…Those that worship the Father do so in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:22,24).
Can’t get much more confrontational than that! If Jesus had gone out of his way to be offensive, he could scarcely have said anything more off-putting. And yet his mission to the Samaritans was highly successful (39-42).