Increasingly we have become a society that uses polarizing words instead of words that allow and engage conversation. Instead of picking a graceful term that can be debated we pull out the flame throwers and use inflammatory words designed to create a visceral response. Such a word is often used to describe the desire of many Christians to tell others about their faith in God. Those who are offended by that activity immediately accuse them of proselytizing. The mere use of the word moves the motive from concern to coercion. Violators of my beliefs will be proselytized!
I was surprised to see that proselytize is used as a synonym for brainwashing at an online thesaurus site. The actual definition listed by dictionary.com is:
1. To induce someone to convert to one’s own religious faith.
2. To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.
I had never paid a lot of attention to the use of the word. I know it has become a pejorative when used to refer to Christians. But as I read the definitions it became clear to me that I need to gently challenge this word and its usage with Christian evangelism. As an evangelical Christian (evangelical will be a future “bad word” topic) I do not feel it is my mission to “convert” someone to my religious faith. I cannot “convert” anyone to Christian faith. That is God’s job. In baseball parlance I am merely a set-up man at best…the Holy Spirit of God is the closer. I do have a job. Actually it is a command that Jesus gave in Matthew.
Jesus said, “”Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: “Love others as well as you love yourself.’ Matthew 22 The Message
Frankly we have too often lost track of these simple yet powerful commands. When we love others sacrificially our message becomes inviting…not proselytizing. If you have ever been around a Christian who is truly living these words then you know how powerful their life influence can be for those who know them. Saint Francis of Assisi wonderfully observed that we should “preach the gospel at all times…if necessary, use words.” Do you see the power of letting the gospel message flow out of our actions?
But to anyone reading this who is of a different faith or no faith at all I must confess my dilemma to you. If I truly believe this to be the truth and if my faith in Christ has genuinely changed my life then how can I not tell you? Why should you be offended if I care enough to reach out gently and in love? I openly acknowledge that too many Christians are heavy-handed and even mean when they attempt to communicate their beliefs. I know. I was wounded by some of those legalistic types. But should I automatically be offended if someone wants to tell me something that they believe is life-changing and eternal?
I remember being intimately involved with some friends over a period of years because of our kid’s sports activities. They were from a denomination that believed only they were going to heaven. They knew we did not belong to that denomination. Yet they never once said a word that they believed we were off track and even doomed. Would I have changed my views? No. But it would have showed that they cared enough to let me know what they held dear and their concern for me. I was actually a little hurt that they didn’t seem to care that I would not join them in heaven.
Michael Kinsley wrote in Time magazine (February 19, 2001) about the anger that some folks feel toward Christians who seem compelled to share their faith.
“You may not agree that your soul needs saving, but why is he wrong to try as long as he isn’t prying away your soul against your will? As an ethnically Jewish nonbeliever, I find this fuss over conversion utterly baffling…But an insult? In a way, it is insulting to Jews that Fundamentalist Christians don’t try harder to convert us. Oh sure, they’re friendly enough now. But wait until Judgment Day. Then it will be, `Sorry, we seem to have lost your reservation.’ And from this perspective, the Jewish policy of actively discouraging converts to Judaism starts to seem like `theological arrogance’ indeed. At the same time, when you object to noncoercive conversion, it starts to look like the opposite of arrogance: theological insecurity. What are you afraid of? The decision will be made by you or by God, and in either case; there is no ground for complaint.”
I suspect that technique is too often the rub. As I mentioned, I was a victim of over the top zealous religious people as a teenager. I am still a little amazed that I eventually came to faith.
If I care about you I will naturally want to share the most important thing in my life. But I think you have some rights as the hearer of that message. I wrote the following in my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good Christians.
The Unbelievers Bill of Rights…
- I have the right to never have faith forced on me.
- I have the right to never be treated in a condescending manner.
- I have the right to always hear the truth.
- I have the right for you to patiently hear my concerns and doubts.
- I have the right to seek answers to those questions and doubts that you can’t answer.
- I have the right to be steered to resources for my own study and investigation.
- I have the right to be loved no matter how I respond to the gospel message.
I hope that I honor you by following the list above. I hope you will understand that my wanting to let you know about the most important thing in my life honors you as well. My desire is for you to experience the peace, joy and contentment that Christ has given to me. God only comes into lives when invited. You have every right to reject my message and the invitation. But I want to let you know that invitation changed my life completely. I hope you believe that I feel no superiority, judgment or impatience with you. I just wanted you to know. The rest is up to you.