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11.21.2006

Proselyphobia

So There I was...

Going door-to-door selling religion. Well, actually I wasn’t going door to door, I was sitting under a tree lying about going door-to-door.

I was at a youth camp of the Christian denomination of my childhood. Despite the fact that many of us were showing clear signs of spiritual doubt, confusion, and obvious natural and spiritual immaturity, the powers-that-be decided that they should send us out into the neighboring community as representatives of the faith.

I do not know what they were thinking.

As it was the only way to get to the Saturday night watermelon feed and hayride, I decided to play along. But when it came down to it – time to knock on a door and ask somebody if they wanted to meet Jesus – I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have any Jesus to introduce them to. Even as a backslider I had more integrity than that.

But there was a form to fill out, reporting on the result at each house on my assignment. So I ditched my partner on the pretense that this would go quicker if we split up, and then I bought a soda, and sat down under a tree and made up responses. Lying to my youth leaders seemed like a better idea than lying to unbelievers.

I had another choice, of course; lie to nobody, and “come out” as the apostate I was, but that would have certainly gotten back to my mother, and I was not up to that.

I think this experience was the genesis of my proselyphobia.

Yes, That’s right, proselyphobia, - the fear of recruitment, especially religious recruitment. I have this fear and perhaps so do you. It is common among religious people, even people whose religion teaches that recruitment is critical and mandatory. It is equally common among people who think their faith is a good one among equals. It is common.

The problem for me is that I am called to be an evangelist.
It is an inconvenient phobia for me to have.

You see, these days I don’t think respectful religious recruitment is inherently bad. These days I have something real to share. I actually think that I carry the following wonderful truth around in my back pocket.

There is a God. This God loves you. You can have immediate, constant access to this God. This God will come and teach you. This God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Because of Him you do not have to live in captivity to, or fear of, anything

I carry this around, I know it experientially, and I believe that people around me are literally dying for the want of it. They die from addiction, from loneliness, from despair, from idolatry. I think that what I carry around would save lives. And still, I am at times afraid to share what I have with them.

I think part of my fear comes from really, seriously, not wanting to be associated with people who have done, nasty, coercive, sometimes violent recruitment. The proselytizing that I they attempted to train me in as a youth was merely annoying in comparison, but I don’t want to be associated with that either.

But if you divided the whole world up into the team of believers and non-believers, I would have to choose the team that includes Johnny Cash, Joseph Shabalala, Bono, and Mother Theresa, even if I have to have Jim Dobson and the Spanish Inquisition on my side. The other team is just not my home.

I am pretty sure that the sub-group I hang out with now, the Quakers, would never, under any circumstances use violence to force people to convert. The worst behavior that I have witnessed among them is emotional manipulation designed to provoke a cathartic convincement, and even that has gone out of style. And even the most ardent promoters of using emotion to get at faith would admit that it is a useless endeavor unless the soul is ready for God. Yet this over-emotional approach has left many Friends proselyphobic.

At the other end of the Quaker spectrum, some Friends think that it is offensive to even say to somebody that you think they should consider a life of faith lived the way we live it. These same folks often have no trouble loudly proclaiming their political beliefs in the streets, but they would never carry a picket for Jesus or Quakerism. It would just seem gauche. So they talk about peace, and justice but not about God. And because they don’t like to promote what they have, they are hard to find sometimes.

I have parked my buggy between these two ends. I believe that people are free. That they are grown-ups, mostly. We live is a society teeming with ideas and experiences. I am not offended when someone offers an idea or an experience to me. Why should I be afraid to offer mine? If I offer to share the source of my hope, it is ok with me if you say “yes”, “no”, or “tell me more”.

When I meet a person who has a deep, practical working faith, I usually want to learn from them. I feel no need to try and talk them out of what is obviously workinng, however they name it. But the reality is that many people around me don’t seem to have that intimate connection to the Divine. And I do. And I know how I got it. And I don’t think that it is hard to get. Yet I often say little or nothing about what I know.

I know that I am afraid of false advertising. People promise stupid stuff in the name of religion, like “This faith path will solve all your problems, or automatically make you rich, or healthy.” This is a lie, but faith does have its benefits. You will never be truly alone. You can seek and find meaning. I have learned to talk about faith honestly, but still I hesitate.

I know that I am afraid of hypocrisy. I mean, I am a screw-up, always have been, always will be. Do you know how afraid I am of becoming a TV evangelist? I don’t even like people to take my picture, let alone videotape me. I have an uncanny ability to cause videotaping systems to malfunction. But actually, faith has made me less of a hypocrite, not more of one. There are parts of my life I can let you see and imitate. There are parts where you might want to find a better model, but I know one from the other. Yet at times I hesitate to share even the good parts.

I know that I am plagued by occasional deep doubt. What If I am a lot more delusional than I think I am? What If I have dedicated my life to the playing of a pretend game, and am encouraging others to join me? What if the present Christ is just an elaborate imaginary friend? These moments come, yes they do. But they never stay, because it takes much more energy to sustain the doubts than to sustain the belief. I always relax back into faith. I love better from faith. I laugh better from faith. Everything that is good about me is better from the place of faith. My doubts don’t disqualify my testimony; they make it stand out in clarity.

Like all phobias. proselyphobia does not evaporate in the face of logical argument. It can only be conquered by learning to relax in the face of that which you fear. I am working on my proselyphobia. I have made up my mind to speak what I know at every chance I get. I am learning to take responsibility only for my testimony, not the affect my testimony has on the world – that is God’s job, not mine. I am choosing to speak from my own experience, flawed example, though I am, or perhaps especially because I am a flawed example.

I am getting over it.

Comments:
Yes, yes, yes and yes! Friend speaks my mind. Skip the Jesus bit cos my jury has a few questions on that one still but otherwise a state I know only too well.

When I took up the WGYF administrator post I made a pact with myself to try to be more open about what I did for a living when people asked and say I worked for Quakers. Working for Friends was nothing knew to me, I was working part time for FWCC EMES and in the past had worked at the local QMH on the wardening team but I'd been leery as to who I admitted that to! Yet there was only one occassion on a late train home from Glasgow when I found myself wondering why on earth I hadn't just said I was an administrator and let the conversation slide onwards, but whilst the guy I had got cornered by got his kicks out of playing what I sincerely hope was devils advocate there were others in the carriage obviously listening to what I was saying from comments they made as we got off and I wonder what seeds may have been sown.

Coming to Wellington to be Resident Friend has meant again I find myself explaining Quakerism in random places far more than I would otherwise expect to in daily life. It's getting easier, and whilst it's not exactly evangelising or proselytising it's about not hiding who and what I am either. What I don't know is how well I'll manage about being so open to talking about Quakers once it stops being the answer to 'so what do you do/where do you live?' - that's when I'll find out just how strong my proselyphobia still is!
 
Great to hear from "Missionary Anna".

I am so glad that you correctly took the point that this is a problem with or without Jesus.

you write:
"whilst it's not exactly evangelising or proselytising"

Oh, but honey here's the scary part.
evangelizing is nothing more than letting somebody know something good. Quakerism has lots of good.

I evangelize for fair trade coffee all the time. The wierd thing is that I am more comfortable taking about fair trade coffee than I am about Jesus.

To proselytize is simply to accompany someone on a chosen path.

So if you tell somebody about the Quaker meeting, and tell them how to find it, and greet them at the door, and hand them info about Quaker ways - you have - indeed - been proselytizing.

I think we might as well own the words. If we get comfortable with them, maybe the creeping heebee jeebies will subside.
 
I'm very curious about where our proselyphobia comes from. George Fox certainly had no qualms about sharing his truth. Maybe it was the influence of the quietist period? I think sometimes we're trying to be like buddhist monks, where an enquirer tries to find the monastry, then after much searching knocks on the door, and is told to go away, then waits overnight, and is told there is nothing there for them, then after waiting for three days is told they can come in and sweep the floor.

I strongly agree that anything we do outwardly is proselytizing. It seems possible though that because it's such an experiential faith many Quakers want to share their truth through their actions (peace work, social justice etc) than through talking directly about God. Because we have such a lack of dogma it's kind of hard to know what the 'party line' to preach to others is. And there's a kind of personal cringe when it comes to sharing ones own deeper spiritual experiences, which are hard to put into words anyway. And then there's the universalist 'my experience of God might be different to yours, and I wouldn't want to push mine over yours'.

Like Anna, I've become far more vocal about my Quakerism in the last couple of years. If people ask me what I'm doing in the holidays I tell them (i.e. going to one Quaker camp or another). As I've introduced Quaker facilitation methods into my work I've become more comfortable with explaining this to some of my clients.

It just seems increasingly ludicrous not to share something which has given me so much joy, insight, and love. I hope that as long as I can share my truth, rather than claiming it as universal, or absolute, or the 'only right way', then it just might, every once in a while, speak to someone else's condition.
 
Julian, I appreciate what you have to say.

Even the Buddhist method you describe would be a form of proselytizing - it would just be a form of accompaniment that emphasizes persistance.

But I think the membership process in many churches and meetings follows this form.

In my own church, our efforts do not look like dogma or teaching a party line. But here is an example from my week.

I heard yesterday from a member (new to Quakerism and christianity) that her 13 yr old son (an irregular attender) had said in a conversation that he was a Quaker. I consider myself to have a few short days to contact this boy, give him a chance to repeat this statement, express delight, and report to Ministry and oversight. We would not take this boy into membership until he is 16, but once this boy says to me that he is a Quaker, the meeting has a heightened responsibility to him, and I will make sure that he gets his curiosity satisfied, and all the nurture and support that we can give him. He will not walk alone.
 
hi. robin told me i needed to read your blog sometime, and i have started, hurray!

i am a very new baby quaker who is still figuring a gazillion things out every moment (such as if i really am a quaker. heh.). i am at this very excitable, passionate stage that people tell me may eventually pass. but yeah... it's a place where i'm wanting to tell everyone about it... except that i also, um, don't. the language is so scary. the first time i wrote "the kingdom" in my livejournal... that was terrifying. because i know how these words are so heavy for people, and i don't want to hurt people with them. i wonder if maybe i am supposed to be part of their conversion back to treasures rather than weapons. but. that's scary. times 12.
 
Peggy, since you expressed the desire to continue the conversation, here are some thoughts.

In my home meeting, we do not fret over proselytizing. It never occurred to us that we shouldn't share our faith in and love of Jesus.

We also understand that example can speak louder than words. We understand that people's prior experiences can make it difficult to be heard.

What we are concerned with is the encroachment of other activities on time better spent sharing our faith. We also realize that our lifestyles move us away from opportunities for sharing any time with those outside our regular contacts.

When I moved east, I started hearing people say things like, "we don't proselytize." People would say that someone had asked them about Quakers, and the Friend would emphasize that, not to worry, he or she had not proselytized. It sounded like a dirty word.

Is there something associated with the desire to control the outcome that makes some hesitant to share the wonderful truth that makes life worth living?

Is the opinion of people more important than the truth?

If the approach is truly loving, and based on one's own real experience of the truth, then negative reactions are coming from the person to whom we are offering the gift.

Would I fail to offer a blanket to a shivering person because I thought they might misunderstand my intention?
 
Sorry Peggy been meaning to come back to this for ages...

I guess for many of us for whom prosletising and evangelism are still tainted words we have to learn the distinction between what they actually mean and the streetcorner pulpits and door to door calling that we often associate them with.

The big difference for me is intent - am I telling someone about Quakers because they are interested, have asked etc or because I am aiming convert people? The latter is highly unlikely; I'd far rather people made their own choices and decsions in life but to do so they need the info, and that is what I try to give them - but usually still only when I'm sure they really want to know!
 
Raye, if someone had previously been offered blankets laced with smallpox - you might have to be very careful - offer them your own coat or the blanket you wrap your beloved child in , before they knew it was safe. But you would still offer even and maybe especially because their previous experiences had been evil.

Anna,
Since we acknowledge that it is not very likely that Quaker will start doing coervcive evangelism, how about we go from.
"When I am really sure that they want to know"
to
"When I have good reason to think that they might want to know."

now I have to give up blogging and pack some bags!
love to all
PP
 
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