walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: August 27, 2010
Is "Proselytizing" a Bad Word?

In its July 2010 issue, Christianity Today, the masthead publication of Evangelical Protestantism, reported the merger of two Evangelical organizations engaged in missionary work in the Muslim world: Pioneers USA and Arab World Ministries.  These have a combined total of 2,300 missionaries.  The report does not make clear how many of these are actually trying to convert Muslims to Christianity or are only engaged in various forms of good works, such as medical services or famine relief.  The former activity is obviously more difficult than the latter, but both are dangerous, as evidenced by the murder of ten medical workers, six of them Evangelical Westerners, by the Afghan Taliban in August 2010. The Evangelical organization that had sponsored their work, International Assistance Mission, has a policy of refraining from evangelism, but the Taliban justified the murder by saying that the victims were spying for the Americans and engaging in “proselytizing.” The sentence of death for the latter charge is based in Islamic law, which prescribes this penalty both for a Muslim who converts to another faith and to those who induced the apostasy.

One should step back from the factual report of an organizational merger and reflect on its meaning: Here are people willing to face death by non-violently witnessing to their faith. It seems to me that, regardless of one’s own beliefs, this is something that merits respect.

Christianity has been a missionary religion from its inception. In the so-called Great Commission, supposedly given by Jesus to a group of disciples on a mountain in Galilee in the last of his post-resurrection appearances: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mathew 28-19). Few modern New Testament scholars find it credible that the historical Jesus could have uttered this Trinitarian formula. Be this as it may, the Christian missionary enterprise has always been legitimated by this mandate. Most churches (including the Protestant mainline), give lip service to it but have reinterpreted it so as to exclude direct efforts to convert.  Evangelicals not only take the mandate literally, but have put the obligation to witness at the very center of the Christian life. If by “missionaries” one means people who preach in order to convert, most who carry this label with this understanding are Evangelicals. Their numbers are very difficult to pin down. The estimates vary so widely that it is not worth repeating them here, except to say that they certainly include tens of thousands of individuals. Some of these preach on street corners, but others work in medical clinics or food distribution centers. Some have full-time jobs as missionaries, others do this on a part-time basis (many Evangelical congregations encourage members to go abroad doing missionary work for a few weeks or months).  It is also important to keep in mind that Americans are only a part of the worldwide Evangelical missionary enterprise—the other part is even harder to pin down.  Brazilian Evangelicals are preaching in Portuguese-speaking Africa.  Missionaries from Africa are ”planting” churches in the former Soviet Union. South Koreans, often under the guise of doing business, infiltrate into China in order to spread Evangelical Protestantism.

But outside the Evangelical world, “proselytizing” is indeed a bad word. Other Protestants and the secular media regard it as an expression of “fundamentalism”—an elastic term, which can mean anything religious one does not like, in this case a faith that is intolerant and aggressive. The politically correct of all or no religious persuasion associate it with ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism and colonialism.  Roman Catholics tend to be more cautious in condemning “proselytism”—after all, they practice it themselves, asserting as they do that theirs is the only true church—but the more progressive ones also shy away from outright conversion activities, preferring terms like “enculturation” (adapting Christianity to non-Western indigenous cultures rather than going at them head-on) and “Christian presence” (bearing witness not by overt preaching, but rather by quietly practicing the Christian virtues of compassion and charity). The most favored alternative to “proselytism” is “dialogue,” the non-confrontational, open-minded conversation with “the Other.”

Personally, I have no interest in converting anyone to my own religious or philosophical worldview, except for certain moral convictions of the latter—such as an abhorrence of racism, homophobia and capital punishment (in my earliest writings I suggested that a humanistic sociology could be helpful in combating these three instances of inhumanity—I did not use the term “homophobia” because it had not yet come into the language). I regard it as part of my religious freedom that I am free to convey my own convictions to others and, even in amicable dialogue, to explain why I disagree with some of theirs. No desire to “proselytize” here! But I have respect for those who feel that they must do so, as long as they do it without coercion—even if I do not particularly respect their belief system as such—and especially if they engage in their missionary activity under threat of persecution and death.

As a social scientist committed to Max Weber’s methodology of “interpretative understanding” (Verstehen), I think it is important to put oneself into the mindset of people whose behavior one wants to explain. A few years ago the Southern Baptist Convention reiterated its intention to continue its program to convert Jews. This has been a big no-no in mainline Protestantism, ever since sometime in the 1940s Reinhold Niebuhr, its most renowned theologian, said that Jews should not be targets of conversion efforts (a position with which I fully agree). The Southern Baptist statement aroused particular resentment among Jews. Some Jewish organizations condemned it as anti-Semitic. In a conversation with me, a rabbi friend of mine made the same charge. I suggested to him that he should put himself in the minds of the people who made this statement. They actually believe that anyone who does not “accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior” cannot attain eternal life in heaven. Therefore the Gospel must be preached to “all nations.” I think this is a foolish and objectionable belief. But anti-Semitic? Hardly so. To exclude Jews from the opportunity to go to heaven—that would be anti-Semitic! I did not, alas, convince my friend.

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  • John Barker

    “Few modern New Testament scholars find it credible that the historical Jesus could have uttered this Trinitarian formula.” I tried reading some of the works of these scholars but succumbed to an acute case of intellectual vertigo. I hope Professor Berger will from time to time give some guidance in the study of Jesus’ life and teachings and the milieu of early Christianity.

  • WigWag

    You mention proselytizing by evangelicals but lets not forget the missionary activities of the LDS church members who can be found almost everywhere throughout the “global south.”

    The other thing that’s interesting is how missionaries in the past almost always came from the West and travelled to the Third World. Now, increasingly, its the other way around; missionaries from the global south are doing their proselytizing in Western nations.

  • Nicodemus

    I just do not recognise this statement that most Churches including the Protestant mainline give lip service to the Great Commission, etc.

    As to the numbers of Evangelicals, it could be a case of your not living in that world and being unaware but the numbers of Evangelicals are enormous. Just take a look at the article in the Guardian here in the UK recently about the number in China, on Monday, 30 August 2010 China: the future of Christianity? at

    Also it is worth reflecting on the wholesale conversion of large swathes of the population of South Korea to Christianity, let alone in Africa and South America. See Peter Berger’s “Secularization personified”.

    As to the so-called mainline Churches to which I assume you refer I am afraid they are increasingly in the minority.

    As to your comment about your disliking the Great Commission, then that is hardly surprising. It balks not doubt as it does for those Christians who are told that the “secular” way of life is the way the truth and the life and then we reflect on how many people were butchered in the last century as a result of that philosophy bearing down it’s full import.

    As Paul Johnston has said at page 783 of the book ” Modern Times.The world from the twenties to the nineties” .

    “The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time. By the 1990s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century, more perhaps than it had succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means.”

  • Capt G

    If one accepts the gospel, the good news that salvation is made possible by faith in Christ’s intercession and propitiation for the sinner, how can one in good conscience not proselytize? Swimming lessons are promoted more universally for lesser risks. It is difficult to reconcile even the word gospel with a selfish faith unwilling to proclaim such good news.

  • Sara

    I have a relative who went overseas to an Islamic country with an evangelical aid group. Although she was ostensibly not there to evangelize — and had she won any converts, they could have been subject to execution under the country’s laws — that was exactly what she did. After lying to the country’s government and other aid agencies about why she’d come.

    I believe that Jesus calls his followers to honesty — look at his response when Peter denied him to the Roman government — so I can’t see how this kind of “evangelism,” founded on denying that one is spreading the word of Christ, is in keeping with Christian teaching. And if you believe evangelicals when they say they’re not proselytizing in Islamic countries, well, you’re more credulous than I am able to be any more.

    You see the nobility of being willing to die for a faith — and that’s cute and all, but in practice what these people are doing is putting everyone who they meet in the countries where they’re working in real physical danger. It’s romantic to take that risk for yourself, maybe, but putting someone who just wants medical care or food or other essentials at risk because you imagine you’re a modern-day saint? I don’t think that’s particularly Christian at all.

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