Friday, June 19, 2009

What's wrong with evangelism?

You don't have to read much of the writings of early Friends to see that evangelism was an integral part of their life. Since "evangelism" is an overloaded term, let me explain what I am talking about. The word "evangelism" derives from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (EUANGELLION) which means "Good News". The word "gospel" means the same thing, coming from the Old English form of "good story/message". For Friends, the gospel was not simply a message because they understood by experience Paul's description of the gospel as "the power of God unto salvation". Preaching the gospel was Spirit-led, Spirit-filled preaching that awakened people to the Light of Christ within them - to turn them from darkness to light (a phrase from Paul that George Fox often quoted).

I would guess that many modern Friends are very uncomfortable with the idea of evangelism, and perhaps for a number of different reasons. If this does make you uncomfortable, why? Maybe you could ask yourself that and sit with it before reading further.

These are some of the potential objections that come to my mind:

  • Religion is a personal thing, I don't want to push it on anyone
  • Friends don't proselytize
  • I don't want to be like those other religious groups
  • It is disrespectful of other religions
  • I'm afraid/embarassed

    I would like to hear of others. The reason I am bringing this up is to contrast it with our attitude towards the political process. By using the political process to do the things we think need doing, we are essentially imposing our will upon those who don't have enough votes. While one's religion is a matter of choice, and with Friends it has always been a matter of the individual making the choice to turn towards the Light, in the political arena, the minority doesn't really have a choice. The voice of the majority is backed by the law enforcement of the United States government (or whatever country you may be in). While I was at SAYMA last week, I heard Friends talking about our "window of opportunity" to get things done before the congressional elections start next year. I heard discussions about the effective ways to contact various government representatives, and about lobbying at the state level in addition to the national level. Why can't we also have discussions about opportunities to spread the Good News? Why don't we hear more statements like "many were convinced", as George Fox wrote numerous times in his journal?

    Ceal and I had a long discussion about this one evening, and she asked me what someone could have said to me when I was 20 that would have reached me. I have to admit that I don't know. But, I also understand that it isn't the words themselves that are the important thing, but that they are spoken from the Spirit. Early Friends often spoke of their being a power behind their words, and I believe that power could have reached me, too.

    No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket.

    1. Hi Mark: Interesting to compare our sometimes differing attitudes toward evangelizing and politics.

      Just because we're not called to convert by force doesn't mean we're not called to evangelize by example. We've got a Good Story and we can share it and invite others to join the Story with us, to come into Christ's Light, guidance and peace.

      As to what might have reached you at twenty, I wonder if the example of a life lived for and with God is enough. I've heard many convincement stories where the teller was in spiritual crisis and remembered some Friend met long ago--a favorite aunt, or teacher--and started visiting with Friends knowing that there was something in that Spirit that called to their condition.

    2. Martin,

      There's a lot of space between converting people by force and only relying on our personal example. Our personal example is our strongest witness and it can be effective without any words. But I believe Mark is raising the possibility of actually being open with people about our beliefs--using words--and not just relying on our example.

      When we refuse to say anything about what we believe it might send the message that we don't really believe anything. That makes us seem wishy-washy and unattractive. I think there is a middle ground between being verbally aggressive and refusing to speak at all. I think we should be finding that middle ground.

    3. Martin,
      Just because we are called to evangelize by example doesn't mean we aren't also called to evangelize by speaking and writing. I think Friends today have a tendency to just say "let your lives speak", and assume that's all we should do. Fox actually said "let your lives preach" in Epistle #200, but it it abundantly clear through his words and actions that he didn't think that was all Friends should do. I think he meant it more in terms of practicing what you preach.

      As Richard says, there is a lot of space between converting people by force and simply being a personal witness. I am certainly not advocating converting people by force - God certainly doesn't seem to work that way. I'm also not talking about badgering people about whether they are saved. In between that and saying nothing, there's a lot that can be said. Why not speak out to people about the great amount of unhappiness there is in the richest nation on Earth? Don't we understand and have experience of something that is "unto some more than our appointed food".

      I was thinking about "War Is Not The Answer" on my way home today, and how it relates to this - we are willing to say what the wrong answer is, but not anything about that "life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars".

      I think I am even going beyond talking about what we believe. I think we tend to get caught up in Quakerism as an idea, or even as a group with an admirable history. I think when I speak of evangelism I am more worried about how we put people in touch with "that of God" within themselves, and whether that means they become Quaker or not is not the important thing. Of course, they need a community that nourishes them and helps them grow, but I think that first step is the most important. Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks at NCYM-C!

      With love,

    4. Marshall,
      Thank you for your insights. I agree that evangelism can't be forced - as I said in the original post, it should be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. Part of my reason for raising this question, is to ask whether we have developed a cultural attitude against evangelism that is not centered in the Light of Christ, and might cause us to ignore or misunderstand leadings to evangelize. There are Friends who feel a concern for Gospel ministry - why is it mostly for ministry within the Society of Friends? Maybe that's what we need right now, or maybe there is an ingrained reticence against Gospel ministry to the outside world. As you have speculated on the reasons for a lack of evangelism among liberal Friends, what comes to your mind on the similar dearth of evangelism among conservative Friends?

      With love,

    5. Hi, Mark! Thank you for your response.

      I agree with you: my sense that evangelism can’t be forced overlaps with yours that it must be spoken from the Spirit.

      I don’t believe, though, that it is any kind of “cultural attitude” that holds Friends back from evangelism. I believe, as I tried to make clear, that it is a lack of something genuine to say. When a person has a genuine experience of Christ and his Spirit to share, no cultural prejudice is going to silence her. Or him.

      Now actually, I don’t understand what you mean about a “dearth of evangelizing” among Conservative Friends. Genuinely Conservative Friends, and in particular those who are associated with Ohio YM, have been doing a great deal of evangelizing; and it has been quite successful too, drawing in many new people to the Church and establishing new meetings all over the place.

      I will confess to having some mild disagreements with the Ohio approach, which I think a little too focused on the Jesus of history rather than on his Spirit in this moment. But I understand why it is this way! And there is no getting away from the fact that these Friends have genuine news to share, about both Christ and the Spirit, which is just bubbling out of them, as it should be.

      Have a look at the Ohio Yearly Meeting web site, and also the “Conservative Friend” web site, if you have not done so already. And tell me what you think.

    6. Marshall,
      When I spoke of the "dearth of evangelism" among conservative Friends, I had a very narrow definition of "evangelism" in my head, which certainly doesn't encompass all the ways we spread the Good News. Thank you for helping me realize that.
      With love,

    7. Hello Mark --

      I became a convinced Friend a couple of years ago because I believe God called me to Himself.

      It began with sudden passages of Scripture coming to mind in the middle of the night, which then became reinforced while reading George Fox's journal and other early Friends' writings.

      I also believe He further guided me to contact Ohio Yearly Meeting. Several of their members have been faithful in e-mailing, calling and even travelling several hundred miles to visit our fledgling worship group; for which we are extremely thankful.

      So even though it would seem that they are few in number, some Friends are indeed heeding the call to evangelize. However it is not by their own plans or efforts that people such as myself are being drawn in, but by the Lord's.

    8. Hi, Mark. I'm a convinced Friend from a liberal Midwestern meeting, where I received membership this past November. Sometimes I question my evangelical impulses- are they true leadings of the Spirit? Or are they the subtle fruits of a contentious spirit? I hear from weighty Friends in my Meeting "Friends don't proselytize" so often, in so many contexts, that I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me, something "un-Quakerly," because of my desire to witness for Christ.

      I actually find that it is easier to proclaim myself a Christian outside of my meeting than inside, though I certainly make no secret of it. I just have the feeling that some people in my meeting don't want to hear what the Christ-Spirit has to say when it leads me to speak. I still do, but it can be uncomfortable.

    9. Mark-

      I agree with you that many liberal, unprogrammed Friends conflate proselytizing with evangelizing. In fact, it goes further. I once pointed out to one of the most respected Friends in my meeting that, unless you just happened to know about Friends or live in Pennsylvania, there didn't seem to be any way for a non-Friend to even be aware of the fact that Quakers *still* exist, much less what we believe or stand for. Her response was that the lack of commonly known information about Friends was the price we pay for not proselytizing. I happen to be very uncomfortable with the idea that projecting a specifically and identifiably Quaker identity into the public sphere is in itself proselytizing, but there you have it.

      In fact, the notion that "Friends don't proselytize" seems to put the kibosh on discussions within the meeting. Although within the meeting there is a hunger for deeper conversations about our beliefs, it sometimes seems that merely talking about our beliefs constitutes "proselytizing", at least for some Friends. Lest I accidentally malign anyone, this has never been verbalized, but it sometimes feels a part of the atmosphere of the meeting.

      As an aside, I feel so blessed to have come across this and other blogs through the (for me) newly discovered Quaker Quaker website. It's fantastic to find out what other Friends are saying about issues that I care deeply about.