Tips for proselytizers

I am probably like most people. I do not like being proselytized to. I realize that it is a free country, which means that anyone can proselytize to anyone else. Since I react to it like someone with a peanut allergy to a nearby peanut butter sandwich, I have incorporated techniques to minimize proselytizers in my life.

For example, I almost never answer a knock on my door anymore. If I feel motivated enough, I may actually look through the little hole in my door to see whom it is. If I don’t know who they are, the door stays shut. Only once did I need to hear from some stranger knocking on my door. He let me know I left my car’s lights on. Otherwise, it has been a steady stream of people wanting to sell me stuff. Sometimes it is relatively benign, like a Girl Scout out selling cookies. Often it is someone working on some campaign. However, about twenty percent of the time, someone wants to sell me salvation.

One key way to recognize proselytizers is that they are usually dressed up. They often work in pairs as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly easy to spot because they wear dark pants, a white shirt, a dark tie and are often also on bicycles. They are clean, short haired (if a man) and well groomed, sort of like Mr. Rogers, but without the cardigan sweater. They are also usually carrying copies of The Watchtower. Mormons also tend to dress when knocking on doors. One thing is for sure: no one on my block knocks on doors dressed fancy, unless they are coming to your house for an upscale party. Dressing up in my neighborhood is like wearing a sign that says, “I am a proselytizer.” Maybe jeans and a T-shirt would be a more effective way of getting that foot in the door.

Some years back, I expressed my opinion that leaving “Are you saved?” pamphlets and related literature on car windshields was also an incredibly ineffective way to get converts. I would be amazed if one in a thousand of these little pamphlets actually brought someone into a church. Maybe spending all that money to grab one or two souls is worth it to some. To me, this approach seems a giant waste of time, money and newsprint.

Some of the devout are beginning to understand that their well-meaning tactics work poorly at best and counterproductively at worst. One of them is Jim Henderson, chronicled last year in an episode of This American Life. Henderson seems to acknowledge that traditional tactics for saving souls no longer work very well. He is taking something of a secular approach toward proselytizing. This has involved inviting atheists and people of other faiths to come to church and see what turns them on and off. He is also making friends with the unsaved without the expectation of converting them to anything. Henderson and his group take a long-term approach. After all, today it is almost impossible to find people who have not heard of Christianity or Jesus. Many of them have already have chosen faiths, or are comfortable with their lack of faith. Their prospects are often as plugged into the media and Internet as they are. They know what you believe and can anticipate your sales pitch. Apparently, salvation doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.

Henderson’s non-proselytizing proselytism may be the wave of the future, although the ultimate outcome may be different than he expects. While the hazy goal may be new saved souls, what is really happening is real dialog between believer and non-believer wherein the unsaved become a peer, not a candidate for salvation. In the past, proselytism succeeded in part because it was forced on the heathen. For example, Spaniards colonizing the New World had no problem slaughtering any native on the spot who was not enlightened enough to accept their faith. I guess they figured they were otherwise doomed to hell. Such tactics no longer are allowed. People, or at least the grown adults among us, choose their faith freely. Since ringing doorbells and missionary work is less effective these days, there seems to be little choice but neutral but meaningful engagement. Today, proselytizers have to live with and behave like the natives to win their respect. Through friendship, which usually cannot be faked, they have a chance of converting them. The problem with this approach is that by living with the natives, it becomes difficult not to empathize with them. You may find yourself losing your faith rather than winning any converts.

People who do embrace a faith outside of their own were probably inclined toward the faith all along, and needed a catalyst to set things into action. I turned out to be an accidental proselytizer. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and as a people with our own peculiar faith, we abhor proselytism. When my friend Renee and I started to work on social action projects, we used my Unitarian church to stage a number of community events. She attended another non-denominational but inclusive church not too far removed from Unitarian Universalism. Over time, she went there less but acquired more exposure to my church. My church turned out to be familiar territory because (and I did not know this at the time) she was raised a Unitarian Universalist. It turned out I facilitated her return to a faith where she had always felt closely aligned. I suspect she became estranged from it when her parents divorced.

I think that most proselytizing fails because people are generally comfortable with their current faith or lack thereof. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is their motto. However, during periods of great crisis, if the right person enters someone’s life, their emotional vulnerability might persuade them to make great personal leaps. This is why there are no Salvation Army churches, unless you count their local canteens. If you are a hopelessly drunk, drug addicted, or are in the midst of other wrenching personal problems, you are probably relatively friendless as well. A relative stranger might be able to offer a path toward recovery by embracing their faith.

What they are embracing though is not likely to be Jesus or the Bible, which may come later. What they will embrace instead is a caring and inclusive community of people who at least appear to care about them. Whether Jesus is or is not a path to salvation will probably matter much less to them than whether they can call you a friend, and whether your friends embrace them as well. The need to feel loved is universal. What feels meaningful is a human-to-human, not the wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount, or the promise of some hazy afterlife where they will be blissfully happy for eternity.

In short, the wise proselytizer will not proselytize at all, but will simply love generously and with an open heart. You will not have to read the Bible to them to convince them. It is likely to happen very slowly if it happens at all. However, with sincerity and perseverance, one day they may feel exceptionally close to you in their heart. Then, unprompted, they may ask to know more about your faith, or ask you to take them to a service, or simply show up for a Sunday service at your church.

Their decision will likely be based on how they feel about you as a person and your integrity, not on your faith or holy book. The faith you seek to give them will likely be an independent discovery that will occur many months or years after they start attending your church.

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