Let me tell you two stories. Here’s the first one:
Last night, my wife and I were kicking back watching TV when a UFO landed in our backyard. A little green man got out and invited us into his UFO. So my wife and I went inside. The UFO took us to Jupiter. We met the little green man’s friends and family and had a meal together. Afterward we got back into the UFO and traveled back to planet Earth. And we must have traveled through a time portal, because only one second of earth time had gone by.
Do you believe me? Of course not. Now let me tell you the second story:
About two thousand years ago, God sent us his son, Jesus. He was born of a virgin. And he was 100 percent God and 100 percent human at the same time. When he walked on earth, he did amazing things—like raise a dead girl back to life, give sight to a man born blind, turn thirty gallons of water into wine, and feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. But more than that, he died on a cross. Three days later, he rose from the dead. His Spirit lives in you right now. But more than that, Jesus ascended into heaven—where he is right now! And if you believe this, God will wash away all your sin, guilt, and shame. And when you die, your soul will rise up to be with Jesus in heaven. One day Jesus will come again and set up a physical kingdom here on earth. And when that happens, your body will rise from its grave and be reunited with your soul.
Do you believe me now? To many people, the story about Jesus sounds ridiculously unbelievable (even though it’s true). If we’re honest, we have to admit that the UFO story may even be more believable than the Jesus story. Yet we believe the Jesus story anyway.
One reason we’re hesitant to evangelize is that we’re worried our friends may find the Jesus story a little too hard to believe. We know it’s true, but how can we convince them it is? What if I told you that your non-Christian friends are more likely to believe the Jesus story than you think?
We are happy to believe the Jesus story over the UFO story because of what sociologists call plausibility structures. We all have plausibility structures that determine whether a story is unbelievable or believable. These plausibility structures are essentially preprogrammed and predetermined inside us.
As I was telling you the UFO story, your plausibility structures were flashing red lights and setting off blaring alarms. When I said that this little green man took us to his home planet Jupiter and we went through a time portal and only one second of earth time went by, your plausibility structures were screaming, “Unbelievable!”
But when I told you the Jesus story, your plausibility structures were giving you green lights. When I said that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he died on a cross and rose again three days later, your plausibility structures were saying, “Believable!” And when I said that Jesus will come again, your plausibility structures kept giving you green lights.
Where do these plausibility structures come from? Three main sources contribute to our plausibility structures: (1) community, (2) experiences, and (3) facts, evidence, and data.
Regarding the UFO story, most of you do not belong to a community—friends and family you know and trust—that believes in UFOs. Most of you have never had a personal experience of a UFO in your life. And most of you do not believe there are any facts, evidence, or data to support my UFO story. That’s why you judge the UFO story to be unbelievable.
But regarding the Jesus story, most of you do belong to a community that believes in Jesus. Most of you have had a personal experience of Jesus in your life. And most of you do believe that there are enough facts, evidence, and data to support the Jesus story. That’s why you judge the Jesus story to be believable.
Which is the most powerful source in determining belief? You might assume it’s facts, evidence, and data. Maybe you desperately want it to be facts, evidence, and data. But facts, evidence, and data are actually the least powerful in determining belief.
You see, if I told you the UFO is still in my backyard right now, you probably couldn’t be bothered to come and check it out. You probably don’t have the time or willpower to investigate what is so unbelievable. And if you did bother to check it out, you would find a way to explain away the evidence. You would tell yourself that this was all part of an elaborate hoax.
Facts, evidence, and data are surprisingly weak in making something believable. So which is the most powerful in determining belief? Community.
The Power of Community
The term community refers to friends and family we know, love, and trust. Community is the most powerful force in determining belief. Community shapes the way we interpret our experiences. Community shapes the way we interpret facts, evidence, and data.
When I lived in Australia, I played and watched rugby. I was convinced it was the roughest, most brutal sport in the world. After all, rugby players wear no helmets. You can’t get much tougher than that! And I believed that American football was the least tough sport in the world. After all, players in the NFL have to wear pads and helmets. You can’t get much softer than that! This was my entirely rational belief based on clear evidence and logical proof.
But when I lived in Chicago, my American friends convinced me that American football was way more brutal precisely because football players wear helmets. Have you ever watched a helmet-to-helmet hit? After a while, I believed my American friends.
Why did I change my beliefs? Because I had changed my community from one set of friends to another. I had swapped one set of “plausibility structures” for another. And my new set of plausibility structures made me interpret the same evidence—NFL players wear helmets—in a new and different way.
Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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