These six tactics not only helped me navigate a 90-minute debate with three Mormons when I didn’t know anything about Mormonism, they can also help you have better conversations with pro-choice people.
I’ve never really spoken with missionaries from the Church of Latter-Day Saints before. I haven’t avoided it, it’s just that for some reason they never went to our neighborhood. That’s why I was surprised the other day to hear the doorbell ring and to open my door to three LDS missionaries asking to pray for me.
You’re probably thinking that I got a big grin (at least on the inside) and immediately welcomed them in. I’m embarrassed to say that I politely declined on impulse. That might have partially been because the impression they gave was that they only wanted to pray for me, and since I believe they would be doing the equivalent of praying to a brick wall, it didn’t seem worth the trouble. But there was also a lazy part of me that just wanted to rest and for them to move on to the next house. I’ve been working 12 to 16-hour days lately and I finally had a Sunday afternoon off, and for a few moments I cared more about that than the three souls standing in front of me. I’m happy to report that once we sat down and got into real discussion, I very much enjoyed myself. I’m glad that they were pushy enough to get past the internal barriers I put up when I saw them.
I was a little nervous when they finished praying, because I have never really studied Mormonism. I know a little bit, but it’s one of those things I thought I would always get to later, “when the time was right.” Now here I was, feeling like I was going into a three versus one battle. Even worse, it was like they were a fully-armored team and I felt like I didn’t have any weapons!
Pro-life and pro-choice people often struggle to have productive conversations with each other. I think there are literally dozens of reasons for that, but one of them is that both sides understandably have an agenda they want to focus on instead of learning what the other person believes. Since I didn’t know very much about Mormonism, this was an opportunity for me to put my agenda to the side and go into “information gathering” mode.
Luckily, the discussion went a lot better than I feared it would, thanks to the six tactics in this list.
A quick note on the word “tactic”
The goal in these conversations is to find truth together. [Tweetable!] When I use the word “tactic” in this article, I just mean the methods I used that seemed to help our discussion stay productive. I don’t mean that I was trying to “win” the conversation by using good strategy.
#1: I Expressed the Importance of Believing True Things and Not False Things.
Early in the conversation I made it clear that if their religion is the true religion, I really hoped they would convince me of it. There is no more important piece of information that I can think of besides the question of which religion (if any) is true. There are eternal consequences in the balance.
I said something like, “Right now I’m a non-denominational Christian because I think that’s the religion that has the best answers to the questions that matter, and that these answers match up with reality. But if I’m wrong, I want to know that. I don’t want to believe false things. I want to believe true things. So let’s all try to find more truth together.”
#2: I Asked a Lot of Information-Gathering and Clarification Questions.
I’ve heard that while Christians and LDS missionaries both use the name “Jesus,” they don’t believe all the same things about him. So when they said something about Jesus for the first time, I asked, “What do you mean by Jesus?”
One of them responded with something like, “We just mean Jesus.”
I said, “Well, we could both be using the same name but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe the same things about that person. I want to actually understand what you believe about Jesus. It’s not enough to know that you’re using his name.”
When they said that they prefer the old-English version of the King James Version bible, I quickly pulled it up on my Bible app and asked, “Is there anything in here that you disagree with?”
One of them held up his thicker bible and explained that they have 27 extra books that should have been included in the Council of Nicaea.
I said, “Okay, but right now I’m holding in my hand your favorite translation of the Bible. Is there one verse that I could find in here that you disagree with?”
They responded that they agree with almost everything, outside of one verse they could think of that is false under their view. (I won’t get into that here because this isn’t a Christian doctrine vs. Mormon doctrine article. This is about dialogue tools.)
I asked whether they agree with everything in the KJV because I wanted to establish a foundation that could be helpful later if they started responding to verses I found by saying, “Well, we don’t so much agree with that one. It’s just most of the other verses in the KJV that we like.”
Similarly, I like to establish some ground work with pro-choice people, like asking if we agree on the biological questions before moving to the philosophical questions. “Do we agree that the unborn is a living, human organism? Okay, great, let’s talk about whether that entity has intrinsic value or not.” Now I’ve laid a foundation that will be helpful later if they try to assume the unborn isn’t a living, human organism.
#3: I Jumped In When I Legitimately Disagreed with Something They Said.
I was finding so much common ground with the things they said, I think it was helpful for them to know when I actually disagreed. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been a discussion; it would have been them going through their script and me politely nodding my head as if I agree and then ending the meeting. The discussion is where the great stuff happens, where the search for truth gets deeper.
For example, they explained that the KJV Bible is the best translation, and that other translations have more problems because “it’s like the game of telephone.” I told them I disagreed. I think it’s possible for scholars to get into the original languages and translate a Bible in modern English that doesn’t have errors.
When they described the Council of Nicea as merely “picking and choosing” which books would go in the Bible, I responded, “I don’t think that’s a very charitable way of putting it. You make it sound like they arbitrarily looked at the books and played ‘eenie meenie miney moe.’ I think it was more involved than that.” He conceded that was fair.
#4: I Brought Humor Into the Conversation Whenever Possible.
I think people generally used to feel more comfortable in a face-to-face debate than they do now. I know some people really enjoy the clash of ideas (including myself), but for many it’s either uncomfortable or exhausting or both. Attempting to be funny can bring the awkwardness-level down.
For example, when one of the missionaries used a thought-experiment about being on an island, I clarified, “Am I alone? Am I Tom Hanks on ’Castaway’ or is this more of a ’Lost‘ scenario?”
He said, “You’re alone, and you get a hold of every religious book in the world. So you’ve got a Qur’an, you’ve got the Book of Mormon, you’ve got the Bible…” and I interjected, “do I have the King James Version or something else?”
I’m not saying they all thought I was hilarious and heading toward a successful career as a stand-up comedian. Only one out of three of them consistently laughed at my jokes, but I think everybody felt a little more comfortable during the debate, because I wasn’t always combating their arguments with my own arguments.
#5: I Tried to Use the Language They Preferred.
I’ve written several posts on why pro-life people should tend to use the term “pro-choice” instead of “pro-abortion” or “pro-abort.” This is mainly because I don’t want the labels to get in the way of us talking about the important issues.
The first time I used the word “Mormon,” one of the missionaries interjected something about how “other people call them Mormons” and how it’s kind of negative. I asked them which word they would prefer and he said he thinks of themselves as Christians. I said, “Okay, but to be clear, we’re discussing whether or not we mean the same thing when we use that word.”
Later on I tried to form an analogy and I chose to use one that would be picking on Christians instead of Mormons, but then I realized that they had asked to be called “Christians” too! After I struggled to figure out how to create the sentence, they gave up and said, “It’s okay, just call us Mormons.” I asked if he was sure and then proceeded.
Calling everybody by the same label is going to be confusing when you’re comparing and contrasting the differing views of the two groups. I’m glad we got back to a clearer label, but they also saw me struggle to use words that wouldn’t sound pejorative to them, and I think that won me some rapport.
#6: When the Time was Right, I Asked Tough Questions.
I think everybody should be willing to answer tough questions about their views. I’m not going to be annoyed if a pro-choice person asks me about abortion in the case of rape, because the roughly 16,000 women per year in the US who are raped and choose abortion deserve to be talked about.
When the missionaries tried to say they are just Christians like me, I asked them this question. “I’m a little confused. You say you’re Christians and have stated a bunch of basic doctrines that I believe in too, at least if we’re using the words the same way, but right now you’re sitting in my living room, and it feels like I’m being evangelized to. I don’t mind being evangelized to, but if we’re both Christians, why are you evangelizing to me? If our core doctrines are basically the same, why are you trying to convince me to change my views?”
Later I asked a question that everybody should be willing to answer about their own view. I said, “As a Christian, there are aspects of my beliefs that make me a little uncomfortable. If you ask me enough questions about the doctrine of Hell, I’m going to squirm. But I’m willing to admit that. So, are there any aspects of your religion that you’re a little uncomfortable with?”
They surprisingly said, “No, there is nothing that makes me uncomfortable. There may be things that when we explain them, they don’t convince the other person, but nothing that makes us squirm.”
I said, “Really? Nothing? I mean, you have to admit that some people in the entertainment industry have poked fun at Mormonism in recent years, like in that South Park episode. Usually some of those things are rooted in at least a nugget of truth that can be mocked. If there was no truth to it, it wouldn’t be funny. There’s nothing you feel uncomfortable with?”
They said nope and we moved on.
Towards the end of the debate I asked how they would recommend we test “special revelations” that disagree with each other. They seemed confused by this, so I said, “Imagine I tell you that I can audibly hear God’s voice right now telling me that you believe in a false religion. That would be a special revelation, and then imagine you say that you’re having a special revelation right now that my religion is the false one. What do we do now? Either one of us is wrong, or both of us are wrong. What’s the next step?”
They responded, “We would test to see which revelation has the most fruit.”
I said, “I’ll admit that you might have more fruit, in the sense that you may be nicer than me. As Greg Koukl has said, ‘You can’t out-nice a Mormon.’ But nice people can have false views too. So now what?”
They had interesting responses to these questions and it lead to a more in-depth discussion.
Before they left I handed them my business card and invited them to set another appointment sometime. One of them asked about my mission statement: “Training Pro-Life Advocates to Think Clearly, Reason Honestly, and Argue Persuasively.”
I explained that “reason honestly” means being open-minded and following the truth where it leads.
He asked with a smile, “Are you open-minded? Do you think you could be converted?”
I said, “Yes, because I believe it’s possible that I believe false things. Are you open-minded too?”
He said, “Of course!”
I said, “Then let’s start our next conversation with the definition of ‘open-mindedness,’ because in my experience, lots of people are confused by what that term means. I’d love to learn more about what you mean when you say you are open-minded.”
I’ve already begun studying to gain more knowledge that will help me have more productive conversations with them in the future.
I can’t wait until they come back.
The post “6 Tactics That Helped Me Have a Productive Conversation with Three Mormon Missionaries” originally appeared at JoshBrahm.com. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”
Question: What practical dialogue tips have you found to be helpful when talking to people who disagree with you on abortion or religion?