What is Respectful Proselytizing?

In some countries, proselytizing a religion other than the religion of that land is illegal. Many countries in the Arab world prohibit the proselytizing of any religion but Islam (and whether being an Iranian Christian is really all that difficult, I wouldn’t know). Nepal is considering adding proselytizing to its criminal code, and as the Justice Minister there puts it: “The law is not against Christians who do great work in the service of the country, but is against the imposition of Christianity.” Nepal is Hindu and Buddhist, two faiths that don’t really proselytize. The Dalai Lama, in fact, has argued that attempts to convert people is not only non-Buddhist, but is abusive (he’s not the one making Nepalese law, btw).

Historically, proselytizing does not have that great of a history. Oftentimes what has happened is that a war occurs, and the winners will set up camp in an occupied territory, profit from the land and the people, and send out missionaries to convert to bring the “natives” into “lightness.” This is the story of Hawaii, the Philippines, and any number of islands in the Pacific in which the wealthiest parts of the islands are where the white people live and where the religions seeking to convert set up camp. It’s also the story of many African tribes that may have started out matrilineal, but through the imposition of Christianity (and slavery) found their kinship structures stripped away, to replaced with “the family” (where men are in charge).

The left tends to view proselytizing as hand in hand with colonialism and racism, seeing how religion, capital and ethnocentrism work together. One has to admit that if they think their faith is “the one and only truth,” then they’re probably ethnocentric. The right tends to view any restrictions on proselytizing as a quashing of “religious freedom” or “freedom of speech.” The far right has also linked financial wealth as a “blessing,” lending to the “responsibility” to proselyte as expressed in many sects of Christianity.

Here is a list of possibilities when it comes to thinking about a middle-ground for “respectful” proselytizing (grabbed from Wikipedia):

  • No attempt to convert others unless they specifically ask about one’s religion
  • No preaching
  • No providing physical benefits in hopes that recipients will be open to listening
  • No providing physical benefits only to those willing to listen
  • No providing physical benefits only to proselytes
  • Don’t force people to become proselytes

Admittedly, when I read Seth’s account of his missionary experience in Japan, I thought about how many of these rules were broken. Free English lessons aren’t exactly “free”; they come with the understanding of being inundated with the Gospel.

The whole LDS knocking on people’s doors bit altogether breaks the rule of “don’t attempt to convert unless people ask.”

The Mormon.org campaign raises the question of how much advertizing a religion is an attempt to convert, or if it’s really as the Church describes: a campaign to break down stereotypes.

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33 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    We weren’t allowed to proselytize during the English lessons.

    We held activities afterwards that did not have this restriction, but we also made this clear to the people attending.

    Your restriction that we not be allowed to privately “hope” that people will convert when we perform service is just silly. I’ll hope whatever I damn well please, thanks.

    Your restriction about not providing physical benefits only to people who convert is impractical. Joining a church means joining a community. That’s a “physical benefit.” And it’s one that will not be available to non-converts. If you think this restriction is even remotely implementable – outside of abolishing churches altogether – I would say you were living more in fantasy than reality.

    Really, the only list item up there that seems reasonable is the last one about not forcing people to convert.

  2. Alan says:

    Your restriction that we not be allowed to privately hope that people will convert when we perform service is just silly. Ill hope whatever I damn well please, thanks.

    (These weren’t my restrictions, but from Wikipedia.)

    “Performing service” isn’t necessarily righteous just because you say it is. If, for example, a church establishes itself in a land and profits off that land and the people, and “provides services” in return in “hopes to convert,” then what I see is the profiting and growth more than I see the services.

    As a case in point, the Church has pulled out of areas that don’t meet a certain cost benefit. The “service” is therefore not what’s most important to the Church, but rather the Church’s growth. It’s a business machine. Not all religions function like this.

  3. kuri says:

    Seth is right about the English lessons. In my experience — both as a missionary and as a regular church member just hanging out and lending a hand now and then — the “Gospel” part is really low-key. “Inundation” isn’t in it.

    I don’t think much of the list either. The first and last items I’d agree with, but “no preaching” doesn’t make much sense and the rest are more like a “Don’t provide ‘service’ with ulterior motives” list.

  4. Alan says:

    So, kuri, if you agree with item #1, then you’re not a fan of Mormons knocking on people’s doors? Or…do you think it’s okay to knock, but make sure you’re willing to walk away immediately if the person says “no”…?

    Just about every item on the list can be interpreted to have different boundaries. I wouldn’t want to be “preached at,” but general “preaching” is what pastors do.

    This wasn’t my list, but perhaps we could come up with what we feel are the boundaries of respectful proselytizing.

  5. chanson says:

    I think that “service with strings attached” can be problematic for various reasons.

  6. kuri says:

    No, I don’t think members of any religion should randomly knock on doors or stop people on the street to try to find converts. I don’t think that’s very “respectful.”

    I guess we should also note that the “no providing physical benefits” parts of the list work much differently in very poor countries where the “physical benefits” can mean the difference between having a decent life or not (or even between life and death). That seems like it could come awfully close to coercion.

  7. Seth R. says:

    Incidentally, I heard from a friend in California that about a month or two ago it was announced that that particular mission would no longer permit missionaries to knock on doors. They had an Area Authority and member of the Twelve there during the announcement.

    Hardly surprising. Door-knocking has been gradually phase-ing out over the last two decades in the church. My mission specifically labeled it as something you only do when you absolutely have nothing better to do – and discouraged us from doing it. That was 1994.

  8. kuri says:

    They were trying — without much success — to discourage door-knocking in my mission in 1984. There really wasn’t much else to do.

  9. Seth R. says:

    I think during my two years as a missionary in Japan, I went door-knocking a grand total of three times.

    We found ways to spend our time elsewhere and were encouraged to do so. I think you need specific encouragement of other activities from the leadership for the missionaries to just stop knocking on doors.

  10. kuri says:

    In six months in my first area, I knocked on pretty much every door in a city of 70,000 people and was well into my second round through when I finally transferred. Everyone knew it was unproductive work, but no one was offering any alternatives.

  11. Seth R. says:

    Right. In our mission, by contrast, we had extensive training in (or encouragement toward) service to the community and service to members. We also made our English program sort of a centerpiece of our proselyting – and we did it twice a week. Not the classes themselves, but the activities after. Heavy member support and involvement. And using service as a way to get out in the community, get recognized, and naturally make religious-oriented contact with people.

    My first mission companion in Japan was a master of this kind of thing. Everyone in that city loved us. We got spontaneous smiles all over the place – mostly his doing (I wasn’t exactly what you would call “social grace” at that point).

    I taught English at preschools as well mid mission (STRICTLY no proselyting there – thank you very much), and was a big hit with the kids. One of the teachers was actually crying when I announced I had to transfer. Did give the kids cheap CTR rings with a non-denominational values explanation of what they meant. Kids loved those.

    I personally did a lot of reactivation work and brought quite a few people back to church. I also worked hard to tear down the barrier that seemed to naturally spring up between the enthusiastic, often-demanding, and often insensitive missionaries and the long-term, burdened local membership. I was pretty well liked in most of my branches. Did regular work at elder care centers, occasional orphanage work, and coordinating stuff with the local community centers.

    Also, we attended just about every local festival and major event. People tend to take pride in their corner of the planet, and they tend to appreciate it when you seem to be enjoying it as well.

    We hung out on college campuses – because a lot of Japanese kids do most of their hard work in high school and then goof off in college – so it’s not like a lot of them were doing anything all that important at a given moment.

    Otherwise, we just found excuses to be out and about and seen in the community – like riding our bikes across town to deliver a thank you letter to a sister in the branch. That kind of stuff.

    I had a lot of idle time. I wasn’t the most diligent missionary on the planet. But we found ways to stay busy and engaged.

  12. kuri says:

    It didn’t help that my second senior companion strongly believed that if we weren’t suffering we weren’t doing missionary work. Since going door-to-door was the most fruitless and painful way of doing it — well, you get the picture. It was an “interesting” experience. That was where I learned for the first time what it is to truly hate another human being.

  13. Not Knowing says:

    I’m sure every former Mormon missionary has their horror stories of “less than respectful proselytizing”. I served in South America in the first mission to baptize 1,000 people in a month in the “modern” era. While cleaning out the mission closet I found a banner that took the country’s motto of “By reason or by force” and super-imposed a missionary forcing an erstwhile convert’s body under the water in a baptism ceremony. I later found out just how accurate that was. When tracking down members from the old baptismal records, I came across people who were told that they could still be Catholic if they got baptized, or who were baptized in return for soccer balls, or were supposedly baptized after they were already dead (and no, the vicarious baptisms weren’t performed in the temple).

  14. Chino Blanco says:

    The law is not against Christians who do great work in the service of the country, but is against the imposition of Christianity.

    My first reaction to this would be: Instead of enacting laws to “protect” your citizenry, just make sure you get the other laws right (empowering citizens through freedom of speech, assembly, and the rest of the bill o’ rights style guarantees) so as to diminish the risk of coercion. At the end of the day, we ought to be building countries that can withstand and accommodate disrespectful proselytizing rather than legislating it away. The latter approach seems awfully paternalistic and anti-democratic.

    That said, I’m also in favor of keeping religion out of state institutions (e.g., I’d vote to ban veils and other ostentatious displays of religiosity from public schools).

  15. Seth R. says:

    I had to clean up after a missionary who proposed to half a dozen women in our branch while he was there – many of whom had gone inactive.

  16. I think the problem isn’t proselytizing, per se, so much as the motives behind it.

    Anyone who’s passionate about something wants to get more people excited about it. But historically, Christian missionaries were the propaganda arm of colonial imperialism, as you mention. Meanwhile, LDS missionaries are basically salesmen selling a product that costs more than any other, and overwhelmingly benefits the people at the top.

    I’d say proselytizing missionaries should be treated the same as other salespeople, with respect to the law. I also think the questions asked on Wikipedia about inner motives are less useful for making laws, and more useful for introspection, and finding out where one’s heart is. I hear that that’s where one’s treasure is, also.

  17. Related: I think the desire to convert is based less on genuine love for another person, and love for the imaginary person that other might be if he/she were converted. It’s less about benevolence and more about validating oneself.

    I also think it’s useless to argue this with a Mormon, as they consider one’s “true self” to be one’s Mormon self, as portrayed in Saturday’s Warrior. Everything else is a bug.

  18. Alan says:

    Chino @ 14

    The latter approach [legislation] seems awfully paternalistic and anti-democratic. […] Id vote to ban veils and other ostentatious displays of religiosity from public schools

    This strikes me as contradictory. You don’t see legislating away veils to be “paternalistic” and “anti-democratic?”

  19. Chino Blanco says:

    That’s why I mentioned it, Alan. 😉 [edit: meaning, I understand how it might seem contradictory, but no, I don’t think that particular policy is paternalistic or anti-democratic]

    I’m also in favor of school uniforms. And regarding Nepal, I’ve done business there, and according to my client, the division of labor is along tribal lines (his family belongs to the entrepeneur class, other families belong to the governing class, etc.) I’m guessing it’s the same story with the religious class. Gotta wonder who exactly would be protected by the proposed legislation. I’m guessing it ain’t the common folk.

  20. It seems to me, proselytizing is a subcategory of selling. If so, I would apply the same ethical principles to proselytizing as I would to sales. Such as, avoid selling to people who cannot give rational, informed consent — such as many mentally ill people, most children, and virtually all followers of Glenn Beck.

  21. Chino Blanco says:

    I was reminded of this thread while reading this recent post: Pluralism and Persecution in theUK

    I’m guessing I’m in agreement with Trevor Phillips regarding the give-and-take required of modern liberal democracy.

    Edit: By the way, does anybody else think that the BOM musical marks the beginning of the end of current official LDS missionary attire and is gonna accelerate the move away from tracting? I’m guessing that twenty years from now, the IBM/Fuller Brush salesman aesthetic will have joined the pink pioneer bonnet and Mormons will feel the same cultural cringe when they’re reminded of how Elders used to dress as they do now when they see images of FLDS womenfolk.

  22. chanson says:

    It’s very possible.

  23. Alan says:

    give-and-take required of modern liberal democracy

    It doesn’t help that feeling persecuted is part of Revelations. What’s the incentive to give and take when the end is nigh? Are you saying that I should put off the second coming and not feel persecuted [and give a little] just to get along with my neighbors? Blech, that wouldn’t be true to myself or to God.

  24. Chino Blanco says:

    For sure, that’s an annoying trait of real-life Fundies. The annoying thing about discussing this topic (which you get at with your description of competing left and right frames) is how quickly the conversation is often ruined by the fallacy of mood affiliation.

  25. Dean says:

    Tracting, street contacting, we did all those things when on my mission. None really were successful, at least not with the French. But neither was member referal, for very few members had friends that were interested. The church isn’t growing much there, and wasn’t any better 35 years ago when I served. Where I currently live, we have tried all sorts of things: genealogy research for people, activities, English classes, and you name it. Those things don’t really produce results either. And even if you don’t “official teach the gospel” in an English class, it doesn’t take long for people to realize that the “afterward activity” if designed to get you involved. It is all sort of dishonest. In some areas tracting can and is eliminated, but not because it is a waste of time, but because members are inviting their friends to listen, so the missionaries have work to do (they may not baptize any more people, but they spend more time teaching, which is more productive than tracting). Ultimately, most of the new converts who remained in the church (we have many who join and you never see them again after their baptism; in fact, we never saw them at church prior to it either) were not found by friends, but were found by the missionaries tracting. In our area (and I speak only for my area) those who came in because of friends leave quickly when the friendship ends (or when they learn they were befriended only so they would join the church, which is not as rare as people think), or when they find that the social scene in church is not interesting to them. What we must never forget is the purpose of proselytizing is to FIND people, at least as far as knocking on doors is concerned. Teaching them is designed to help them learn the message. BUT IT IS THEIR OWN EFFORTS that bring about the conversion. No matter what anyone says, it is the efforts of those interested that bring about their conversions. If they read nothing, do nothing, and never pray, they will NEVER be converted. Many join the church, it is true, who have NEVER done anything to become converted. They leave in no time. Those who did their own work, they were the ones converted, and for the most part they remain in the church. MIssionaries and knocking on doors will never convert anyone. Neither will community service, English classes, or any of those things designed to make people think we are a great church. Those things may cause interest, even questions, but they do not convert. We also have many baptisms from such things, and they too soon fall away, for they were not converted. But is knocking on doors all that offensive? I think to some it is. To me, it is never bothersome. I have the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on my door every Saturday. I even studied with them for 4 years just so I knew what they really taught (and not what others say they teach). It was very interesting. Of course, I never joined them. Still, I am more put out by charity cavassers knocking on my door every other day (and phoning every other minute) begging money for this or that charity (when I can look up the wages of their non-profit CEO and see he sits on the board of 20 non-profits — all of them coming to the house begging money for some good cause — with a net earning of over 20 million dollars; that bugs me more because my money is not going to help those in need, but to first line the high living of some CEO incharge, who has all his volunteers collect his wage). They bug me far worse than any religion knocking on my door. And although it is true that religion has been used to exploit various peoples and places for their natural resources, not all religions have done that. It is unfair to paint them all with the same brush. And as for proselytizing being not that new, well that is certainly untrue, for we read about people doing it in the Bible, not just Paul preaching to the Heathens, but also way back in the Old Testament with Gentiles being converted to Judaism, which is where our term for Proselyte comes from: a Gentile coverted to Judaism. Jews may not have knocked on the doors, but it is or seems to be a great part of Christianity right from the beginning. Preaching the word to others so that they know the “Good word of Christ” was what it was all about. We just have never really stopped that tradition. It may not be a tradition in other religions. But at least it is better than what brought Islam to all of the middle east. That was the sword: believe of die. Knocking on doors if a far less intrusive way of doing things, even if annoying to some. To some, there will NEVER be a good and respectful way of sharing what anyone believes with anyone else. To others, the act of trying to share is not a disrespectful thing. I think it all becomes a fine line, and one the sharer will never fully know, for he/she will never instantly know what is considered respectful to the person they attempt to speak with. Example: I think nothing of Jehovah’s witnesses, or Mormons for that matter who actually do tract me out (even though I am active in the church), none of this bothers me, while the neighbour a few doors down gets so upset she nearly shot one just for walking up the block. To her, the fact anyone exists that she disapproves of is more disrespect than she can handle. So how would anyone approach her on anything without disrespecting her in some way?

  26. Alan says:

    I also have a decent time talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses because the conversation is often interesting. At some point it stops being a conversation and starts being teacherly or sales-like, though, and that’s when I don’t like to talk anymore.

    “Sharing” is a two-way street. But from the missionary perspective, it eventually must become “one-way.” And if there’s no sign that the person will walk down the one-way street, then the connection is generally broken. I think that’s what turns people off. The connection is conditional more than it’s not.

    You say that people leave when they “learn they were befriended only so they would join the church.” Well, how many continue to be befriended even if they don’t join the Church?

    when I can look up the wages of their non-profit CEO and see he sits on the board of 20 non-profits all of them coming to the house begging money for some good cause

    I don’t see how the Church is different from this. If you join the Church, you give up tithe which goes to a pot that is distributed to both humanitarian aspects (a group of non-profits) and growth of the corporation generally (for-profits). The Church is no different than those others “begging for money.” They just give you more time before you have to hand over any. It’s not just a one-time deal; they invest more into you so that you consistently give the corporation money. If you think that there aren’t individuals profiting from this venture, then you’re mistaken.

    But at least it is better than what brought Islam to all of the middle east. That was the sword: believe of die. Knocking on doors if a far less intrusive way of doing things

    Christians in old Europe certainly picked up swords to smite heathens.

  27. Seth R. says:

    Everyone picked up swords to smite just about everyone in those days. It was kind of how things were done.

    The entire premise of a missionary is for a one-way sort of communication. You’d have to be just a tad clueless not to know that.

  28. Alan says:

    Everyone picked up swords to smite just about everyone in those days. It was kind of how things were done.

    Exactly. Which is why I was annoyed that Dean compared old-world Islam to new-world Mormon proselytizing.

    The entire premise of a missionary is for a one-way sort of communication. Youd have to be just a tad clueless not to know that.

    Sure. But people open their “doors” to strangers for a lot of reasons. A lot of people understand spirituality to be about sharing and not about one-way streets. As you described it in your post — “all roads lead to Mount Fuji.” Kumi still wanted to talk with you even though she knew you had a one-way mentality. People like that can’t help but feel a tad bit disappointed when the conversation keeps being steered onto a singular path.

  29. kuri says:

    But at least it is better than what brought Islam to all of the middle east. That was the sword: believe of die.

    That’s not quite true. It was more like “submit or die.’ Once conquered, people were allowed to practice other religions, but they were subject to a special tax and other restrictions. So most conversions may have been made in response to various kinds of coercive pressure, but it wasn’t as simple as “convert or die.”

  30. David Mead says:

    Alan is a baby. Doesn’t like to preached to. AWWWW, too bad.

  31. David Mead says:

    excuse me, to be preached to. AWWW, too bad. Get over it! Don’t like it well sometimes you can’t get what you want, even in America! Better than having a shotgun to your head and being forced to listen.

  32. Chino Blanco says:

    The Brisbane subreddit has an interesting thread running at the moment about the mormon.org campaign there:

    Do you know anyone who has become a Mormon after seeing all the ads lately?

    Random comment to convey the flavor:

    They do realise that the issue people generally have with Mormons, is that they have a habit of trying to push their religion onto others, right? People in general won’t see the Mormon religion in a better light because they now know there is a Mormon that surfs, they will like it better when they don’t have to hear about it.

  33. chanson says:

    David — please read our commenting policy. I think the point you’re making @31 is a bit of a false dichotomy. If you’d like to discuss it, can you please try again to make your point in a clear and reasonable manner?

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