03 Jun Book Review: Permission Evangelism
Today’s post is the first in a series of occasional book reviews focused on taking outside perspectives and applying them to the growth of local Baha’i communities.
Today I want to introduce a real hidden gem of a book about teaching: Permission Evangelism by Michael L. Simpson.
“Make mention of me on my earth, so that in my heaven I may remember thee“. These words remind us that no matter how challenging it can be in today’s culture, we have an obligation to give away the spirit of the Faith that has given so much to us. If you’re like me, this doesn’t sound fun AT ALL. We live in a society that increasingly believes about spirituality what we used to believe about sex — it’s okay to take an interest in it, but it needs to be kept private and probably needs to stay in your bedroom. How do we reconcile these contrasting forces?
Michael L. Simpson has a great answer, and one that jives with the Baha’i Teachings: ask permission. Simpson is an atheist-turned-evangelical Christian (and a marketer, I might add) who didn’t understand why teaching his faith to others had to entail so much guilt and fear on the part of the those doing the teaching. Furthermore, he could see that the response of Christians that tried to teach tended to break two different ways: one side started withdrawing into themselves and usually condemned the “sinners” that always seemed to reject their message, and the other were so embarrassed about what outsiders would think that they tried to fit in with wider society instead. As Baha’is, either response isn’t good enough — we can’t give up on humanity and we can’t give up on the world-changing power of the Faith.
Simpson suggests that by being authentic and making ourselves vulnerable to other people, we will earn their permission to tell our story. By staying humble and responsive, and letting the other person disengage at any point, we make them feel comfortable enough to tell us their story. If your story is structured well (before you became a Baha’i, your emotions and how you felt when you encountered the Faith, how it has changed your perspective afterwards) and focused on how you felt during your journey and not just facts about the Baha’i Faith, they will begin to look at your story as a possible jumping-off point for their own. If at any point during your story they change the topic or look uncomfortable, you trust God and move on to something else. You only continue if they keep asking questions.
This approach is extremely effective, gives all of the control to the person being taught, and is the best illustration of this verse from Baha’u’llah: “Not everything a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be considered as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.” Furthermore, it strives to achieve what we have been practicing in the global Baha’i community the last few years — building relationships / community.
Another great point he makes is when he tries to understand the attitudes of adults who became Christian as children and felt like they didn’t have a very interesting story to tell, as opposed to adult converts who often have dramatic accounts triumphing over drugs, sex, alcohol, and other major problems when they accept Jesus. His advice to them (and by extension, to adult Baha’is who grew up in Baha’i families) is to
“outline the times when you doubted or stepped away from God, however brief. Connect emotions to those times of feeling alone, angry, or unforgiving. Then talk about how you came back to a deeper relationship with God just as the adult convert would talk about his conversion”.
I don’t know about you, but that is an extremely helpful approach for me.
One thing the marketer in me especially loves about this book is the time he spends on researching the attitudes of the wider public. He identifies two predominant attitudes towards spirituality in the West, and it’s not just pro-religion anti-religion; rather it’s those who CAN articulate what they believe (Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc), and those who can’t, who he refers to as “belief-flexible”. I think this is much more accurate way to look at our religious landscape, because clearly most Americans fall into the latter camp.
Later in the book, Simpson goes further and addresses having pure motives, group dynamics in teaching, and relying on God.
Overall, it’s an easy flowing, entertaining read. It’s been out a while, but I still find myself coming back to it as the best manual on teaching the Faith I’ve yet come across. The best thing — it’s available for practically nothing on Amazon (1¢ plus $3.99 shipping). I highly recommend it.
Title: Permission Evangelism: When to Talk, When to Walk
Author: Michael L. Simpson
Price: $4 (used), $9 (new)
Available at: Amazon