Friday, December 21, 2007

Evangelism vs. Proselytizing

I have had a number of threads occupying my thoughts lately, and this morning a new contrast between proselytizing and evangelizing seems to have brought them together. I hope that I can present them without making a huge knot.

In a previous post, I quoted the oft-stated "Quakers don't proselytize", and made the point that Liberal Quakers do proselytize, but it is not about their faith but instead about issues like peace, equality, economic justice, etc. The traditional peace testimony is that we live in the "virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars", yet it seems that our efforts in peacemaking don't involve trying to bring people into the virtue of that same life and power, but rather trying to achieve an external peace, rather than an internal one.

When I read Fox's epistles, there is a constant emphasis on dwelling in the light (keep in it, stay in it, dwell in it, walk in it). Isaac Penington conveys the same message with "Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart". My understanding of the importance of everything deriving from the Light within has been ever-deepening.

In the post where I talked about "Quakers don't proselytize", I suggested that it wasn't the proselytizing that was wrong, but WHAT we were proselytizing. Again, it goes back to trying to achieve the results in others without the spirit that provides those results in us. I have come to understand that I was wrong, and that the statement "Quakers don't proselytize" is true - or at least should be true if we are acting rightly.

I have known conservative Friends who push Christ on people - that the Light is Christ, and you must believe that in order to be a Quaker. This is another form of proselytizing, one that is much more common in the greater Christian community. There is a passage in Matthew where Jesus asks the disciples "who do you say that I am?" and Peter replies "You are the Christ, the Son of God", and Jesus replies "You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven!" Similarly, Paul writes that "none can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit". To me, that means that one's emphasis shouldn't be on trying to get someone to make theological statements about the nature of that inward Light, but to help them turn towards that Light, and let it reveal its nature to them.

So what I am getting at with proselytizing, is that it is by definition "the attempt to convert a person to another opinion or religion". But if we hold firm to our understanding of the working of the Light of Christ, it is not us that does the converting, it is the interaction between that Light and the other person.

Another thing that has been growing on me, especially since the FGC Consultation on Gospel Ministry is the importance of evangelism - and for me, I feel that I am slowly coming under the weight of a concern in this respect. Let me just clarify a couple of words here. First, evangelism means "spreading the good news" (it derives from the Greek word euangellion, eu- for good, and angellion for message). Gospel is an old English word that also means "good news", so "Gospel Ministry" is also "Evangelical Ministry", and is "Spreading the good news".

So what is the good news? This is a point of difference between Quakers and modern Christians, because for many Christians, the good news is "Christ died for our sins". For Quakers, however, the good news can be summed up by George Fox's statement that "Christ has come to teach his people himself". Lloyd Lee Wilson also offered a good version at the recent consultation, which I can't do justice to, but was essentially that "the Kingdom of God is at hand, that it is immediately accessible". Even 2000 years later, this is still news to a lot of people.

Now, if I am to be consistent with a call to heed the Light and do only what we are led, I can't really say "we need to go evangelize". Maybe that's what some are called to do, maybe others aren't. I can say, however, that we need to be open to it. When we find ourselves proselytizing - when we have that earnestness to make someone think as we do, we need to ask if it really from the spirit or from our own egos. When we shy away from talking about our faith, we should ask ourselves whether that is also our ego trying to shield itself, or whether it is the spirit telling us that the time isn't right. We need to listen to know when the time is right. I think that is much harder to do if you aren't open to the possibility of being called to evangelize. In our openness towards evangelism, though, we also need to keep in mind George Fox's words "you will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light,and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?"