How to have an Appreciative Inquiry evangelistic conversation

The strength of Appreciative Inquiry is that it focuses on positives rather than negatives in the pursuit of change.

The presumption is that, yes, there needs to be change. Things are not the way they should be. By focusing in on things we can affirm, we are not denying the Fall. Instead, we are shifting our sole focus from the Fall to Creation.

Theologically, when we practice affirmative inquiry, we are saying that the essential nature of humanity is not our depravity but our being created in the image of God. For far too long, our evangelism efforts have started with our falleness, our sinfulness. While our sinfulness is certainly true, it is not the beginning of the story of humanity; the story begins with our uniqueness as image-bearers. The story begins with telling us about God’s glorious intention for humanity: that we would shine forth His glory as we reflect His loving essence.

However, we must be honest while we do this. The goal is not to gloss over where we fall short of that glory. The goal is not mindless happy talk. We can’t ignore the real problems in the world and in our own personal lives. The goal is to approach these issues from the other side, the side that says God is willing and able to empower those who yield to Him to grow spiritually. This spiritual growth is called “conversion” or “transformation” or “redemption” or even “salvation.”

The goal of evangelistic conversations, then, shifts from (initially and primarily) laying guilt on someone about how awful they are. The goal, instead, is to affirm how God has uniquely created, has been calling, and has been molding each person to be what God wants them to be.

There are four stages of Appreciative Inquiry (see diagram). Here is one suggestion as to how to lead a person through AI in an evangelistic conversation. You can tailor these steps if you feel you need to highlight another aspect of the gospel with a particular person or group.

1. DISCOVERY. We help them discover positive things that would glorify God if put to the right use. We steer them away from selfish ambition and toward the things that serve others and cares for the Creation. We begin our inquiry by saying, “Tell me about times when you have experienced living in a way that loves others - when you served others, or cared for the world around you.” “When God looks upon your life, what do you think makes him smile and nod affirmatively?”

2. DREAM. Once we do that, we can help the person dream about what a future could look like if they yielded to God so that they can be all that God intends them to be. As we ask people about what they see as their future, we communicate to them that God is about hope. We move a person into an eschatological understanding of God that is not primarily about Armageddon and being “Left Behind,” but into a positive vision of the way God intends things to be. We continue our inquiry by asking, “What do you think is God’s vision of a better world?” “In a world that is the way God intends it to be, what do you think God would have you doing?” “What would be your unique contribution and purpose in God’s redeemed world?”

3. DESIGN. This is where the rubber meets the road. Here we need to help the person understand God’s way of designing this future vision. We continue through affirmative inquiry to do so, by asking, “The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of all things. When you think of Jesus as redeemer (as the One who can make the world the way God intends it to be), what does that mean to you?” “When you think of the way Jesus lived, died, and resurrected, what does that say about the love of God and his intentions about the world?” The goal here is to help a person come to their own realization (by the conviction of the Holy Spirit) that the world and themselves are not what God intends and that Jesus is the way to make things right. The design phase only is worthwhile if the person yields to God's design for their lives (through their faith in the person of Jesus Christ). A person’s personal design for life will fall short of God’s glorious intentions without the Lordship of Christ. The goal is to reframe a person’s understanding—they will most likely think of Christianity as an institutional killjoy. While that often is the case(!), the person of Jesus Christ came that we would have life in abundance. Jesus' resurrection assures us that God is working toward renewing the creation. Jesus needs to be seen as the person’s personal guide into God's good intentions and dreams for them and the world, instead of a religion that snuffs out dreams. We need to ask, “What will it take for you to trust that Jesus can design your life in the way that is God’s intended purpose for you?” The key issue here is trust. For many people, it is not an easy thing to trust in God. We must gently help them to open their hearts to God. They must decide that their personal design for life is contrary to God's design and turn toward God's design instead (this is repentance).

4. DESTINY. Real change means sustainability. The Destiny Phase of AI suggests that what is absolutely needed is a network-like structure that creates a convergence zone for people to empower one another—to connect, cooperate, and co-create. We are not converted as individuals; we need to be converted into a community that walks with us toward a shared destiny, one in which we all contribute and which needs others in order to arrive at it. This is the beauty of the body of Christ. The eschatological future is not about persons experiencing individualistic bliss in some ethereal heavenly realm. The eschatological future is where God and His People (plural) all live in Shalom harmony on a redeemed earth. This destiny is arrived at in community. So, we ask, “In a redeemed future, people live in peace and harmony with God and each other on a renewed earth. We move toward that future as we live that way in the present. What can you do to connect with God and people in community so that you can positively move toward that destiny?”

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theologien said...

The conversation has to start with the (correct) premise that humankind is redeemable, something which gets lost too many times in the conversation. I think most of what you say is on target (very Moltmannian) --points three and four are very good. The question is: "How do I enter the Kingdom," but I'd like to see more much discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit as the key to this process. I realize we are still early in the game, but I have encountered too much evangelism which had little to do with the work of the trinity in salvation. Keep the conversation going, I'm listening.

Bob Robinson said...

Nice insight.
The 4d circle of AI can have as its topic of inquiry any number of things, based on the questions that the person your talking with is asking about life and God.

My scenario here has "how do I become what God wants me to become?" as its topic. Kingdom comes in at the end when we talk about community.

Maybe another person is asking, "How do I get connected with others in order to do what God would have us do for peace and justice?" That inquiry would focus on Kingdom issues.

Maybe something like that?
What do you think?

More Holy Spirit. Yes.
I want this to be more about a supernatural encounter with God's Spirit, or else this becomes another humanist self-help guide.

theologien said...

As I reread and mulled over your post, I have had a few more thoughts.
1. I have some confusion at the beginning between focusing on what it means to get into the kingdom, and what happens when you get there. However, that might be because of #2 following.

2. What does it look like when we arrive in the kingdom? Is it like having purchased the ticket, and now I need to occupy the time until the bus comes to pick me up; or, is it more like walking from Cleveland to Chicago? Is it seeing signs that point me toward the city, where I feel its impact and presence as I draw near, and eventually see the skyline from a distance? I grew up in a world that said that becoming a Christian was a crisis event, i.e., you reached a moment in life when you had to make a decision whether you turned left or right at the crossroads. I may need to do some further deconstruction...

3. The design or sustainability phase (#4) is good, but this also the area that can give me some concern. I know this is not what you are saying, but what do I now see in a some churches, and which can easily get carried over in AI, is that we can somehow sustain what God has done in our midst. The church ceases to be spiritual and becomes metaphysical (in a Heideggerian or Nietzschean sense). We lose the truth of the thing and what existence is all about.

4. “In a redeemed future, people live in peace and harmony with God and each other on a renewed earth. ..” I don't see too much difference between between this and the idea of individualistic bliss that proceeds it. It still makes the terminus and future the goal. I would emphasize the comment that follows: “We move toward that future as we live that way in the present. “

My understanding of eschatology was formed by George Ladd et. al., that the future is present now (which is probably why he is one of the patron saints of the emerging church movement).

Anyway, I think I heard what was said. I'm still listening.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for your in-depth contributions!

The key to this particular discussion (I think AI could be re-worked for different aspects of the gospel) is an eschatological presumption that God, in Christ, has inaugurated the Kingdom (ala G.E. Ladd), and that this in-breaking Kingdom is the future state coming into the present (ala N.T. Wright).

(1) there is a synergistic understanding of what gets you "into" the Kingdom and what "happens when you get there."

(2) One enters the Kingdom by a crisis event [one must be "born again" to see the Kingdom - John 3], AND as we live out the Lord's Prayer ("Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven"), we begin to "feel its impact and presence as I draw near, and eventually see the skyline (of the future consummated Kingdom) from a distance".

(3) The Church is the eschatological community on earth - living the future Kingdom in the present. This is accomplished only as a spiritual exercise, with Christ as head and the Holy Spirit indwelling the church.

(4) The future remains the goal, in that, in the future, God will finally and ultimately make all things right. This is what I think of when we say we live in "hope." The hope is not a pie-in-the-sky and let's-just-wait-for-it thing, it is when God's promised future draws us into doing those things in the here-and-now. And since the future is Shalom relationships between God, humanity, and the Creation, we live for that in the here-and-now.

Anonymous said...

Bob, great stuff! I wish I had thought of the AI angle, but that's it, of course. I had just told someone the other day that if we started with the question, "What has God been doing in your life?" or some version of it, then we evangelicals might be bowled over by the answers. And you did it! You framed the evan conversation beautifully! I'm going to think about this and be back! -- Chuck

Dan Wilt said...

Thank you for the premise out of which we approach the human being. We are bearers of the image of God, at essence (though many debate exactly what that means - in essence or vocation).

Statements of Faith around the world begin with the brokeness of humankind to emphasize our great battle - but leave out the best part of the story. All should be edited.

We're so afraid that the elevation of human beings will detract from the glory of God, primarily because humankind is meant to be an amplifying lens to God's glory, rather than an opaque glass that keeps glory focused on itself.

I won't speak to the rest of the piece, but am grateful for the front end material. I'll reference it in my own blog soon.

Bob Robinson said...

My number one passion is to introduce people to Jesus Christ. The ways we've been doing it for the last few decades worked then, but as I interact with people in a postmodern context, I find that they are very skeptical and pessimistic about Christianity offering any "good news." The reason? Because we've been primarily framing the conversation around "You're a sinner." This immediately puts people on the defensive. No wonder we don't get a hearing!
So, I started re-framing the conversations in an affirmative way. We'll get to sin and repentance eventually, but we won't start there.

Bob Robinson said...


Yes, I think we've been "so afraid that the elevation of human beings will detract from the glory of God." The problem is in that we've warped our God-given glory from that "amplifying lens to God's glory" into an "opaque glass that keeps glory focused on itself." Beautiful way to say it.

So, evangelicals have said that there's nothing good in the human, and cite verses that say so (though I think such verses are meant to be taken hyperbolically).

I'm suggesting that the human essence is not our depravity but our glory as God's image-bearers. Let's focus first not on our depravity but on the imago Dei. We are meant to shine like stars. We are meant to reflect the Creator.

Let's start with that premise as we talk to people about Christ. We'll get further than when we start out with "You're a despicable sinner."

Anonymous said...

I really cannot appreciate this approach. When Christ kenotically became man the goal was the cross, death, culminating in redemption, and the "restoration" of your "image-bearing" through His reconciliatory work. Our identification with Him, through death (sin), becomes the instrument through which creation can function at its "created status". Your presentation puts the cart before the horse . . . putting the crown before the cross.

This seems noble, but reframes the problem/resolution symmetry in a way that displaces the divine symmetry disclosed by the Holy Spirit in the scriptures. In other words, the bad news (man's need--he's a sinner) creating space for the "good news" . . . which in your scenario is reversed (see Galatians).

In fact there is fundamental flaw in the logic of your argument; namely, that man is an image-bearer of God apart from union with Him. In fact Colossians calls Christ the eikon (image) of God, He alone is THE image bearer of God, to start with a pre-fall creation anthropology as the starting point of the gospel presumes, I think, more than is warranted by scripture. Unless of course your operating from a universalist soteriology . . . and then of course this would be problematic as well, but your argument does seem to presuppose this outlook.

Anyway just some random thoughts . . .

Bob Robinson said...

bobby grow,

Thanks for commenting. Here's some of my thoughts in return...

Your contention that humans cannot be image-bearers of God apart from union with Christ is simply not correct. Humanity's image-bearing remains even after the Fall. We see this in Genesis (POST-fall) where God gives Noah the authority to establish the death penalty for murder. God says “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). Even though men are sinful (they kill each other!), there is still enough likeness to God remaining in them that to murder another person is to attack the part of creation that most resembles God. The New Testament confirms this as well; in James 3:9 we read that all humanity, not just believers, "are made in the likeness of God."

So, what I'm doing with this approach is to affirm and appreciate this in all human beings as the starting point. Once we have established this as our starting point, we can get into why it is not going the way we all would hope it would (at which time I can talk about the effects of the Fall on our image-bearing capabilities).

Theologically, Genesis tells us that we were primarily created to bear God's image. This "pre-fall creation anthropology" must be the starting point of the gospel, for it is who we are in essence. The reason Christ is the eikon (image) of God is to restore the fullness of our pre-fall image-bearing potential. To start our anthropology with the Fall or our depravity is to confuse the matter - it makes our brokenness the main thing, rather than God's Creation of us, his purpose for us, and his desire to restore us and the rest of his Creation.

This is hardly a universalist approach to the gospel, in that it requires our yielding our lives to the power of Christ to redeem our image-bearing capabilities. This is what the Christian life is - yielding to the Spirit in order to become conformed to the likeness of Christ, in the ways He bears God's image.

Anonymous said...

Bob (nice name by the way ;),

I agree that we retain the imago dei post fall (cf. Gen. 9:6, etc.), but the whole point of the cross was to restore humanity back to THE image of God in Christ. This begs the question, and maybe this is all you're stating, what has separated man from being able to fully bear God's image---which is sin. Isn't this the purpose of the incarnation of Christ? Isn't this the purpose of the assumptio carnis, the assumption of humanity by Christ? Isn't this what II Cor. 5:21 highlights?

To me your approach emphasizes a low view of the sufficiency of Christ's cross-work. Viz. the negative, sin, casts a shadow upon the positive, Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. In other words, sin has been condemned in Christ's body (Rom 8:3ff), thus our guilty state magnifies and exalts Christ as the only supreme one (cf. Col. 1:13ff) whom could provide union with the Father through His reconciliatory work. It seems to focus on a creation ethic, as your approach does, exalts creation/nature w/o Christ. Creation's telos is necessarily tied up in Christ's redemption (Rom 8:19ff).

Anyway we disagree on this. I don't buy into creation ethics, or using supposed points of commonality (other than our sin) to engage the world . . . whether that be talking about ethics, or soteriology.

greglong said...

I was interested to see that your Appreciative Inquiry does not include any mention of the death and resurrection of Christ. Can you help me understand how they fit into your presentation?