Don't let facts get in the way
In 1979, experimenters at Stanford University collected a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favour of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.
The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics.
The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse.
At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favour of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
This is known as 'confirmation bias' and it has been demonstrated again and again in many different experiments. People have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it.
We could major on how this affects the Church but thIs would only make us internally focused. So I was wondering how this affected evangelism? One commentator suggests that instead of offering facts, ask lots of questions. Jesus asked a lot of questions of his listeners. Ask questions (with the right tone), not to put the other person on the defensive, but to show that you are willing to hear another perspective. Particularly, you might offer questions aimed at trying to uncover the other person’s assumptions e.g. "How did you come to that conclusion?", "What experiences have you had that lead you to believe that?”
This then reminded me of the Alpha Course which has been so effective - building relationships, sharing food, sharing information, listening to opinions and questions. People gradually see the picture and gradually build trust. It allows a person the time and space in friendly group to think through why they have the opinions they do, voice their ideas and adjust them as they discover more.
What we see and realise is that it is a process and God is working. May all of you who are running Alpha or equivalent help people on their spiritual journey as this new season commences.
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Geoff Knott, 16/01/2018