Saturday, October 03, 2009

Evangelism

Evangelicals also get evangelised by other groups, and each other. Certain Christians always seem to be interested in trying to convince you you need a second baptism, or to get slain in the spirit, or that your understanding of the end times is backwards; that you should be attending certain seminars, reading such-and-such a book, or listening to some new preacher.

I often find it irritating, depending on the social skills of the presenter, so I well understand what non-Christians feel when Christianity in general is presented to them that way. Yet I don't feel insulted. I just think they're wrong, or majoring in minors. I don't think I have ever felt insulted by any such folks, including heterodox groups such as LDS or Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't feel insulted by Christians witnessing to me before I became one myself. I can't imagine why I would. Just irritated. Uncomfortable. Buddhists, New Agers, and TM devotees don't evangelise by saying "you should convert to Buddhism," but by telling you practices you should adopt, or attitudes you should cultivate, or cool people they've run across who they think you should emulate because of the wonderful peacefulness/groundedness/tolerance they display. That's evangelism, and perhaps a bit more irritating because it isn't honest with itself about what is happening.

I find it irritating when wrong things get said (which explains my desire to challenge such things and return conversations to level ground). I understand the irritated response from those who disagree.

But if you are insulted, I think that's your own problem, not ours. Whether you learned it at your mother's knee or developed it as an adult, the idea that some great moral transgression has occurred if someone expresses that your religion is not adequate to eternal tasks, does not flow from Natural Law. Social transgression, sure. We evangelicals often take that risk and pay that social price. But equating that with moral transgression - you'll have to deal with that yourself, I think. Can't help you there.

There is also an interesting disconnect between uses of "convert" which causes much mischief. If I try to persuade some Hindu (or, heck, Christian from another denomination) to switch to my Covenant church, I do not say, or think, "I want to convert that person." I want them to be converted by something that they do to themselves, not something I do to them. The change in verb form indicates an important reality. Not even at a deeper level do I want God to "convert" them. God doesn't work that way. It's not an external force being applied to you.

In a nonreligious sense we say "convert miles to kilometers," and that very much carries the sense of an outside force being imposed on the numbers. To claim that evangelising is the same thing is just inaccurate. In fact, it is suspiciously inaccurate, as if the person needs to pretend that something is being done to them - that others are trying to make them do something. There were eras when new rulers took over and made everyone under their authority convert to some new religion. At a milder but still very wrong level, some countries have religious tests that one cannot hold certain jobs unless one belongs to the national religion. Those pressures do not obtain here.

So I give a suspicious glance when folks claim You/they are trying to convert me. I think it's an evasion, one more way to resist hearing what is said.

Irritating? Yes. We evangelicals raise our hand like a basketball player acknowledging a foul. We do that. Sometimes we don't like it any better than the recipient, because it can be socially uncomfortable for us, too. We try to find ways to get out of it, actually. But the complaint that we are insulting or trying to make someone do something? We don't own that. I think those come from inside the hearers.

6 comments:

Retriever said...

Good post, AVI. I would add that I have often felt flattered when people have tried to convert me, especially when they actually know me (as opposed to on the street pouncing). It implies that they care, and that they want to share something of great value with me.

I was brought back into the church, and became a Christian as an adult because people cared enough to present their views and encouraged me in my own journey of faith. The famous saying is that Christianity isn't taught, it's caught.

I agree that most faiths (except those that are primarily ethnic and tribal) try to convert one. Perhaps that is the distinction: tribes one is born into, and faiths one converts to. For example, to the ethnically Japanese, I shall always be a smelly outsider, because non-Japanese. They may be polite about it, but I shall always be other.

Christianity and Islam alike are (in theory at least) non-tribal, non-ethnic, and universal. I have more in common with a black construction worker/former football player who teaches Sunday School with me than with a WASP agnostic intellectual I went to college with, because my faith is a more central part of who I am than my tribe. I think.

Unlike a high-caste Brahmin (who considers themself superior to an untouchable), a Christian knows that they are just an ordinary sinner like anyone else.

To say that Christians should convert their own first, for example in Europe, doesn't make sense, because there has never been a Christian ethnicity. Modern Europeans have mostly gone back to the paganism they practiced, and to some extent never really abandonned. Catholicism managed to coopt the local goddess and fertility myths for awhile, but they have lost much ground, perhaps chiefly because of clerical abuses and the inability of the Papacy to concede on issues like the role of women and the ordination of married clergy. Protestantism never had more than a minority role and the real zealots came to America.

Significantly, Christianity is at its most vibrant and evangelical today in Africa.

For myself, I have not been much of an evangelist. I can't even persuade my own husband to attend church regularly let alone become a Christian (as we evangelicals would understand the adult commitment to a personal relationship with God) or join a church (ie: covenant with a specific faith community)My children have more or less fallen away, tho they are good , moral, altruistic and kind people.

I have often invited friends to church or BIble studies, and in my youth did overtly missionary work inviting unchurched people from the neighborhood to join our congregation, but otherwise nothing. I would like my agnostic and atheist friends to know God and feel His love in a loving church, but I wouldn't presume to try to convert someone from another faith, or manipulate anyone.

I understand why people have found some evangelicals irritating, but I certainly don't make friends with people who are Islamic or Jewish or Hindu or agnostic thinking "My goal in this relationship is to convert them to MY faith and my way of thinking." I get to know them wondering "What kind of person is this, and what can we learn from each other, and how does their faith (or lack or it) challenge and inform my own."

I feel far more affinity for devout practitioners of other faiths, than for agnostics raised Christian. Perhaps because, tho our theologies are different, our practices and our mission descriptions also, we share the basic attitude of worshipping a Being greater than ourselves, who calls us to the service of Himself and of others, calls us beyond ourselves. As opposed to secular hedonism and narcissism.

Sorry to go on so long....(have a bad cold so a little spacey)

Donna B. said...

Does one have to commit a great moral transgression against me for me to be insulted? I think it is quite possible for someone to be insulting without intending to be.

They merely need be insensitive to insult.

This is why I find it insulting for a stranger to start a conversation with "Where do you go to church?"

The intent behind the statement is more often than not similar to "How do you like this weather?" But no one's feelings are going to get hurt or their beliefs brought into question over a disagreement about whether it's too hot or too cold or just right.

The church question is more than irritating because there is no way to answer it without risk of an unfriendly disagreement. I can't tell why the person is asking, so it's sort of like a trick question.

Should you want to evangelize me, be upfront about. Hand me tract, invite me to your church, etc.

If you just want to friendly, ask about the weather.

Der Hahn said...

In a nonreligious sense we say "convert miles to kilometers," and that very much carries the sense of an outside force being imposed on the numbers.

Which is kind of odd since the distance is the same regardless of the unit of measure. What's being changed is our perspective.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That'ws why I changed it to "numbers."

Kim Shimer said...

AVI, would you be interested in reviewing a new book on evangelism? Got Style? Personality-Based Evangelism by Jeff Johnson shows us how to witness most effectively based on our personality-type. I'd be happy to send you a copy if you're interested. You can read more about the book here: http://www.judsonpress.com/product.cfm?product_id=13512

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It might be a wonderful book, but as I believe personality types are a myth, I doubt I'd be a sympathetic reviewer.