It was going be just another trip to the gym for me. I haven’t been running as much as I would like, so I was trying to motivate myself to push through three hard miles.

I walked up to the sign in desk and was greeted by an excited young man who seemed glad I was there. I scanned the membership barcode attached to my key chain, and he smiled even wider. “Great!” he announced, welcoming me to my workout. I was about to walk away when he asked, “What’s the red, blue, and green “C” about?”

I wasn’t sure what he was talking about at first, but then I noticed the keys in my hand. One of my key chains is the symbol for the national flag of the country of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic. I carry the key chain to remind me to pray for the people of that country.

When I explained as much to the man behind the counter, he wasn’t satisfied. He started Googling.

“Did something happen there recently? Why are you praying?”

And so there it was, my perfect opportunity to explain the gospel: the treachery of sin, the grace of God, the supremacy of the cross. 

Instead, I kind of hemmed and hawed.

“No, nothing has happened. It’s just that . . . well, under the Soviets, atheism was the national religion . . . now they are culturally Muslims . . . I am just praying for the country to know who Jesus is.”

“Oh,” he said. “Do you have family there or something? Are you planning to go there some day?”

I told him about some connections through my church. Explained that maybe someday I might go. And that was that. I doubt that door will open again.

Had I been ready for the question like the Bible says I should, I might have told him about a man I know of in the region who came to know Jesus after experiencing the futility of Islam. I might have mentioned the new Azeri translation of the New Testament that my church helped to fund because we so desperately want the people there to have true hope. I might have even told him my own story of sin and God’s remarkable grace which saved me from his wrath, prompting me to want the same for others.

According to Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, it’s not enough to get people to believe our ideas are credible; we also need to help them care. Had I used one of the answers above —  creating empathy, developing associations, appealing to his self-interest — I would have made the message of the gospel “sticky” for him. Instead, I gave him a history lesson.

But appealing to emotions to help people connect to the gospel isn’t always the best approach, either. When the gospel message is delivered to play on people’s felt needs and self actualization, inviting people to get their lives together by accepting Jesus, we risk changing the gospel into a “sticky” but powerless message.

In his book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, David Platt says that our emotional appeals with the gospel message may actually keep people from understanding the one true gospel and responding humbly.

The danger of spiritual deception is real. As a pastor, I shudder at the thought and lie awake at night when I consider the possibility that scores of people who sit before me on a Sunday morning might think they are saved when they are not. Scores of people who have positioned their lives on a religious road that makes grandiose promises at minimal cost. We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth. Our sin will be tolerated along the way. Much of modern evangelism today is built on leading people down this road, and crowds flock to it, but in the end it is a road built on sinking sand, and it risks disillusioning millions of souls.

So, if I have another opportunity, and I’m standing there holding my Azeri key chain, and a kind young man sincerely asks me why I pray for a whole nation I have never visited, do I really tell him that his only hope is the difficult road of trusting the Man of Sorrows? Where’s the appeal in that message?

Above all, God himself makes his message “sticky” through His Spirit who moves like the wind: we see only the evidence of Him.

But the real irony is that if I want the gospel message to stick with the people I meet, I need to follow the Heath brothers’ last point about emotions: I should appeal to their identities.

We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities–not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be. 

I don’t need a special gospel presentation for waitresses, for gym workers, for doctors, for stay-at-home moms. I just need the one gospel message, the one that starts with our sin that separates us from God. And then I must carefully show reveal to each person I meet his true identity, that we are all just sinners in need of a Savior.

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Today I am writing in community with other bloggers from the High Calling Blogs community. We are discussing the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick. If you would like to read what others are saying about this week’s chapter from the book, click on the button above. If you are a blogger, read and post along!

Also, if you would like to read David Platt’s Radical along with others from my church, visit the church blog where we are discussing the book.