Proselytism: Don’t force Jesus upon people!

PROSELYTIZE 'prɑs(.ə).lət.aɪz verb. (Try to) convert someone from one belief to another.
[Proselyte 'prɑs.ə.laɪt noun, proselytism 'prɑs(.ə).lət.ɪz.əm noun.]

From time to time, when we Christians share the good news of Christ Jesus with other people, we get accused of “proselytizing.”

It’s one of those words which, to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride

Giphy

Properly, to proselytize means as we see in the definition above: You’re trying to convert someone. And you’ve not made it an option: They must become Christian. They will become Christian. You’re gonna try every tactic you can to make it so. You’ll promise outrageous things, you’ll fudge a few details, you’ll threaten ’em with hell. Whatever it takes.

Forced conversions, hard sales pitches, and death threats (and hell threats) are all definitely forms of proselytism. Is that really what we’re doing?

Well… sometimes it is. And it should never be. God’s kingdom runs on grace, and if our presentation of the gospel ever turns into proselytism, it means we took the grace out of it. And a gospel without grace arguably isn’t even the gospel.

I know, I know: Certain dark Christians love to bring up hell. Largely because it terrifies them, so they’re pretty sure everybody needs to be warned about it, and warned away from it: You don’t want to go there! I get that. And it was probably a huge motivator for them, when they first turned to Jesus. But the result is they put it front and center when they preach the gospel, and now their gospel is about hell-avoidance instead of love, joy, grace, forgiveness, and other fruit of the Spirit that we’re gonna find in the kingdom in abundance. Worse, they don’t care about these things: “Get off that lovey-dovey crap and warn people away from hell!” Which just goes to reveal their own fruitlessness—a serious character defect which makes them the very worst people to share the gospel.

Still, when pagans encounter that kind of hostile, negative, fearmongering gospel presentation, in which the good news is very, very bad, they think it’s proselytism: It made ’em feel bad. They define proselytism based on whether it made ’em feel bad. On whether they didn’t like it.

Nope; proselytism is determined by pressure. Was the gospel forced upon you? Then it’s proselytism.

Doesn’t matter whether it was forced upon you in a hostile way or a kind way. I got the kind version: Mom was determined to raise her kids Christian, so church wasn’t optional. I was going, period, whether I wanted to or not. This was never an issue because unless I was sick or exhausted (i.e. valid excuses), I wanted to. In other families it was a huge issue: I had high school friends who absolutely didn’t wanna be there, and left church as soon as they were no longer under their parents’ rules. But parents have every right to raise their kids under their religion; really, they suck at religion if they don’t.

It’s just proselytism has a serious danger built into it: Because it’s not optional, it’s deficient in grace. Which means there’s a very real chance it’ll turn into legalism, or hypocrisy and dead religion. Or, once the kids grow up and leave the dead religion, they may presume all religion is like that… and we wind up with apostasy and nontheism.

So pour on the grace! And when you evangelize, for the love of God don’t proselytize.

Proselytizing Christians.

As I said, it’s okay to proselytize your kids. But if you were proselytized as a kid, or proselytized by an evangelist when you got older, you’re gonna wrongly think it’s okay to proselytize everybody else.

Seriously, everybody else. Certain political conservatives like to imagine the United States is a Christian nation, and as such everybody in it oughta be Christian. So they push Christianity upon everyone. We made “One nation under God” our official national motto (regardless of whether we get under him any), and put it on our money and our pledge of allegiance: If people balk at the motto, we don’t just accuse ’em of being godless, but unpatriotic.

Such people also insist we should be allowed to put up Ten Commandments monuments, crosses, and other religious iconography, in public parks, public schools, or public buildings. Texas even changed the science textbooks so they state God created the universe about 6,000 years ago, and who cares if actual science suggests otherwise.

So when we share Jesus, we don’t ask people whether they’d like to hear about him. Don’t have time for that. We just corner ’em so they can’t go anywhere, and tell ’em—whether they have the time, the curiosity, the interest, the receptivity. Because they need to hear it: They’re going to hell otherwise. Now is their hour of salvation. Now is not the time for kindness, patience, self-control, or grace. Fruit of the Spirit? Only gets in our way.

And instead of fruit, one of our substitutes becomes “evangelism.” You’ve seen these Christians at work: They leave tracts instead of tips for their waiters. They correct us in the workplace break room whenever we do or say something which isn’t Christian enough for them. They who won’t leave our front porches when we insist, “No thank you.” They’re the reason people believe evangelism and proselytism are the same thing.

Jesus doesn’t teach proselytism.

When Jesus first sent his Twelve to practice evangelism on their fellow Jews, he taught ’em to share. Not push. Bless, not condemn. Give, not collect offerings. Do for people, not demand they only receive the gospel from you, ’cause you worry if you give ’em free stuff, they’ll only turn to Jesus for the handouts. (As if the kingdom runs on stinginess, not grace.) You know, like proselytizers don’t do. Like so.

Matthew 10.7-15 KWL
7 “Preach as you go, saying this: ‘Heaven’s kingdom has come near!’
8 Serve the weak. Raise the dead. Cleanse the leprous. Throw out demons.
You received it free. Give it free.
9 Don’t accept gold, silver, or bronze into your moneybelts.
10 No bag on the road. Nor two tunics. Nor sandals. Nor cane.
For the respectable worker merits their provisions.
11 Inspect whatever city or village you enter: Who’s the most respected in it?
Stay with them till you leave, 12 and when you enter the house, bless it.
13 When the house is respectable, your blessing has to go into it.
When it’s not respectable, your blessing has to go back to you.
14 Whoever doesn’t accept you, nor listen to your words:
As you go out of their house or town, shake their dirt off your feet.
15 Amen, I promise you: It’ll be more bearable on Judgment Day
for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.”

Evangelism is about effectively communicating the good news: The kingdom’s near. Jesus is its good and benevolent Lord. He wants us to join his kingdom and be our Lord. Because ultimately he will be Lord, whether we embrace him or not. It’ll be way better if we embrace his rule willingly, than live outside it in misery when he finally takes his throne. Plus there are the many benefits of living under our King early.

True, we want people to come to Jesus. But after we’ve shared him, we’re done. We did our duty. They accept him, or they don’t. And we need to stop thinking it’s our responsibility to keep pushing them to accept him. It’s not. We need to shake that off. It’s why Jesus told his apostles to do so literally: Shake the dirt off your feet when you leave. Leave ’em behind. Not because we don’t care about them anymore, but because we’re done. Hopefully God will give them another chance, as he tends to. But we’re done.

We simply share. Inform. Convey information. That’s all. There’s a place and time for going directly up to people and asking them point-blank, “Do you know Christ Jesus personally?” When our goal is to share good news, to make sure people are informed, and can make rational decisions to follow Jesus, there’s everything right about it. That’s all our job consists of.

Everything beyond that is the Holy Spirit’s job.

  • Quelling nervousness or hesitation: His job.
  • Dealing with objections and concerns: His job.
  • Getting obstacles out of their way: His job.
  • Making sure people come forward at an altar call: His job.
  • Numbers of converts: His job.
  • Making sure the commitment is serious: His job.
  • Finalizing decisions for Christ: His job.

It’s not like we have no job. But as you can see, our job isn’t as big and stressful as your average proselytizer makes it sound.

“But we have to preach the gospel!”

I’ve heard Christians say, “Well, there’s a fine line between proselytism and evangelism.” There is not. Evangelism shares information. Proselytism demands, ignores the Holy Spirit’s timing, and insists the time is now. It takes salvation into our own hands instead of leaving it in God’s. It’s loveless. It’s faithless. It’s wrong.

If a person says no thank you, proselytizers aren’t done. They don’t trust the Holy Spirit enough to leave them in his capable hands. They’re not gonna be patient. They’ll insist on “closing the deal”—on badgering them to say some form of sinner’s prayer, some sort of half-hearted commitment (which usually doesn’t pan out) just so they can put another notch on their belt. Or get another jewel in their crown. Whatever way they keep score.

’Cause that’s what it’s really about: Keeping score. Numbers. Getting converts. Growing their cults. Success rates. Which, because they’re willing to fudge the numbers a bit, tend to be reported as way higher than they really are. But few of their “success stories” are real. Those folks have no plans to follow Jesus in the day-to-day, and were often coerced into making a purely contractual relationship with him: “I said the sinner’s prayer, so I did my part; you just get me into heaven. Okay? Amen.” Don’t have to be religious ’cause they’re under God’s grace. Which means they’re fruitless… which implies they’re not under grace.

Now, had the Holy Spirit actually been involved at all—where he convicts ’em, gets ’em to repent, points ’em to Jesus—you’d see a whole lot more enthusiasm on their part. Without having to manipulate their emotions, play on their fears, promise them things Jesus never would (“Turn to him and all your problems will go away!”) and other sales pitches which spread Christianism instead of God’s kingdom.

Quite often the Spirit will actually lead someone to Jesus despite the sales-pitch tactics. But the fact the Holy Spirit cleans up our messes, is no defense for fruitless, unkind behavior and thinking.

And quite often, the reason a lot of Christians balk at practicing or learning about evangelism, is because of these yutzes and their morally questionable behavior. I don’t blame ’em for being disturbed. They should be. Any form of trickery, misdirection, wordplay, hidden flaws, false arguments, false promises, confusion, anger, hypocrisy, misquoted scriptures, false urgency, bribery, emotional blackmail, threats, temptation, or coercion, has no God in it. Justifying any of this evil, because they might “win souls,” is calling good evil, and evil good. Is 5.20 When people turn to Jesus, when the Spirit has been successful and enters their lives to fix and regenerate them, it’s a miracle. The very last thing Christians should be involved in, is faking miracles.

Some pagans have never met a proper evangelist. Or they have, but they’ve been burned by dark evangelists, and assume all Christians are like that. And to be fair, some pagans are just plain hostile towards Christianity altogether. So they accuse everyone who shares Jesus of proselytism, just to make us go away. All the more reason we need to avoid proselytism. Give them no ammunition.