Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Cognitive Bias and the Gospel

Written by: on March 11, 2024

Three days ago, I picked up Sway by Pragya Agarwal.[1] I began reading, and by page 35 I knew what I wanted to write my blog post about. Because I want to keep you in suspense, I’ll come to that in a minute.

After the first chapter, I intended to continue with an inspectional read, but I kept getting sucked in deeper. In many ways Sway is reminiscent of several other books we’ve encountered, namely Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything by Bobby Duffy and Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. Agarwal also leans on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow which is referenced several times. All these authors would agree, I think, with Agarwal’s own summary of her own work: “Our instincts help us to assess people and situations quickly, determine whether or not we can trust them, and make timely decisions… The bad news is that in this process, we also form biases that cloud our instincts.”[2] However what sets Agarwal apart is her analysis of the intersectionality of implicit biases “and how it creates privilege and opportunities for some but not for others due to an associated attribute that is considered less socially normative or desirable.”[3]

As Agarwal explained various biases and prejudices, I began to see my own context a little differently. Agarwal asserts, “Humans are tribal creatures.”[4] Tribalism is hard-wired into us for our own good, the negative effects we see in society today notwithstanding. As I read this, I thought of my friends who have grown up in secular French society. Since they were little children, they’ve been taught to reason and discuss using logic and philosophy. In essence their tribe (their extended family, their educational environment, the media outlets around them, etc.) leaves no space for the supernatural or divine. As a result, whenever I mention anything gospel-related their cognitive biases kick into gear. It’s almost like they perceive my spiritual conversation as a threat from an “out-group”. Even if on some level they want to consider the truth of the Bible, it’s like they have internal alarm bells going off due to their cognitive biases.[5]

In addition to the “in-group/out-group” bias my friends are also dealing with confirmation bias. This could come in many forms. Perhaps every time they read about another tragedy in the world, their confirmation bias says, “A good God wouldn’t allow this suffering.” Or every time a church leader is caught in a moral failure, their confirmation bias says, “This just proves Christians are all hypocrites.” Over time, their negative stereotypes are reinforced, and they get farther and farther away from believing in God. Because of their cognitive biases, it becomes nearly impossible for many of my French friends to believe in God. They simply can’t allow for the possibility of God’s existence because it causes them too much cognitive dissonance.[6]

This all may sound terribly negative, but it actually helped me to see my missionary work through this lens. Understanding Agarwal’s analysis has encouraged me in two ways. Firstly, it gives words to our daily experience as missionaries in France. The average person we meet is atheist or agnostic and can’t simply make the cognitive leap to believe in God just because we explain the gospel message clearly. We’ve actually had people go through a process of Discovery Bible Study only to tell us, “I love everything you’re talking about and I like the community I see you living out, but I can’t just make myself believe in something that I don’t think is real.”

Secondly, all this reinforces what we’ve always known. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44). Every single person who decides to follow Jesus is a miracle; it requires both a conscious decision on the part of the individual and the Holy Spirit working supernaturally to prepare the person’s heart. In my context, I am convinced that supernatural work of the Spirit involves breaking down those cognitive biases I’ve mentioned.

That said, Agarwal also explains how confirmation bias and tribalism can be a powerful force for social change.[7] She’s essentially describing what I’ve heard called positive peer pressure. In my context, this has become a significant factor in my ministry. In a society where evangelical Christians are either unheard of or seen as bizarre, I see one aspect of my ministry as simply “normalizing” a life of faith in Jesus.[8] My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would use our simple acts of loving our neighbors to supernaturally break down some of those cognitive biases they hold. May it be so.


[1] More than most, this author piqued my curiosity; I wanted to know who she is as a person. If you’re looking to go down a rabbit hole, her free-lance journalism work is interesting. For example: https://www.wired.com/story/artificial-intelligence-empathy/, https://www.news24.com/life/relationships/love/news/emotional-labour-what-it-is-and-why-it-falls-to-women-in-the-workplace-and-at-home-20221214, https://www.dawn.com/news/1735294

[2] Agarwal, Pragya. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020. 36.

[3] Ibid. 408.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] For more on the intersection of cognition and faith, I found this article helpful: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968360/

[7] Agarwal, Pragya. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020. 79.

[8] I’ve blown past my allotted space for this post, but I would be amiss not to mention The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George C. Hunter. This book describes how St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Celtic people in large part by living out Christian community among them, inviting them in and letting them see that following Jesus was at the same time “normal” and beautifully transformational.


About the Author


Kim Sanford

6 responses to “Cognitive Bias and the Gospel”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi Kim-
    I imagine reading SWAY was powerful in giving you language for all that you have experienced as a “stranger in a strange land!” I like your last takeaway of focusing on how to normalize Christianity to those in your receiving culture.
    The discussion of tribes was a spark for me as well… I wish I had dug deeper into that concept in my blog and how a tribal group responds to an outsider trying to move into the circle; interpreting it perhaps as a threat…but I got distracted with other content. Oh well, next time!

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    Great post, Kim, especially in light of what you shared while on the hot seat in our cohort’s zoom chat this week. In your post, you wrote, “In my context, I am convinced that supernatural work of the Spirit involves breaking down those cognitive biases I’ve mentioned.” I’m curious how much of this perspective has evolved in your life as a missionary in a post/(pre?) Christian context where so many people you encounter are either atheistic or agnostic, as you said. Like, to what degree has your “bias” toward trying to convince (through apologetics/argument, maybe?) a French mind of the truth of the gospel to, instead, living more as a faithful disciple of Jesus among those you hope to reach (and sharing the truth of the gospel as people inquire about your life and work)? Does that make sense? Or perhaps that hasn’t been too much of a problem for you.

    • mm Kim Sanford says:

      You ask some really important questions, Travis. These are discussions we’ve been having on our team for the past 10+ years, especially as some of us clearly have the spiritual gift of evangelism and others of us have been given different gifts. Because I am not a gifted evangelist, sometimes I’m tempted to, as you say, live as a “faithful disciple of Jesus among those [we] hope to reach and share the truth of the gospel as people inquire about [our] life and work.” But here’s the thing, they never actually ask questions about why we’re different. Instead we get a lot of comments like, “Wow you’re so active in the community.” or “You always do so much for our neighborhood.” Over time, we’ve learned to seize those opportunities and turn the conversation to our reason and purpose in Jesus. So I guess the answer to your question is that we’ve tried to find the balance between seeking out the arguments and passively waiting for the opportunities to come to us. We’re always trying to cultivate opportunities for spiritual conversations and provoke an interest in Jesus where maybe none existed previously.

  3. Kally Elliott says:

    Kim, you write, “I see one aspect of my ministry as simply “normalizing” a life of faith in Jesus.” Yesssss! I too, have seen this as an aspect of my life in ministry and as a parent in the football stands, a friend at the happy hour table, a board member of a community non-profit, etc.

    My question is theological. You write, “Every single person who decides to follow Jesus is a miracle; it requires both a conscious decision on the part of the individual and the Holy Spirit working supernaturally to prepare the person’s heart. In my context, I am convinced that supernatural work of the Spirit involves breaking down those cognitive biases I’ve mentioned.” While I agree with this, I also have to ask (maybe I am asking myself this question), what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t “choose” a particular person to do that preparation? Does the HS prepare everyone? I don’t know – it’s an age old question. Just something that came to mind as I was reading your post. Thanks Kim!

  4. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Kally, yep, that’s an age-old question, isn’t it? I’ve always described myself as Armenian, so I do think that every human being makes his or her own choice. I guess I would say that the Holy Spirit “prepares” everyone in the sense that we have general revelation. That said, in my experience a very few people seem to have experiences of revelation where the Holy Spirit breaks through and does something really special in their hearts. The first time we witnessed this was at an outreach event where a young woman walked by. When she heard we were talking about Jesus she started asking us all sorts of questions. A few months previous, she had been walking by a church and was drawn in by the music she heard inside. She went inside and was so overcome by the Holy Spirit that she knew she had experienced God. That experience so primed her heart to be receptive to the gospel that she took the first step of faith within a week of meeting us and hearing the gospel message. Obviously, that was just a first step and I don’t want to downplay the fact that much discipleship was needed after that. But that was a sort of anchor-experience early in our ministry that was and still is very encouraging.

    In any case, faith is a gift every time. That’s what I pray for my friends and neighbors every day – the gift of faith.

  5. mm John Fehlen says:

    I too intended to do an inspectional reading of this one (due to size) and found myself sucked in and before I knew it I had read it all. And enjoyed it.

    Thanks for the recommendation of “The Celtic Way of Evangelism” by George C. Hunter. Ordering it now from Amazon!

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