I love a conversation with someone who is open minded. According to Penn University, the definition of open mindedness is "the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favoured beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available." 1
When the apostle Paul was travelling on his missionary journeys he met two kinds of people, those who were open and received the message and those who resisted and stirred up trouble. It was either reception or rejection. The Jewish legalists would follow Paul around causing lots of trouble. They had what clinical psychologists call confirmation bias, a term which "connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand." 2
Most people tend to think that our convictions and decisions are rational and impartial based on experience and the information we have. In reality, all of us are susceptible to confirmation bias favouring information that confirms our previously existing beliefs.
In the 1960s, cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason conducted a number of experiments known as Wason's rule discovery task. He demonstrated that people have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. This is important to know in locations where the culture is far from a biblical framework. There is a different kind of evangelism required when the mass of people are unfamiliar or resistant to the good news. There is ground breaking work required to get past the confirmation bias. You cannot just preach the same message and expect the same results. One of the tasks of the pioneer evangelist is to test the ground. You see Paul do this whenever he enters Gentile cultures like Athens and the surrounding region.
In Acts 17, Paul and his companions escape from Thessalonica having faced persecution from Jewish legalists, and move onto Berea. According to Acts 17:11 "the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth." (New Living Translation)
The Bereans received the word with eagerness. The Greek word eagerness is prothymia meaning "readiness of mind or forward thinking." I find it interesting that they did not accept what Paul said at face value, they tested it against scripture. In fact they searched the scriptures. This word searched (in NT greek - anakrinō) means "to investigate, examine, enquire into, scrutinise, sift, question."
Someone who is open minded works hard at discerning the truth. They ask questions, they make a value judgement, they assess in light of known truth. An open minded person is not an empty minded person. This should help us in discerning who is open minded. Do they ask questions, do they check what we say against known truth? Are they willing to discuss, debate and see another point of view. Their questions reveal an interest rather than a resistance.
In 1 Corinthians 2:15 this word anakrinō is used twice in connection with the discerning work of the Spirit.
"The person with the Spirit makes judgments (anakrinō) about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments (anakrinō)."
An open minded person is often someone where the convicting and discerning work of the Spirit is revealing truth to them and they are aligning their thinking with the revelation of God. Jesus said exactly this in John 16:13 "when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth."
How does this apply to the work of evangelism?
It's simple really. Look for open minded people by testing the ground. What do they look like? They are asking good questions, they are searching for truth and up for debate and discussion.
Don't mistake questions for resistance, discern what is behind the question and where it is leading.
Wherever open minded people are, there will be resisters. Often they are religious people who do not like the truth of the gospel. Religion comes in all shapes and sizes including dogmatic atheists and scientific materialists who are not open to having their world view challenged. If you are interested in an example of a radically changed scientific materialist check out Francis Crick who as leading atheist changed his mind (much to the horror of his atheist friends). Crick was at the heart of the Human Genome Project and when he retired he was replaced by Dr Francis Collins who is a strong christian. When great minds connect, the results are interesting, so it is good to challenge and debate.
Paul's experience in Thessalonica and Berea shows that you cannot have open minded people without encountering closed minded people, it goes with the territory, so be prepared for both. Discerning the culture and the state of people's hearts is a skill that can be developed but takes time and determination. It also proves that we cannot adopt a cookie cutter approach hoping that one kind of evangelism will work everywhere. Let's be more creative and Spirit led than that :).
If you have any examples of this kind of discernment process, feel free to get in touch.