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?"


  1. Your post speaks to my condition. Just prior to Christmas I had occasion to drive up to Woodland to worship with the Rich Square MM two weeks in a row. A neighbor and former philosophy department colleague of mine whose wife has recently died expressed the wish to go up to the Rich Square Meeting where they had been married fifteen years ago. I agreed to drive. During meeting Lloyd Lee's vocal ministry revolved around a bit a ministry George Parker had given many years ago in which he said "I am not ashamed of the gospel." This resonated with me, as most of George's ministry did, but I couldn't quite say why exactly. On the long ride back to Greenville it became clearer how this ministry was directed to me. Intellectuals are frequently "ashamed of the gospel." They associate the gospel with the views of the Christian right and don't want to be associated with that. So they consciously distance themselves from Christianity, emphasizing how they disagree with elements of Christian tradition. I went through a long period of such thinking myself, but have slowly and gradually come to see that those parts of Christian tradition that I do see as true are precious and important and, I think, form the real essence of Christianity.

    So on the long ride back when Ernie asked me "Do you consider yourself religious?" and "Do you consider yourself a theist?" and finally "Do you consider yourself a Christian?" I was prepared to give a plain unvarnished "yes" to all three questions. What I didn't do was act like I was ashamed of the gospel by emphasizing all my points of disagreement with Christian tradition (the virgin birth, the doctrine of the atonement, etc.) I could simply say that I was a Christian.

    I do think that more of us should prepare ourselves for at least this much evangelizing. We should not be ashamed of the gospel.

  2. I think the difference between evangelism and proselytizing is that evangelism is sharing joy and spirit while proselytizing is telling people that joy and spirit are exclusive to one particular practice by a certain name. To me, to talk about God's Love would be evangelism, but to talk about Christianity would be proselytizing. It's the meat versus the packaging I guess. To some people, they are one and the same, and that is why others become closed to the message. Jesus did not tell people, "You must be a Christian." He was simply so good that people wanted to follow him around wherever he went and talk about him afterward. That's my goal in life. It speaks to my condition that even Mother Teresa did not baptize babies who were going to Hindu families, and the dying people in her home were read prayers of their own faith.

  3. Richard,
    Thanks so much for sharing that. For me, a lot of the "not being ashamed" has to do with giving in to God's will and not just trying to do what I think I should do, or what I want to do. I have a long way to go there.

    If I read your response right, you are equating "Christianity" with the idea that "joy and spirit are exclusive to one particular practice by a certain name". There are plenty of people who call themselves Christians that do not believe that it is the only path. If someone can't express their faith in Christian terms without being labeled as "exclusive", aren't they being excluded?

    Also, you said "Jesus did not tell people, "You must be a Christian." He was simply so good that people wanted to follow him around wherever he went and talk about him afterward". From my understanding of "that of God in everyone" (a.k.a the Inner Light) and its function, I believe it was much more than just that Jesus was so good that people wanted to follow him. The things he said and did resonated with "that of God" within the people - and it was the witness of that Inner Light on their hearts that made people follow Jesus - they recognized that he spoke what that Inner Light witnessed to them.

    I don't really agree with your contrast of evangelism vs. proselytizing. You could easily proselytize about God's love just as someone can proselytize about Christ. It is a matter of whether you are trying to convince someone yourself or not. The point I was trying to make is that "evangelism" is acting and speaking from the Inner Light, and the expectation that when you do that, it will resonate with the Inner Light in someone else (i.e. it will "answer that of God" in the other person), in the same way that Jesus' ministry did. Proselytizing is trying to argue/persuade/coerce someone into accepting your position/view/belief.

    With love,

  4. Hey Mark--Thank you for the list of Most Common Quaker Bible Quotes... I just printed it out.

    I'm a Christian, a Conservative Friend, and I both evangelize and proselytize at every opportunity (allow me to invite all of you reading this to visit our OYM outreach site at But while I believe the Christianity part of Quakerism is fundamental, making everybody a Christian is not my job. Making everybody a Quaker is not my job, either.

    Fox said it best, that he was to bring people to their Teacher, and leave them there. It's that Jesus guy he talked about that does the work and takes the responsibility, not me. My job is to try to help chip away the crud clouding that spiritual window that lets in the Light, not to try to be the Light myself.

    The only reason not to tell people good news is if you don't think they ought to hear it. I tell people that good news is available, and explain what it's about. If the non-theists want to listen to their DNA rather than the Inward Light, I'm delighted to worship with them. Ditto Gaia-pantheists, Wiccans, Bu-Jews, Methodists, and everybody else. But I'll continue to point out that the door is open, if they want to look into it.

    In Christ,

  5. Hi Mark,

    I think you are reading differences in my response when I think I was really just echoing what you said - evangelism comes from the Inward Light where proselytization is the purpose of converting someone to one religion.

  6. Interesting thoughts and comments.

    My take on this is that interfaith dialogue is informing people about your religion in order to promote mutual tolerance and understanding; evangelism is trying to persuade them that your particular flavour of religion is best; and proselytising is telling them that they will go to hell if they don't follow your particular flavour.

    So I think what you all do might be described as evangelism, but it isn't proselytising.

    I see the ultimate Divine as being beyond any name or form (including that of light); Jesus is one doorway to the ultimate Divine, but there are many other doorways. But if He is your doorway, that's great.

  7. I have no personal experience with Pastoral Friends so I cannot say but I have some personal experience with both Conservative and Liberal Friends. If proselyzing is undertood to mean "trying to get another to think and believe as I do" I would have to say that in my experience the Liberal Friends are the pushier of the two groups.

    Most of my experience with Conservative Friends is in them "presenting their journey" and then listening to mine, asking pertinent questions and then exhorting me to seek the Light. They appeared to have a supreme confidence in the Light's ability to lead me that was heartening. They stated that depending on where I was to start with the Light would lead me in different ways than it would someone else, but that it would always be closer to God and the test would be the fruit it bore...not anyone else's opinion of it.

    By contrast I felt rather leapt on by Liberal Friends. They seemed to hope I would be one more of their number but were quick to show their disapproval of my interest in traditional Friend's practices and anything touching upon traditional morality. I felt it was expected that I would adhere to their idealogy as a matter of course and preferable if I embraced their uniform of post 1960's eclecticism. Anything I wore to meeting would be long as it wasn't Plain Dress. Any Scripture I quoted would be long as it wasn't the Gospel. It seemed it was fine with them if I were a Buddhist, or a non-theist or even an atheist. Indeed, overall it seemed perfectly fine to be anything at all...just so long as it wasn't a Quaker! I don't think any of them had a clue that they were proselyzing every moment or how quick they were to judge other Friends' journeys by the yardstick of their own. For people professing Universalism and tolerance and a lack of dogma they were surprisingly intolerant of alternative viewpoints.

    I do not say that all Conservative or Liberal Friends are likewise. I merely illustrate that "proselyzing" does happen, just not in traditionally Christian ways and of the two, evangelism is the preferable. If you truly believe your way is right, you will not need to enforce your message but will have confidence that it speaks for itself.

    Quaker spirituality has always been experiential and that's how Quaker evangelism should be. "Here is my story but don't take my word for it, try it for yourself!"