From Derek: This is a guest post from Jonathan Fitzgerald in response to my earlier article on proselytizing. Jonathan is an editor at Patrolmag.com, and he writes freelance, with works appearing in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Christianity Today, Religion Dispatches, The Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, The Jersey City Independent, and more. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. And, he is a dear friend. We don’t always agree, but I always appreciate his kindness, openness, and sincerity. I hope this dialogue (I plan to respond) will cause you to evaluate your own efforts of outreach.
I really love Apple products. I can remember all the way back to my high school newspaper days, working with the Apple computers in our student newsroom and the feeling of awe and amazement at the exotic and efficient (and colorful!) machines. When, in 2008, my wife and I finally bought ourselves a couple of MacBooks (using a particularly bounteous tax refund), I knew there was no going back.
Then came an iPhone, iPad, a Mac Mini and Apple Display. We’re all in. I so fervently believe that these devices are superior to their non-Apple counterparts, that I make it a point to tell people whenever I can. I try not to be a jerk about it, of course; I just share with anyone who is interested that since switching to Apple for all my technology needs, my life has been easier, happier, and in some strange way, more beautiful.
I proselytize for Apple all the time. So do a lot of other people. And then there are those who disagree and proselytize for the other guys. People proselytize.
I’m belaboring this point to suggest, contra to Derek’s assertion that, “A pluralistic society disdains proselytizing,” it’s actually a part of most people’s everyday lives. There are things we like, even things we feel are superior to others, and we want people to know about them and agree with us.
But Derek’s post is not about Apple products, of course, but about sharing the Gospel. And certainly he’s right that in this area many of us feel the “tension around proselytizing” that he describes. So why is that? Why can we be comfortable preaching the good news of Apple over PC or Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks, but feel a tension when it comes to preaching the Gospel?
I believe the reason for this is expressed completely within Derek’s piece. He notes a comfort preaching the Gospel in his church, on his home turf, but a hesitation to do so outside of the church. But he goes on to reprimand himself for this thinking, arguing that because he has truth he has to overcome that awkwardness and preach it anyway.
This misses the actual problem. We needn’t overcome our fears and do the hard thing and share the Gospel outside of our church. No, what we must do is remove the dialectical view that separates what goes on in the church, how we live our lives there, from the way we interact in “personal and familial friendships” outside of church. This is a core problem of contemporary American evangelicalism and its negative repercussions are felt in so many places, not just proselytizing.
But, as it relates to proselytizing, I see two problems and I’m going suggest two possible solutions. The first problem is the more serious; that is, we’ve created a culture within our churches that is at once distinct and imitative of the culture at large. In an effort to protect ourselves from that secular culture, we wall ourselves in, create mirror programs, and invite people in to that culture only if and when they accept all of its tenets. In short, people must already be like us before they can join us.
This is a huge problem and, among other damaging effects, it makes it really difficult to share the Gospel with people who, at present, don’t think or act like we do. My wife and I have actually left churches that gave us the sense that our non-believing friends would feel unwelcome there. Going back for a moment to the Apple analogy, imagine if the churches of Apple, their retail stores, required shoppers to already be Apple users and made them feel inferior and embarrassed if they weren’t. The only people that would shop there would be Apple users. Such is the state of many American evangelical churches.
The second problem that this dialectical worldview creates when it comes to sharing the Gospel relates to the reason we share. Here again, Derek’s piece is instructional. Though it is difficult to talk about faith outside of church, though it is something that people aren’t supposed to do in “polite company,” Derek concludes he must because, he writes, “I believe Jesus really died on the cross for our sins. I really believe if we repent and turn to him, he will save us from hell.”
At the risk of being perceived as one of those Christians who is uncomfortable talking about hell, I’ll just say it: I’m uncomfortable talking about hell. It’s not that I’m afraid of offending people with images of eternal burning, gnashing of teeth, and the like, it’s that I don’t believe that the threat of hell is a good enough reason for anyone to convert.
Back to the Apple analogy: I share the good news of Apple because it has made my life — here and now — better. Imagine if I told a PC user that he should switch to Apple because if he doesn’t, when he dies he’ll be damned to the eternal misery of surfing the web with a dial-up modem attached to an old 386 PC. Sure, I might scare some people into an Apple store, but I will not have told them truthfully why I’m an Apple user and, it stands to reason, they’ll be too busy worrying about their fate after death that they won’t experience the joy that made me want to share Apple with them in the first place.
But beyond the veiled threat of hell, there’s another reason why hell shouldn’t motivate our sharing of the Gospel: most people don’t talk about what happens after they die in everyday conversation. This is why there’s a tension around talking about faith outside of church, because it forces an unnatural conversation when a completely natural conversation would suffice. I can tell anyone anywhere about a thing that makes my life better, but I can’t just start talking about life after death. That, more than religion and politics, is not a topic for polite company.
So how do we solve these problems? For me, it’ all about uniting what once were disparate spheres of my life into one, complete package. That is, I’ve chosen to attend a church where, though differences abound between members of the congregation in terms of beliefs, lifestyles, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, all are welcome just as they are, and they are invited to work out their faith together. In truth, I’ve never experienced an evangelical church that does this as well as the Episcopal church, so that’s where I’ve landed.
Worshipping in this space makes it easier to solve the second problem, thinking about faith primarily in terms of afterlife. I’ve come to understand the Bible isn’t crystal clear on what awaits us after we die, and further and more importantly, that the eternal life Jesus promises us starts today, in the here and now. It was eye opening when I realized that all that “Kingdom of God” talk is about a Kingdom Come, here on earth, and not just after we die.
This life lived abundantly is the best reason I can think of for faith, and the excitement it creates in me makes it easy to talk to others about it. I no longer worry about awkwardness surrounding sharing the Gospel because, as a natural extension of my life, it is as easy to talk about as, say, my love for Apple products. And, amazingly, in my line of work, it actually comes up more often.