If you’ve poked around at my blog at all then you’ll know that I am always on the lookout for great stories of people interacting with others from which we can learn lessons. This story blew my mind. Frankly this is pretty much a case study in getting things exactly right! This will be a bit of a longer blog post because there are just so many things to discuss and so many wonderful lessons to learn. Grab a drink, sit back and let’s see precisely how these kinds of conversations are supposed to unfold.
It’s a long story so I’ll just give the quick highlights here. Seriously, you should read the whole thing yourself (I’ll link to it again so you have no excuse not to read it)
- A young Jehovah’s Witness (JW) by the name of Chelsea shows up at Terrell’s house. Terrell is swamped with groceries, a barking dog, kids, etc. She politely asks Chelsea to come back in a couple of weeks, which she does.
- In the mean time Terrell dives into JW theology, studies up and prepares herself for the conversation.
- Chelsea returns with her sister, Katherine, and they dive into an investigation of JW theology. Terrell asks some strategic questions about the relationship between JW theology and the Bible, and the apparent discrepancy. The two JW seem a little perplexed about why they cannot find Bible verses that support certain doctrines.
- Chelsea returns another week with a more experienced JW (Betty) whose mannerisms are a little less gracious than Chelsea’s. Despite her aggressive verbal nature they end the conversation on very kind terms.
- Chelsea returned for several more meetings before suddenly and unexpectedly ceasing all communication.
That’s the very Cole’s notes version. I’ll go through some of the key lessons and will include quotes as needed to illustrate the lesson. The rest of my observations assume you have read the story. If not then you’ll just have to trust the quotes I use.
Some quick observations
Here are just a few quick notes of things Terrell did right and I’ll expand on other points in a moment.
- Talk in person. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; face-to-face conversations are always preferable to digital communication (here’s one case in point)
- Take it slow. Notice how the conversation happened over multiple sittings, and several weeks / months of time. Nobody was in any rush.
- Take notes. Terrell describes how she took notes ahead of time to share with them and I presume she took notes during the conversation too, so she could reflect on them in between meetings.
- Gentleness and respect. I will provide examples later, but frankly Terrell exuded both of these.
Now let’s take a look at many more ingredients for success in a little more detail.
Always be prepared
She asked Chelsea to come back at a later date for several reasons, “My kids would be back in school, the house would be quiet, and most important, I’d have some time to prepare.” But, really, how much time did she seriously invest in getting prepared? With respect to her preparatory study she says, ” it did consume many hours of my time. I remember feeling overwhelmed at points, and occasionally I was tempted to give up.” (emphasis hers) But she didn’t give up!
In Arguing with Friends I point out that many people mistakenly think that God does all the work of evangelism. It most certainly is true that no human has ever converted another human, but humans are, interestingly, God’s tool of choice in the process. He does the work, but we are his instruments. We err if we assume God does everything, but we also err if we assume God has entrusted us with the entire process. Terrell understood that she had a role to play, and embraced the challenge without deluding herself into thinking she was taking on God’s part of the process.
Gracious perspective of the “other guy”
Consider how Terrell’s perspective on JW’s is remarkably gracious. “Most Jehovah’s Witnesses are sincere, well-meaning people who believe they are serving their God.” However, she acknowledges that there may be some bad apples; Terrell reminds us that, “not all Jehovah’s Witnesses will be as congenial as Chelsea.” But notice the context of the waning. At the same time as she warns us that some JWs might not be all that pleasant, she affirms that Chelsea was, in fact, very well-behaved during their entire discourse. Again, she paints the “other guy” in a very positive light (even during a warning of some potentially unpleasant characters).
As I have mentioned before (and in my book) the other person is never the enemy. People always deserve to be treated with respect even if our conversation is slowly dismantling their worldview. Let me correct that; treat people with respect especially if you are slowly dismantling their worldview. Having somebody show that your most cherished beliefs may be mistaken is no small matter; do not combine the shock of that discovery with the pain of being treated poorly.
Listen first, talk later
Could this have been better illustrated by Terrell? “I set my [previously prepared notes] aside, though, because I wanted to let her talk first.”
In fact, the very first thing out of her mouth was, “Where in the Bible does it say that Jesus is Michael the archangel?” She asked a question! What a wonderful way to start the conversation. Ask a question and give the other person a chance to explain themselves and defend their views. Terrell did precisely this. Consider what Francis Schaeffer has to say about this (I use this quote in Arguing with Friends).
If I know I only have 60 minutes with a person I spend the first 55 asking questions.
Terrell provides an illustration from a cartoon about the need to consider how you are going to approach the subject instead of just opting for easy answers or throwing yourself in, head first and relying on instinct. She describes an approach that other Christians probably usually fall for, “recite the gospel or the Apostles Creed … or say, ‘Well, my church says …’.” What’s the problem with that? Terrell tells us, “not only are they thoroughly prepared to defend that line of attack, they’ll likely ignore you until they have an opening to give their rehearsed response.” Instead, she outlines another approach that she considers to be more strategic; one that is more likely to yield success.
I’m not going to discuss her strategy because I want to focus on something else; the fact that she thought about this enough to develop a strategy! How easy it is, in the middle of a heated discussion, to lose sight of the big picture of the discussion and end up chasing down rabbit trails. We need to constantly think beyond the immediate context of the conversation (this particular doctrine or that) and think to the larger picture of where the root of the difference lies between our respective worldviews. Only then will we get to the real heart of the matter instead of spending all our time beating around bushes.
Don’t pounce on them
Early on in the conversation it became clear that these two JW’s were not prepared to offer answers to Terrell’s questions. Did she leap on them? Did she accuse them of never actually opening a Bible? Did she chastise them for their total lack of knowledge of their own Theology? Absolutely not. While they thumbed through the Bible, Terrell sat back patiently and let them work through it “… as I watched in silence.” She kept her mouth shut; perhaps even biting her tongue. No accusations, no condescension, and no interrupting them while they attempted to work through it.
The pattern repeated itself. They examined several other issues, always looking to the Bible for support of their doctrine but never finding it. Each time, “we would stay with a disputed doctrine until we agreed to leave the issue unresolved.” Notice, again, that she’s not biting their heads off for not having answers, nor is she being pushy and forcing them to accept an alternative (non-JW) theology. When they had examined it as far as possible they would agree to leave it. Very respectful!
Some very promising side-effects of this discussion should also be pointed out.
“My own conviction and ability to defend the truth underwent a miracle of multiplication.” There is just no substitute for real life conversations with people from other faiths if you are looking to better understand the basis of your own faith.
She further claims that if you respond to these challenges in the same manner she did, “it will sharpen your mind and multiply your own faith in the process.” Who doesn’t want that? Many people underestimate the faith growth potential of academic study and allowing your most precious beliefs to be scrutinized by others.
We may never know exactly what prompted this response from the more aggressive JW (Betty), but as Terrell describes, “I was pleasantly surprised when she gave me a hearty hug upon leaving. ‘You are one of the most interesting people I have ever met,’ she enthused.” How many times have you had confrontational conversations that ended in a hearty hug and a compliment? Honestly, isn’t this simply the best possible ending to any individual conversation? Even if the series of conversations never result in a single JW changing their mind, it is abundantly clear that Terrell’s behavior warranted an undeniably positive sign of affection accompanied by a verbal affirmation. That is unequivocal success!
The JWs success
Even though my dissection of this conversation may seem to come down on the JWs, consider several things they did right.
- When faced with challenges, they took the challenges seriously. They did not fall into the “you just gotta believe” mindset. They came back several times to continue investigating the issues, and did so with seemingly open minds (let’s hope they were sincere).
- Chelsea was very clear that, “If I can’t prove it from the Bible, I don’t what to believe it.” In other words she wanted to follow the evidence wherever it lead. Again, let’s hope she was sincere.
- They were cordial. As mentioned previously, Terrell observed that Chelsea was generally pleasant to talk to. Even Betty who was a little more aggressive ended the conversation with a hug and a compliment.
One can hardly point a finger at the JW in this dialogue either. There may have been some aggressiveness in the middle, and the sudden termination of their conversation is suspicious, but overall their behaviour also gives us some lessons to consider. When somebody is launching successful “attacks” on our faith may we respond with as much grace as the JWs did!
All in all I was so profoundly impressed with this story I just had to contact Terrell and thank her for posting it. I tried to outline a “gold standard” for what a successful conversation looks like in Arguing with Friends and Terrell went ahead and illustrated something very near that with this conversation.
Do you have a story? I don’t just post stories with happy endings like this one, but even stories where a conversation really went poorly (check the archives for examples). Successes and failures both provide lessons for personal improvement. If you would like to share your story (I can change names / details as required) please do so; we can all grow as a result. Please connect with me if you would be willing to do so. Thanks.