Joe Carter and John Coleman, How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009). $15.99, 174 pages.
As a longtime Christian, I have listened to thousands of sermons over my lifetime. As a preacher, I have delivered hundreds. And it never ceases to amaze me how many of those sermons are simply awful.
Aristotle outlined three elements of persuasive speech: pathos, logos, and ethos. In How to Argue Like Jesus, Joe Carter and John Coleman use this outline “to analyze Jesus’ method of communication and the way that method can illuminate our understanding of the subject.” Pathos refers to the emotional element of persuasive speech, logos to the rational element, and ethos to the moral credibility of the speaker.
When a preacher or other public speaker fails to persuade his audience, it is probably because his sermon does not resonate with their hearts, because his words are not true or well-articulated, or because his character is suspect.
Using numerous examples from the Gospels, Carter and Coleman demonstrate that Jesus used pathos, logos, and ethos to full effect. That is why he is “history’s greatest communicator,” in the words of their book’s subtitle. In addition to Jesus’ example, the authors show the effective use of pathos, logos, and ethos in the words of contemporary speakers.
How to Argue Like Jesus is an excellent primer on persuasive communication. Preachers and Christian laypeople will benefit from the lessons it teaches. However, even the proper use of the elements of rhetoric does not guarantee that audiences will be persuaded. Then again, awful sermons pretty much guarantee that they won’t be.