“My heart is stirred by a noble theme
as I recite my verse for the king;
my tongue is a pen of the skillful writer.”
“Human beings are communal and seek to communicate persuasively with one another. Rhetoric is about persuasion…and that old Roman teacher Quintilian defines the rhetor as, “The good man speaking well.”
I am the son of a salesman, a traveling salesman, a tremendously successful traveling salesman. And the motto that my father lived by was, “It is better to be a ‘closer’ than an order taker.” This means he would rather persuade a person to buy his product through a great sales pitch and masterful closing technique than have someone buy from him simply because they liked the product.
For him, persuasion was the goal, and getting a signature on a contract made his day. The satisfaction of the customer was secondary. Important, but secondary.
He would often teach me his techniques around the dinner table: “Chris, if you can get a customer to say ‘no’ you are one step closer to a sale. Because when they say ‘no’ they are actually saying they are ready to negotiate new terms.” Or this little nugget: “Make the pitch and then wait — the first person to talk loses.” He was a master at getting people to buy from him. For my dad, the sale was like the thrill of the kill for the hunter. He could always smell blood before the ‘close’.
And as his loving son, I tried following in his footsteps. I went to college to get a degree in Marketing and Communications so I too could have a successful career in the art of persuasion. But once I hit the cold-calling pavement trail in downtown Chicago, I began to realize that I was not made for sales. I hated going after the ‘close’, it began to crush my soul. Not only did I want people to buy my product because they loved my product, I felt like I was a fraud when I used different sales techniques to manipulate the buyer. I felt greasy, like a snake-oil salesman at the local gypsy carnival that rolls into town.
I came to the full awareness of my disdain for the ‘close’ when my dad joined a startup company where he was asked to head the national sales team in the United States. The product they wanted him to sell was an ill-conceived innovation that clearly had no chance for success. It was a poorly engineered wet-dry vacuum cleaner for carpet and tile that was supposed to clean up big spills and remove obvious stains. I will never forget the day he brought it home to show my me and my mom. He had us sit on the living room couch, and he began to explain how the cleaner was to be used. He poured a thick blue liquid on our white carpet, and after a rigorous ten minutes of vacuuming, the mark it left was still clearly noticeable. Like an old lady’s hair dye gone bad.
“Works great, doesn’t it?” he said with an awkward self-conscious smile. I looked at my mom and I could see in her eyes that she was not impressed. And as my dad kept trying to show all of the product’s features, we both tried not to show our embarrassment for him.
The sales pitch wasn’t working. We were not sold. And I wondered to myself, “If you can get someone to buy a product that you know doesn’t work, what does that do to your integrity and their future trust in you?” Even though you may persuade someone at the moment, you may eventually lose them forever.
I soon made up my mind that sales was not for me. I couldn’t sell what I didn’t believe in, and even worse, I didn’t want to sell what I believed in because I hated the stench of manipulation that often went along with the act of persuasion.
So eventually I quit the sales field, and subsequent years later I was led into the pastoral ministry. I became the pastor of a medium-sized rural church. My job was to love God by teaching his people. Simple, right? I stand behind a pulpit and declare God’s truth. But wait, as Martin Lloyd Jones the famous British preacher once said, “Preaching must always be characterized by persuasiveness. ‘We beseech you in Christ’s stead be ye reconciled to God.’ Surely the whole object of this act is to persuade people, he is trying to do something to them, to influence them.”
Does that mean the preacher must become a salesman? Is my goal to become a ‘closer’ for eternity? Yes, I believe in the product, but the stain of manipulation still remains. From my experience, and hearing the stories of people in my congregation, I began to realize many have been hurt through horrible sales techniques of the previous pastors in their lives. Ever since the turn of the century, the Gospel has been turned into a pragmatic formula, a well-designed sales pitch sold by hucksters behind a pulpit.
You have heard it, “With your head bowed and eyes closed…I see that hand!”
Is this how Jesus did it? So I read and studied and I began to realize that Jesus told stories. He invited his listeners in to see, feel, and taste the Gospel rather than using a mere sleight of hand to get people to sign on the dotted line. He used common metaphors and idioms, he talked about wheat and tares, pigs and fattened calves, and he talked about mustard seeds and fig trees. Jesus spoke our language.
I have often asked people who they think is the greatest theologian in the New Testament. Time and time again the answer is, “Paul, the book of Romans is sheer logical and propositional brilliance!” Then I would ask, “Well, what about Jesus? As a theologian isn’t he Theos himself?” And the person I was asking would scratch their head and say, “Yeah, but he tells stories.”
Exactly! Jesus tells stories, and he doesn’t give sales pitches. He doesn’t manipulate a heart to get a commitment, but rather he uses the backdoor to get into a person’s soul. He doesn’t use the front door of logical argumentation and debate. Listen to his reason why in Matthew 13:13-17:
“This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise, they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears
because they hear.”
He tells stories so the person who is truly seeking finds. And the person who is the critic or snarky opponent of righteousness is made blind. I have found that when truth is given directly through the front door it is too easy. It may land, but it rarely sticks. But when truth enters through the backdoor, it soaks into the soul, and a mind is awakened to the goodness of the beauty of truth.
In Oz Guinesse’s book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, he makes this statement: “There are all too many people who do not want to believe what we share or even to hear what we have to say, and our challenge is to help them to see it despite themselves…There is a time for stories, and there is a time for rational arguments, and the skill we need lies in knowing which to use, and when. Put differently, creative persuasion is a matter of truth, not simply of technique. More accurately, creative persuasion is the art of truth, the art that truth inspires.”
The salesman is no longer trusted, persuasion is now seen as manipulation. For many in the crowd, the preacher’s truth is considered as false and fluffy as an infomercial. The skeptic wonders, “Has the amen section of the congregation been placed there like a studio audience oohing and awing over the new George Foreman grill as he makes his famous grilled cheese sandwich? Do they smile, clap, and shout “amen” because they are expected to? Are they nothing more than spiritual stand-ins?”
So for many, even in the church, the front door of the heart stays closed, the listener is not really listening. However, there is always a backdoor, and the way to get in may need more than a fine-sounding argument and rational proposition that may be right but doesn’t ring true.
This is where story comes in; persuasion’s back door. I recently read a wonderful description by Jerry Root, a professor of Evangelism at Wheaton College, of the famous Christian author C. S. Lewis and why he is so beloved by so many inside and outside the church:
“In his lifetime, C. S. Lewis mastered multiple modes of communication. A sound and clear academic writer, able to engage in dialectic and debate on a high level, he gained the respect of those in this field of medieval literature. An admired popularizer of Christianity, he fashioned works in Christian apologetics that are still appreciated and widely read today. A skilled imaginative writer, he crafted a wide range of fiction and poetry, which demonstrates his enduring creative vision. A brilliant teacher, lecturer, and preacher, Lewis often channeled his skills via the medium of radio broadcast with great success. And as an active and proficient public debater, Lewis was rightly called Oxford’s ‘bonny fighter,’ by his friend Austin Ferrer, because of the rhetorical skill he demonstrated at the weekly meetings of the Socratic Club.”
And then Jerry Root makes this great statement, “Indeed, the thing that generates Lewis’s holding power is his rhetoric — the ability to use words well and with pervasive force.”
All of those avenues Lewis used were to persuade. Not only does argument persuade, but so does imagination. And in our day and age when the front door isn’t trusted like it once was, story- a good story – needs to fill in the gaps. A good man or woman speaking well, telling a great story, may do more to get people to seek for God than any formulaic Gospel arm twisting could ever do.
Just to be clear, though my dad was great at sales, he was a wonderful father as well. One thing about him is he loved the power of story. He would often be reading. He loved good movies. And I will never forget when he took a whole Saturday off from his yard work to have me watch a story on television called “Ben Hur.” “Chris,” he said, “this is one of my favorite movies, and I love how they talk about Jesus. He must have been a wonderful man.”
A story told well may do more for the truth of God than a sermon told badly. So if you can write, do it well, because you never know if you are getting into a person’s heart through the back door!
Christopher J Weeks
Christopher J. Weeks has been serving for the last 22 years as lead pastor of Kent City Baptist Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a graduate of Moody Graduate School and served as a teacher in the former Soviet Union and is passionate about forming true disciples in the local church context. He currently lives in Kent City with his wife, four children, and Australian Shepherd dog Raphael.