Soren Kierkegaard is without a doubt my favorite philosopher, primarily for his philosophy, but also for his humor.  For instance, here are a few of his funniest (and yet, still profound) quotes.

  • “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”
  • “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
  • “The question is not ‘To be or not to be’; it is what we should be until we are not.”
  • “It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand.”
  • “Take a chance and you may lose. Take not a chance and you have lost already.”
  • What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them, they sound like beautiful music.”
  • “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Now, all of these quotes are made for walking, but none of them will walk all over you like this quote from Kierkegaard: 

“In all eternity it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief.  But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice.”

Let me just say it, if Kierkegaard is right in this quote, then our traditional approach to evangelism is terribly misguided. Our whole goal in evangelism (traditionally speaking) is to get the other person to accept our opinions, to agree with our convictions and to believe, heart and soul, our beliefs.  But Kierkegaard says, that is impossible! All we can do is, hopefully, compel them to take notice, to make them think. But that also seems difficult because most people are very comfortable in their own beliefs, convictions and opinions and don’t want to entertain ideas they have already dismissed as unsubstantial and inferior (this explains why we don’t have any desire to listen to our local Jehovah Witness missionaries when they come knocking. We have judged their beliefs as unsubstantial and inferior, so why bother listening?). But this moves the question from what do we say to how do we compel people to take notice of Christianity?

Nick Pollard, in his book, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult (Inter Varsity Press, 1997), suggests we try a different approach. He wonders if maybe evangelism should be less of us sharing our faith with them and more of them sharing their faith with us. You read that right. Pollard suggests that we ought to talk less and, instead, invest ourselves in asking our friends what they believe, why they believe it and what difference their beliefs make in their lives. In short, we need to ask them to share their faith with us! Now, don’t panic. There is a reason for this “reverse evangelism.” It’s called positive deconstruction. Pollard explains: 

“The process is deconstruction because I am helping people deconstruct (that is, take apart) what they believe in order to look carefully at the belief and analyze it. The process is positive because the deconstructing is done in a positive way–in order to replace the false belief with something better.”

I am going to differ slightly with Pollard here. Throughout the book, Pollard makes it sound like the process of deconstruction is us helping them take their beliefs apart, but I would argue that our role is simply to ask questions. They do their own deconstructing. We don’t analyze their beliefs in order to critique it in front of them. We ask our questions, make a few observations and add a few remarks; and then, we leave them alone to process things. And Pollard sees this process as positive because it leads to a good conclusion (replacing a false belief with something better). But I would say this approach is positive because it is two friends having a good conversation. It is positive because it is undertaken with graciousness, humility, kindness and compassion.  Negative deconstruction would involve heavy-handed manipulation and forcing people to sign on the dotted line. Positive deconstruction requires a light and gentle touch. 

But the main reason this approach is positive is because it doesn’t involve us critiquing their beliefs or arguing with them about whose view is correct. Instead, we act like a friendly guide while our friends embark on a journey of self-discovery. Someone once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” (Ben Franklin? Xun Kuang?). This is the goal. We listen. We ask our questions. We share a few quick thoughts. We listen some more. We pray, and we give our friends the space to see that their own beliefs don’t hold water. Again, our job is to make a few astute, brief observations and then back away so that our friends can, when they are ready, connect all the dots. 

Now, we have to be careful here. This is no game. We are challenging people to rethink their core beliefs and that can be upsetting. Therefore, it is important that we follow these “Thou shalt not” rules:

Rule #1: Thou shalt not judge or accuse the other person.
Rule #2: Thou shalt not be arrogant (“I know the truth and you don’t. I am wise while you are foolish.”).
Rule #3: Thou shalt not patronize (“I am here to save you!”).
Rule #4: Thou shalt not treat anyone like they are a project (“I am here to save your soul.”).
Rule #5: Thou shalt not manipulate, cajole or back anyone into a corner.
Rule #6: Thou shalt not rush things or force things.
Rule #7: Thou shalt not invalidate the experience of your friend (You’re wrong! I’m right!  You’re an idiot!”)

And it is equally important that we follow these “Thou shalt” rules:

Rule #1: Thou shalt invite your friends to discover the truth for themselves.
Rule #2: Thou shalt always treat the other person with respect and honor.
Rule #3: Thou shalt remember that people, no matter what they say, have deep spiritual interests.
Rule #4: Thou shalt appeal to commonly shared authorities (especially to prophets in music and movies).
Rule #5: Thou shalt help people get in touch with their spiritual longings.
Rule #6: Thou shalt win your emotional and experiential points first, before you bring in Jesus and the Bible.
Rule #7: Thou shalt always cite your sources.

Rule 7 above and rules 3-6 here all come from Rick Richardson’s book, Evangelism Outside the Box.

So, what do we do? We ask them what they believe and then we listen.  And if they say something that doesn’t sound quite right, we ask them a question about it. Our goal here is to allow them to hear what they are saying and to rethink their beliefs. Perhaps more nefariously put, our desire is to plant a seed of doubt in their minds. For instance, we might ask. . . . 

  • That’s interesting; how does that make you feel?
  • Does that give you what you are looking for?
  • What difference does that make in your life?
  • How does this give your life meaning? 
  • Does that give you any peace (hope, love, joy)?
  • I’m not sure that would work for me. Does that work for you? 
  • Why do you feel that so important to you?
  • I can see a lot of truth in that, but have you thought about . . . 
  • If I believed that, I think this aspect might really bug me. Does it bug you?
  • Really? I mean that’s fine, it’s just interesting. . . .
  • There’s just one thing there I don’t understand. Can you explain that one more time. 

Our goal is to ask the right questions and let them answer it. Hopefully, as they are articulating their beliefs, that seed of doubt may start to grow.  And if you don’t like any of those questions, when you hear your friend say something that sounds off, you can always jump in and tell how your faith impacts your life at that point (“That’s what I like about being a Christ follower – it’s the hope. I don’t hear a lot of hope here but if Jesus died and rose again, then I believe we can have hope regardless of the situation because we have a God who raises the dead and you can’t be in a more hopeless situation than that!”). But no matter how we spin our approach, once we ask them to share their beliefs with us, we must be prepared. Most people when asked about their faith, will respond in like fashion and ask you about your beliefs. In short, positive deconstruction is a great thing! It opens all sorts of doors!

Pollard summarizes the goal of this whole approach:

My goal is to help them have an ‘aha’ experience, where they discover for themselves the inadequacies of their beliefs–so that they then want to hear about Jesus.”

That’s positive deconstruction. Use it frequently and freely. From now on, evangelism isn’t so much us sharing our faith, but asking them to share theirs and then asking great questions. It’s a whole new world! Except, it’s not. This was Kierkegaard’s approach a century ago!  The Great Dane wrote: 

“One must not let oneself be deceived by the word deception. One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake and one can deceive a person into the truth. What does it mean to deceive?  It means that one does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man’s illusion as good money. So, one does not begin thus: I am a Christian and you are not a Christian. No one begins, ‘Let’s talk about what you believe.”

That’s right, years ago, Kierkegaard suggested we practice positive deconstruction, but we totally missed the boat because we didn’t understand him properly. But that was not all that uncommon. After all, Kierkegaard did say: 

“People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.”

Go ye now and positively deconstruct by listening, asking and guiding our friends into the truth. But whatever you do, try not to misunderstand them!