Saturday, June 18, 2005

A contrarian view on proselytism

Orthodox convert Lawrence Uzzell explores the history of the word "proselytism" and the negative connotations the word has assumed over the millennia and asks some pertinent questions about missionary activity.
Proselytism has become the world's most overused religious term and is most often invoked by those who ultimately oppose all forms of Christian evangelism. If the Apostles had refrained from everything that today is lumped under the term, there would have been no carrying out of the Great Commission and the Church might have died in its infancy. Precisely because it labels all missionary activity pejoratively, the term is no help in distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate; it makes no distinction between, say, St. Paul and those missionaries who use such unscrupulous tactics as, for example, requiring that desperately poor Russians sit through Protestant worship services before free meals are provided to them. (Sadly, I am not making that up.)
He quotes an Adventist scholar with a suggestion for a more accurate phrase: "improper evangelism."
He offers a list of things that a missionary will not do. "Not exploit or take advantage of poor, vulnerable segments of the population. Not knowingly make false or questionable claims of miraculous healings or interventions. Not offer financial or other material inducements or educational benefits in order to ‘convert’ people. Not knowingly spread false information regarding the teachings of other religions or ridiculing their beliefs and practices. Not incite hatred, internecine strife, and antagonistic competition. Not use coercive or manipulative methods of evangelism to get church members, including certain advertising that preys on human gullibility."
Mission, as Uzzell points out, is central to Christianity, and our methods have sometimes, but not always, been lazy and deceitful. Uzzell's piece gives some points for thought on this activity that is often maligned by our secularist neighbors.

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