Why It’s Important to “Preach to the Converted”

By: Ryan McMaken
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An an editor of publications with a distinct ideological bent, I sometimes hear that it’s important to strive to avoid “preaching to the choir” or “preaching to the converted.”

It’s difficult to generalize what is meant when this phrase is used. Some users of the phrase think it’s a waste of time for any group to discuss important topics among the members. Why discuss laissez-faire economics (or any topic) with other people who already agree?

Some have even argued that the very existence of publications devoted to a specific limited ideological point of view are dangerous because they encourage more in-group discussion at the expense of outside engagement.

More generally, though, the use of the phrase “preaching to the converted” is used to devalue the practice of encouraging frequent discussion of ideas and scholarship within in a certain group. The phrase instead suggests it is better to focus most — if not all — communications outward for the purposes of converting outsiders.

There’s a lot of gray area here, and moderates on the issue likely hold a wide variety of opinions as to just how much discussion ought to be with outsiders. Some may think its fine to develop ideas internally, and to engage in only occasional outward “missionary” efforts. Depending on the nature of the organization, some may even think it’s fine to focus nearly all energies on in-group teaching and scholarship so that in-group members can then go to other organizations which specialize in outward communications, but do little in terms of internal debate and idea development.

In practice, most ideological groups do both internal idea development and education, and outward communication.

Both activities are important, and many people understand this.

Some observers, nevertheless have a tendency to excessively emphasize the importance of not “preaching to the converted” and this is often due to three incorrect assumptions:

  1. It is believed that people in the converted already have a sufficient understanding of the topic at hand.
  2. It is assumed that the converted will never leave the group in question.
  3. It is believed that the converted won’t interact with people outside their group in other contexts.

To illustrate these points, it may be helpful to speak of them in the context for which the term was originally invented: religious evangelization.

This isn’t to suggest that laissez-faire views of political economy are anything like a religion. They’re not. These views do not constitute a “way of life” or any sort of all-encompassing theory of the cosmos or the human person.

Nevertheless, a religious group can serve as an instructive analogy for a closer look at spreading a certain ideological viewpoint.

The “Choir” Is Often Full of Poorly Educated and Casual Believers

Let’s begin by looking at “the converted” or the congregation in any religious group.

Anyone who has experience within any sizable group of Christians — for example — knows that there is a wide variety of knowledge levels and engagement levels within the group.

Some of them are well-read, enthusiastic, orthodox, and attend every single group event. Others are less sure of the group’s core beliefs. Some only attend services occasionally. Some self-identify as Christians, but have barely read any of the group’s most important documents.

And yet, all of these people call themselves “Christians.” Clearly, it would be a mistake to then conclude that no one in this group requires additional discussion, instruction, or reading. In fact, most would benefit from being shown new ways of looking at things, or new readings with which they had not been familiar before. The clergy and teaching staff would also benefit from being asked difficult questions and being asked to elaborate on ideas already discussed. Useful information doesn’t just flow one way. Without this, the “converted” cannot be expected to communicate their ideas to others, or even to themselves. Moreover, because old people die and new people are born, new people may be coming into the group as other people are dying off.

Some of the Converted May Be Headed Out the Door

This brings us to the second problem of assuming too much about the converted. It is often assumed that those who are converted will stay that way. This, of course, is a bad assumption in both ideological movement and in religious groups. People fall away from religious groups frequently. The same is true of any number of ideological groups, whether they be based on laissez-faire economics,  on Marxism, or on veganism.

Thus, one of the most important functions of “preaching to the converted” is to address the questions of those who perceive inconsistencies in the ideas, or to better explain hard-to-understand aspects of a certain group of ideas. One of the most important things to avoid is the idea that every question already has pat answers that are self-evidently true to everyone. This is rarely the case, of course, so even among the converted, additional discussion and investigation is usually warranted.

The Converted Are Part of Other Groups

And finally, it is important to remember that “the converted” — unless they’re part of a despotic cult — interact with numerous other groups of people in daily life, whether through family, professional work, or community groups. If these people are to be expected to spread certain ideas effectively, they must have a competent grasp of them. And there must be some place or publication or organization that can help them obtain this grasp of things.

In other words, if the converted are to share their ideas with others, their primary concern should be understanding these ideas well in the first place.

Leonard Read regularly made this point, noting:

it is only in self-improvement that one can have any influence whatsoever on the improvement of others. This point may never come clear unless we know why so few of us feel any need for self-improvement while so many of us possess an overpowering itch to improve others. Why do we spend so much more time looking down than up?

This was perhaps Read’s version of “doctor, heal thyself.” It’s a good thing to want to go out and improve the world. But it’s important to also have the means of improving one’s self first. Being a member of “the choir” or “the converted” is often a helpful first step.

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