When Evangelism Doesn’t Work

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First Published in Net Results Magazine netresults.org May – June 2019

In the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1–9) Jesus observed that the ground can be rock hard. Generations of preachers have concluded that the good news will not be embraced by all who hear it. But it does not answer the obvious question: Why do so many people resist the gospel?

I think there are some clues from a spiritually informed developmental psychology. We know there is no “blank slate” on which the evangelist writes his or her message. There is always prior writing, even before the infant or young child has any capacity for language. Some of this early learning will determine whether a person is open to a relationship with God. This predisposition is based on early, usually unconscious, spiritual learning.

This is not Freud’s unconscious or Jung’s archetypes. When we think about this in terms of psychological research, we can identify an early learning process. Various terms are used, including implicit learning, tacit knowledge and habitus, but with rare exceptions these have not been applied to the practice of ministry.

A new born child learns from his or her first breath. This happens through all the senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. It is important to use a developmental lens because it will highlight personal growth encompassing the physical, emotional, psychological and, of course, spiritual realms. This “sets the stage” for what is played out in an evangelistic encounter.

Understanding early learning helps us to better appreciate a common difficulty. Once something is learned it feels true. It doesn’t matter whether the initial assumption is right or wrong, it is known, and the believer will have a sense of certainty. It also explains why some beliefs are irrational, but rigidly held. Since unconscious learning begins early in cognitive development, it happens before any capacity for evaluation, so it is taken in as if through a “vacuum cleaner” with virtually everything that’s experienced gets sucked up and accepted. This is understandable, especially if the source is from parents or authority figures, but it can result in ill-informed assumptions about “the way things are.” And if what has been learned remains inarticulate, there is no possibility of developing a counter-narrative, so that early learning remains unchallenged and continues to exercise influence.

It is not hard to see how such underlying assumptions have spiritual implications.

Marg was talking to her pastor. She had recently joined a Reformed Church. Marg was having some difficulty understanding what seemed an important message, “I just don’t understand it when you talk about God’s grace, doesn’t God just ‘set the standards’ for how we are expected to behave as Christians?” Marg grew up in a strict, somewhat legalistic, home. In this case Marg’s early learning proved to be a barrier to her understanding more about the love and the grace of God.

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