What Tim Keller & a Los Angeles LGBT Center Have in Common

Since this post was published, the study about canvassers for gay marriage turns out to relied on falsified data. Read more here.

Imagine reading the following pointers on a pamphlet: 

·      stop trying to teach people

·      talk personally about your experiences

·      don’t try to direct the conversation

·      most importantly: listen to others. Find out what seems real, important and emotional to them.

Guess the topic of the pamphlet. And no, it is not about evangelism.

These four pointers are actually the lessons learned from a Los Angeles LGBT center, when it sent hundreds of volunteer canvassers into neighborhoods to convince people to vote for gay marriage (source: This American Life podcast). At the first canvassers tried to appealing to higher, idealistic principles, but they discovered that moral reasoning was not an effective method. What they needed to do, they realized, was to “stop telling people things,” and to start talking “personally about their own experiences.” The most important thing they could do? “Listen.”

 The results are significant: more than a year later, the percentage of canvassed voters who chose to support gay marriage had increased by 15% (this was true only if the canvasser was gay; if straight, the voter would change their mind within a few weeks).

Compare these lessons to some of Tim Keller’s best practices for evangelism:

·      Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!

·      Listen to your friends problems – maybe offer to pray for them

·      Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you

·      Share your story

 Note Keller’s repetition of the words “listen” and “share.” It seems that the same behaviors underlie both effective evangelism and canvassing on gay marriage: listening and sharing. These are fairly simple behaviors—the kind of things you might learn in kindergarten—but it is worth underscoring that they are far more personal than simply demonstrating a “winsome witness” or having a “civil conversation,” which are the phrases that tend to be thrown around when in discussions about the “public square.” To be winsome is, by definition, to be attractive or appealing, and to be civil implies politeness as well as the absence of hurtful or fear-mongering language. Winsome civility is certainly important, but “listening” and “sharing,” frankly, go much deeper and imply a level of vulnerability and care. So whether you are trying to persuade someone about God or marriage, while rational arguments can certainly go a long way (Keller is, after all, known for his apologetics), both activities seem to require a certain level of vulnerability and human connection.

 All of this gives hope that we can achieve “confident pluralism,” a vision for what it means to live together in a pluralistic society, which John Inazu, associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, has sketched out.

In Inazu’s vision, confident pluralism “allows genuine difference to exist without suppressing or minimizing firmly held convictions.” It is about finding “common ground even in the absence of a shared common good.” Inazu cites a few examples, such as “the unlikely friendship between Chick-fil-A founder Dan Cathy and Campus Pride founder Shane Windmeyer.”

Finding common ground, he stresses, is not about compromising beliefs, but “lessening relational distance through the civility, trust, and friendship that emerges through shared experiences.” This is the only viable way to find common humanity (Alexis de Tocqueville would agree).

 Ironically, if the traditional church and the LGBT movement try to genuinely convince each other by employing the lessons and principles that they know are effective, they might actually find many opportunities to identify such common humanity. But listening and sharing is something that cannot really happen through advertisements or op-eds, but is truly best done – and perhaps can only be done – face-to-face.

It’s important here to note that many of the canvassed voters who opposed gay marriage knew someone who is gay, but had just never had a heart-to-heart with him or her. So confident pluralism not just about knowing someone who is ____ (gay, evangelical, Christian, liberal, etc.) and coexisting in a friendly manner, but having a open-hearted conversation with her or him about the issues that divide you. (Some say that there cannot be genuine conversation unless both parties are open to the possibility of changing their minds, and I would tend to agree.)

Ira Glass comments that this method of changing voters’ minds is expensive. The Los Angeles LGBT Center spent nearly $2.5 million over four years and reached just 12,000 voters. It would be, he soberly reminds us, far cheaper to run a scare ad and rally the base, which is exactly what politicians tend to do.

But the good news is that political volunteers do not have a monopoly on genuine and real face-to-face conversations. Anyone can have them. After all, and most importantly, listening and sharing are not just effective tactics, but fundamental to what it means to be human (and to be Christian).