compelling shouldn’t be convincing

One of the loftiest goals a college minister has is to help students grow in wisdom. There’s plenty that can be done (more easily) to teach theology and piety and personal disciplines and corporate disciplines. But teaching wisdom isn’t so easy. Nor should we assume it comes automatically while we’re teaching everything else.

So if we’re going to set out to teach wisdom, one of the things we should be teaching is that compelling shouldn’t equal convincing.

Let that soak in for a second.

For many people (students or otherwise), it’s simply second nature to hear a compelling statement – from a politician, from a professor, from a celebrity, from a theologian, from a friend – and assign it a level of authority simply because the notion is compelling. Maybe it is said in a compelling, winsome, “sticky” way. Maybe it’s simply an idea that feels so right.

But whatever the case, a statement or idea being compelling actually has NO bearing on whether it’s true or not. True statements can be said in boring, annoying ways. And false ideas can be spread with really compelling narratives or wording. Of course, we want to present the truth in compelling ways… but the fact that it’s said in a compelling way doesn’t make it more likely to be true.

The problem is, we’re liable to fall into this trap ourselves in a couple of different ways:

  1. We ourselves are too quick to let compelling ideas seep in, as though “compelling” gives any hints at all as to veracity. For ministers, this happens a lot in theology AND methodology. (How often do we hear about a new approach, presented in a compelling way, and fail to ponder how wise it would really be in our own context.)
  2. When we try to train or convince, we substitute reason and evidence for compelling statements. They’re often easier (and more fun) to relate, and (as I’ve argued today), they work. But in the course of doing that, we train our audiences to look for “compelling” and let it be “convincing.” If we train students to do that, then the next compelling person will draw them easily, too.

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