Sunday, January 11, 2009

Evangelization: a study in conflict

Last Saturday, the boys and I went ice skating at the Sculpture Garden. While the Zamboni was doing its thang, a young couple -- we'll call them Tim and Leia -- came over to me and asked if I would take a picture of them with my camera and email it later, as they had forgotten theirs.

Of course, I said, and snapped a quick pic. We got to talking. They were friendly and warm. After some chit-chat, I bid them goodbye and headed back to the boys. Behind me, I heard Tim call out, "Thanks! And God bless."

At the time, I remember thinking how unusual it was for me to hear peers end a conversation with 'God bless.' I typically associate it with older folks -- namely, relatives from predominantly Catholic South Philly neighborhoods -- who use it more as a talisman, rather than a benediction. Either way, I simply considered it interesting, and went back to skating.

The next day, I sent the picture with a basic "hey, nice to meet you, take care" email. Here are the responses I received:

From Tim:
Thank you so very much for actually sending the picture and following up. It is nice to be able to capture that night as we had forgotten our cameras. It turned out really well and is greatly appreciated.

Again, welcome to DC. You will definitely enjoy everything that it has to offer!

I wanted to share that if you guys are ever looking for a good church in this area that you are more than welcome to join Leia and I. It is called McLean Bible Church and it is out near Tysons Corner. I have attached the link if you want to take a look.

Thank you again! Only the best for the upcoming year.

From Leia:
Thank you so much for the picture! That was very thoughtful. I hope we can meet up and thank you in person!

Not to overwhelm you, but I wanted to add to Tim's suggestion... Being that you moved here recently, our church is a great place to meet a very diverse group of like-minded people to build life-changing relationships with. McLean Bible is a non-denominational church based solely on the Bible as the written Word of God. Our pastors share stories in the Bible and apply it to your everyday life. It is powerful ...

So Julia, we would love to meet you at church sometime. I hope you have a blessed New Year!

Whoa there. Never in a million years did I expect a tiny favor to turn into full-blown proselytizing, especially since I had not even mentioned religion. What surprised me most, however, was my own mixed reaction.

On one hand, I was impressed they felt so strongly about their faith that they were eager to share it with anyone who seemed even the least bit amenable. Their outreach seemed sincere, and I appreciated they were thinking of me and wanted to make me feel welcome.

On the other hand, I was offended. What gave them the right to insert themselves so strongly in my personal life, and on such a nonexistant pretext? Talk about ballsy. They knew nothing about my spiritual life or beliefs. A very large part of me wanted to write back and explain that thanks, but I was a happily practicing Catholic-Christian, just to see if they would appease them -- because I had a feeling that even being a fellow Christian wasn't going to be enough -- not if I wasn't their kind of Christian.

And on the third hand that doesn't really exist but I need for purposes of framing, I was conflicted. I have never felt comfortable promoting my faith to others. Sharing it, explaining it, inviting others who practice the same to join in -- yes, that I do. But full-out ministry with intent to convert? No.

Moreover, I don't WANT everybody to be Christian. I don't think it's the only way to find joy on earth. In my view, God is infinitely personal; He/She meets hearts where they are. And I love living in an ecumenical society where people share their diverse experiences and interpretations of faith, because that helps my own spiritual growth.

This all leads to one critical question: If I don't think Christ is the only way to salvation, but it's how I choose to connect with God, am I still a Christian?

I say yes. I think, however, that Tim and Leia might say no. That bothers me. Because I think limiting our understanding of God to one manifestation -- and insisting others are only "saved" if they share that particular understanding -- is presumptuous.

We are mortals. We are flawed. And to claim we know the only way ... I just can't do that in good faith.

Believe me, it's a weird experience to have other Christians tell you you're not Christian enough. I have sat as the only Catholic-Christian in a multi-denominational Christian Bible study and felt open hostility because I did not agree with everything that was being said. I don't want to do that to others. I can't see how that's productive.

What I DO want to do is help others find a greater purpose and meaning. I want them to feel comfortable, loved, deepened. I want them to experience faith in a way that resonates for them. And if that way isn't Christ ... can I still say I evangelized?

I say yes to this too. Though, I'm sure there are plenty of folks who will disagree with me. And plenty who will agree. So, I want to hear from all of you. What is your experience with evangelization? Do you practice it? Have you been on the receiving end?

I'd love to hear other religions' perspectives on this as well. Is evangelization a strong component of Judaism and Islam? How is it perceived/received by others? How is Christan evangelization perceived by non-Christians?

One more thing before we go ... my questions are hardly new or original. The conflict in my heart echoes across time and geography. One blog post barely addresses it, let alone solves it. So let me instead leave you with food for thought from Eboo Patel, the founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, and we'll keep this conversation going:

Faith is the belief that your job as a human being is to move creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And I believe the Creator intends for us, as the holy Qur'an says, to come together in ways in which we come to know one another.

Photo by Svadilfari


  1. I really enjoyed reading your perspective.After some years being involved with both Catholic and Evangelical Christian communities, I have heard my share of opinions that suggested I was less of a Christian or even worse not a Christian for practicing my faith in a particular manner. I would challenge you to use these times as opportunities to both reflect on your own beliefs and engage in some kind of discussion(both of which you seem to be doing with this entry).

    What I have come to find is that on both sides of the tracks there exists a narrow understanding between Protestants and Catholics and a desire, especially from younger folks to understand each other. As far as i am concerned; what makes us Christian is not about how we practice our faith, its about what lies behind our intentions.

  2. Growing up a non-Christian in this country led to some... interesting... experiences. One that comes to mind is something that happened to my sister.

    Growing up, she used to baby sit for some of the neighborhood families. One day, when she was ~13, she came home in tears. Somehow the fact that my sister wasn't Christian came up in conversation with the little girls - the older one was ~5 then - she was baby sitting, and they broke down in tears, because they really liked her, but they'd just learned that only Christians can go to heaven. They spent the rest of her time there trying to convert her. It made things very stressful and confusing for my sister until the parents came home, and she could escape back home - across the street.

    To this day, the memory of my conversation with her when she got home leaves me with very mixed feelings. What the girls were doing was kind of sweet... but was it misguided? I mean can you really expect parents and/or Sunday school teachers to teach kids 5 and younger this sort of nuance? or do you teach them doctrine, and then teach them nuance when they're older?

    I am not personally a big fan of religious proselytism. I don't like to be on the receiving end of it. On the other hand, I do love discussing religion and faith... I just get very uncomfortable when the line is crossed between passionate discussion and proselytism.

  3. Anonymous9:28 PM

    I guess the answer here may found in the foundation on which one,s belief is based.

  4. Anonymous11:27 PM

    First of all - thanks for bringing this up and examining your feelings, and being willing to share that with us all! I sympathize with you about your experience - Hopefully they are well-intentioned, but it can be just downright annoying.

    I wish I knew how to share my faith better - Jesus seemed to attract people like a magnet - they wanted to be close to him. And he also knew how to offend those who were religious. I'm reading Luke right now and boy - did he know how to piss people off! Yet he also showed amazing compassion and taught radical love and forgiveness.

    You brought up the idea that Christians shouldn't dictate who does and doesn't go to heaven. I agree. I think God does that. For me, the whole "Jesus is the only way to God" argument is very uncomfortable. I wish God just took in everybody. But what it comes down to for me is the question: Is God who I dictate him to be, or is he who he says he is? If I honestly believe that he is who he says in the Bible, then I don't have a choice. It's right there, in a bunch of passages. I can't believe in many ways to God just because it makes me feel better or makes me more comfortable. If I want a God bigger than my imagination, then I have to let go of trying to get him to follow my personal agenda.... which leads back to evangelizing. Because if I honestly believe that Jesus is the only way to God, if I really believe this is true, then I'd really be selfish not to tell other people about the amazing way he rescued me.

    As I said, I wish I knew how to be more like Jesus - to reflect his kindness and love, in a way that made a difference to those around me and made me want to know the reason why.

  5. Anon #2: Thank you for sharing with such sincerity and honesty! You raise some very interesting points.

    Along your line of thinking, I'm curious to know how other sacred texts in non-Christian faiths come in -- for example, the Torah and Koran purport to show who God is as well. So why would the New Testament be definitive? Would love to hear your (and anyone else's) thoughts!