22 October 2015

Evangelism or proselytism?

"Russia's biggest circus" comes to Elektrostal.
A Friends educator I hadn't seen in years was visiting our Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions a couple of summers ago. He told me there that he sometimes quotes me as saying "Quakers don't proselytize."

Did I really say that? To my best recollection, when I first said "Quakers don't proselytize," I was probably quoting Jack Kirk, a Friends United Meeting leader who was one of my first encouragers just as I was beginning to realize that I was being called into a public role among Friends. Jack in turn was quoting the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting conventional wisdom of his own youth -- quoting, but not necessarily agreeing.

I had mixed feelings about hearing that I was being quoted this way. By my own definition of proselytism, I actually believe the statement is correct but incomplete. I interpret proselytism to mean any attempt to change someone else's religious affiliation (however satisfactory it might be to them) in favor of one's own affiliation. In other words, "stealing sheep."

By any objective statistical account, we Friends in fact either don't believe in proselytism, or we are highly ineffective in practicing it. Philadelphia is one of the historic centers of Friends, but there are three times as many Catholics in the Philadelphia archdiocese as Quakers in the whole world. Rather than admitting to sheer communal incompetence, I prefer to believe that we actually resist trying to lure people away from their settled spiritual home into ours.

However, Quakers do evangelize.  Or, that is, we ought to. Anywhere there is spiritual seeking, spiritual questioning, or spiritual oppression, people ought to have access to the Friends message: "Christ is here to teach his people himself." Evangelism is not an attempt to hook people who already have a good relationship with their Creator in their present spiritual home. It is simply a winsome expression of our Christian testimony, coupled with an invitation to experience the community formed by that testimony. It utterly depends on honesty, accessibility, and hospitality.

My definition of "testimony" is pretty wide. The word encompasses what we have learned about God's power in our personal lives and our life together as a centuries-old community of believers. Together we have learned that God's power pulls down strongholds of violence, greed, social distinctions, and all the various ways that we mistreat and minimize each other. Those old bondages are replaced by the voluntary bonds of commitment to each other, and our willingness to open our arms to others who judge that we are a trustworthy place to find a spiritual home. Together we learn to live with God at the center of our lives, with Jesus as our all-sufficient prophet, priest, and king, and with the Holy Spirit as the foundation of our worship and church government.

Not that we always agree on what these things mean! We have never entrusted the preservation of our Quaker identity to any single list of doctrines or any central office. As much as we cherish the Bible, we don't have a standard school of biblical interpretation. (We in Northwest Yearly Meeting are right now learning the hard way about how important it is to open up to each other more tenderly and honestly about our conflicts in this area.)

We also don't always agree on what it means to see God's power pulling down strongholds. Some of us refuse to pay taxes for military spending and counsel our children to be conscientious objectors. Others avoid contact with political controversies of any kind in favor of cultivating lives of devotion and prayer. Women serve in pastoral ministry and denominational leadership, but not every local Friends church is in unity with our teaching on equality. A minority of Friends congregations have no pastor at all while others have full-time pastors with large staffs, and there is every possible variation in between. Our worship is equally varied, ranging from an hour or more of waiting on God (with no planned programming or sermon at all), to an order of worship that often resembles other Protestants to some degree.

Although in a weak moment I might prefer to have everyone see things exactly my way, I'm not actually embarrassed by all this variety. If we are going to be honest, the person who is getting to know Friends might as well see the whole messy picture. Friends will never win the commitment of new people through slick and uniform presentation (although can't we be a bit more creative?!). Nor will we ever claim that we are the only believers who have a clue about God. Instead, I would love to see new Friends attracted by one form or another of this important connection: their own hope finds a resonance, a partnership with our experience.

For this to happen, we must make our experience of life in God -- and its ethical consequences -- known, accessible, verifiable. That's what I mean by evangelism.

October 29: PS.

Some earlier reflections on evangelism:

Meditations on sectarianism
The Golden Age of evangelism
"We will never see another non-Christian"
Who owns the Quaker brand?
Evangelism and the Quaker Testimonies Google Group/archive

Netanyahu's "fairy tale about Hitler" and why it's damaging.

"That letter again" ... namely the letter from British Anglican bishops concerning refugees. (Thanks to Fulcrum Anglican for the link.)

American evangelicals are "officially divided" on the death penalty.

Economist: Some Middle Eastern Christians are speaking up against "holy war" in Syria. (And is there a "just war" doctrine in Orthodox Christianity? Stanley Harakas says no. And for Russian readers, Quaker Tatiana Pavlova's book The Long Path of Russian Pacifism, with summary of contents in English.)

Depression: the struggle none of us want to talk about.

Terry Evans and Hans Theessink:


Marshall Massey said...

I proselytize & am not ashamed, my friend. I think, if you have something genuinely worth proselytizing for, you will find it very hard not to do so.

Johan Maurer said...

The definition of proselytism is a politically loaded issue. My own idiosyncratic definition is designed to signal that I totally don't intend to steal sheep by making claims based on unfair comparisons of others' spiritual homes to my own. However, imperial religions consider any sort of competition, however ethically conducted, to be "proselytism." From that viewpoint, I too engage in this dreaded activity.

There's a related issue that I'm going to cover in a future post ... and that is our obligation to include access to our spiritual message and community when we conduct what we Friends sometimes timidly call "outreach." No hint of "quid pro quo" but simply access.

Mackenzie said...

A Friend told me that she went to the World Gathering of Young Friends in 2005 and had the following conversation with some Latin American Friends:

LatAmF: Is it true Friends in the US don't proselytize?

Her: Yes

LatAmF: Why not?'

Her: We just don't, ok?

*this came up a few times over several days*

Her: So what do you do when you're proselytizing?

LatAmF: oh, well, we have a soup kitchen, job training, job placement... That kind of stuff. And if anyone asks why we're doing this, well, Jesus calls us to help others.

Her: oh, service!

LatAmF: of course! Wait, what does proselytizing mean to you?

Her: standing on a street corner with a sign telling people they're going to Hell

LatAmF: does... does that actually work?

Her: No

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Mackenzie! Thanks for sending along that story. I heard some similar stories from people who'd been to that gathering. A few of the participants attended the Friends World Committee triennial in Mexico a short time later, and we certainly got some earfuls about what happened at the World Gathering.

I'm about to write a few more thoughts about this topic. But in connection with the scene you describe, I wonder whether a less blatant street-corner approach, a softer sell, would be any more ethical. Might it be even less ethical if it were more ... well ... attractive or sophisticated? Or for another variation on the theme, I once wrote about the fake "Christians are jerks" approach....

I want to be clear: I think there is nothing wrong with an honest and straightforward invitation. If all a group has to offer is a scare message, then I guess that street corner sign is pretty straightforward! (What it does for the reputation of the Gospel is a concern for the rest of us as well, but most people can understand that any message has a range of messengers of varying abilities, motivations, and maturity.)