Tips for proselytizers

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Why do proselytizers think I am a moron?

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may know I spent a week at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Since it’s in the middle of nowhere I never went off campus during my six days there. Let’s face it the nightlife in Shepherdstown left something to be desired. So my car sat there collecting dust and pollen. When I finally checked out on Friday morning I found a little brochure “Have you heard of the FOUR SPIRITUAL LAWS?” on my windshield. I thought for a moment maybe it was left by the same lady who wanted me to emigrate. But then I realized it couldn’t be her, because this brochure was inviting me to the Calvary Road Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. And that’s in the United States.

So this time it wasn’t the anti-Bush bumper sticker that got someone’s attention, it was my Unitarian Universalist bumper sticker instead. And this zealot must have been wise enough to grasp the obvious: I was (gasp) unsaved!

This was an accurate assumption. Where this proselytizer went wrong is that, like most of them, he or she assumed I was a moron. Apparently he or she assumed I had gone through 47 years of living and had not heard the “good news” about Jesus Christ. I must have been living in a cave somewhere all this time practicing Zorasterism or something. I flipped through their publication against my better judgment. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Jesus apparently was the one and only way I was ever going to get to heaven. Without the big J guy I was apparently hell bound.

As someone who was born and raised Catholic this was not news to me. In fact you would have to be either a very recent immigrant from some very remote country or have suffered a recent bout of amnesia to not possibly know that Christians believe Jesus is the only way to get into heaven. And yet this very obvious bit of knowledge doesn’t seem to penetrate the minds of these people. They assume those of us unsaved are unwashed and ignorant heathen.

But they must have been clever enough to know that I might be a skeptic and might need proof in their assertion that Jesus is the only way to get into heaven. Thankfully by page 7 of the brochure there it was: John 14:6. “Jesus saith unto him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.'”

Case closed! Hey, it’s in the Bible! There is of course the wee little problem that first you have to believe in the Bible before you will accept it as the word of God. And that’s the problem with this little brochure. If it is trying to convince me it is doing a damned poor job. So I would like to say to this member of the Calvary Road Baptist Church: If I knocked on your door and showed you a passage from the Koran that only through obedience to Allah’s will can you gain eternal life would this convince you to abandon Christianity?

Somehow I think not. Then why on earth would you think this sort of logic would convince me?

And before you leave brochures everywhere, how about learning a little about comparative religions first? Would it hurt to learn more about Unitarian Universalism other than “they’re not really Christians”? If you took a few minutes to explore the UUA web site you’d realize we’re not spiritual morons. We’re complex creatures comfortable with ambiguity. We celebrate religious pluralism and your right to practice your version of Christianity. In fact in my own way I have already been proselytizing. Yes, I took a class of Unitarian Universalists children to a few Christian churches as part of our yearlong religious education class. We also took our students to a Jewish temple, discussed paganism, went through the beliefs of Muslims and even practiced praying to Mecca six times a day. In short we encourage our youth to explore all aspects of religion and spirituality. We don’t claim Unitarian Universalism is the right religion for anyone. One of our few principles is never to proselytize. So don’t worry, we won’t be leaving brochures on your windshield telling you your only way to true happiness is by coming to a UU service and drinking too much coffee after the service at our long winded social hours. We respect you too much as a human being to shove our beliefs in your face.

Yes, I know you have to do it. Your faith informs you that you have to bring the good news of salvation to us heathens. Well news flash: your tactics suck. I don’t know how many people you actually get to come to Jesus from all these silly brochures. But I have to think that any that you do get must be morons, and if so I guess you and Jesus are welcome to them.

As for the rest of us, we’ve been around the block. We know about Jesus. We know about The Buddha. We know about Allah. We know about atheists, wiccans and the 50% of Americans who are “religious” or “spiritual” but can’t be bothered to go to church on Sundays. If you expect to win our respect you got to do it the old fashioned way. You have to earn it. You have to treat us like adults and respect our opinions. You have to behave in a way that is consistent with the deity you claim to emulate. And here’s another news flash: most Christians are about as Christ-like as Attila the Hun. Instead of praying in their closets they act like the moneychangers at the temple. Instead of turning the other cheek they cheer on President Bush when he unilaterally wages war on sovereign countries. If you want to earn my respect, don’t proselytize and act a lot more like Jimmy Carter. Let me see your faith manifest in good works. Let me feel I am your peer, not some unenlightened and ignorant fool. Then perhaps we can have a meaningful conversation and I can learn where you are truly coming from. And perhaps your mind would open just a crack to appreciate my perspective too.

Maybe we would both grow a little as a result. I think Jesus would approve. Meanwhile insulting brochures like yours only make me gag. Rest assured I won’t go anywhere near the Calvary Road Baptist Church. If you treat me like a moron you earn only my contempt.

Continue reading “Why do proselytizers think I am a moron?”

Unsaved

The Thinker by Rodin

Merry Christmas to you! Are you saved? If you are saved then praise be to Jesus Christ, Amen! If you aren’t saved and haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your Personal Lord and Savior ™ — well then it’s time to get on the stick and get saved as soon as you can. Armageddon is almost here.

How do we know this? Why because of all the “Swept Away” books cluttering bookshelves and supermarket aisles, you doofus! The day of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is bound to happen any day now. You, the unsaved, may be under the impression that God and Jesus are all about unconditional love. If so you are wrong. God only lets into the afterlife those who worship him utterly. So if you don’t worship the One and Only True Christian God ™ and don’t find God through his personal emissary Jesus Christ ™, sorry, but you’re damned. That goes for all you Muslims too, and yes, of course you misguided “chosen people”, not to mention you vile Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, pagans, Wiccans and most contemptible of all, you Unitarian Universalists. Yes, on that Final Judgment Day ™ you along with all the other damned get to begin an eternity of torment. So says your just and loving One True Christian God.

But you won’t be going straight to Hell, no! Before you are sent down the chute to Satan’s minions, first you must be shown the error of your ways. We, The Saved ™ will be watching you from the peanut gallery in St. Peter’s Heavenly Coliseum. God will be the matador, you will be the bull and in this game God always wins. In will go the knife of justice into your flawed and perturbed soul. You will realize what a stupid and contemptible piece of filth you were for all that whoring or practicing dangerous secular humanism. You should have been attending Bible study class instead, brother! A tiny tear of sadness may escape from us elect watching you bemoan your fate. You will despair that you had so many chances to come to Jesus Christ ™ but didn’t. We will be sad that you chose eternity in torment. But we will also glad that the likes of you aren’t fouling up the serene peace of the Heaven. It’s an exclusive neighborhood you see, and the covenants are real strict. Out forthwith, you heathens, to your perpetual ghetto! We, the saved, will be so rapturous being in heaven and all, and hanging around God, JC and the Holy Spirit ™ will be such a high that we will soon forget about you. Because we were saved! Saved! Yippee! And there’s nothing that gives us more pleasure than to spend eternity telling the God Trio™ what great guys they are. The afterlife will be all Bible Study and harp playing all the time and it will never get dull, brother! Alleluia!

Okay, I know I said in this entry that I didn’t really care what your religion is. And really I don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t find religions that say you either accept my religion or you’ll end up in Hell very contemptible. By inference then perhaps I feel that all the adherents who believe in this to be contemptible too. That’s not true. But if there is a Hell, then perhaps God will reserve some small part of it for these sanctimonious authors raking in millions in royalties for these novels. Elmer Gantry and the Landover Baptist Church would be proud.

As a Unitarian Universalist I am clearly on the damned path. We have a history of engaging in dangerous secular humanism. In fact we have the audacity to call the place we congregate a “Church” even though there is no requirement of anyone to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior or even be a Christian! If you can imagine, we don’t care what anyone believes or doesn’t believe. Our mission is simply to help each other discover what it is they believe. Along the way we get involved in vile social action projects like feeding and sheltering the homeless, standing up for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, encouraging democracy and protecting civil rights. We even welcome (Warning: sit down now!) gays, lesbians and the transgender community. And we don’t even try to convert them! Yup, on judgment day we UUs will doubtless be the first ones dispatched into Hell, post haste. Imagine the confusion of people when we, the heathen and unsaved, try to make the world a better place instead of telling others about God and Jesus. What a waste of our time and money!

I am, it appears, unsaved and perhaps irredeemable at this point. Because I’m afraid the missionaries could be lined up at my door stretching to the moon and not one of them will get me to buy into this saved stuff. My mind appears to be shut to them. While I am not sure what I truly believe about spirituality, what I tend to believe changes over time as I learn and experience more of life. This Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior stuff just makes me shake my head. Pity me, those of you among The Saved ™. I actually believe the Universalist notion. It states that if Jesus really did come down to earth to save us from our sins, he did so for everyone, for all time, with no strings attached. Because, you see, this to me is the highest expression of love. I can’t imagine any entity claiming to come from God, the source of unconditional love saying in effect “I’ve saved you all, but first you have to sign and adhere to this contract.”

So while I am skeptical about the afterlife in general I don’t give it too much concern because I figure I’m already saved. If I have a philosophy of life, I like the one expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien though his character Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings”: “All you have to do is decide what to do with the time given to you.” For that I will let my heart and my conscience be my guide.

For those of you convinced that the only way to salvation is through Jesus, peace to you. But know this: I know in my heart that if God exists, he is not a jealous god, or a god that sets preconditions. Many Christians see Jesus the way fat people see diet doctors. Whether it’s Atkins or Pritikin, when you diet the goal is weight loss, not the means. If the afterlife or spiritual growth is the goal then the messenger doesn’t matter. If reading your Bible and attending services is your way to spirituality I think that’s great. Jesus is your means of getting there. But try to open your heart and your head to the notion that there are many ways to God. The ways of the Buddhist or the Muslim way may be just as valid as your way. Don’t confuse the medium (Jesus, the Bible) with the result (becoming a more spiritual person). Every human is unique. If there is a God it is clear that God designed us this way — we need only examine our own DNA for proof. I believe there is no one size fits all suit to spirituality. There are infinite suits to try on, and infinite paths. We are all spiritual creatures on our own unique spiritual journeys. Jesus hinted as much, by suggesting praying in your closet might work out better than in a house of worship. Try it for a year or so and let me know how it goes. And try this one for size: we the Unsaved deserve the dignity and respect for making our own choices on this matter, not your pity because we don’t share your particular brand of spirituality. You can start by not buying any more of those contemptible “Swept Away” books.